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Learning and development feature – Rising Stars Cymru 2015

Julie Nicholas introduces the finalists as the quest begins to find this year’s Welsh housing winner

CIH Cymru is dedicated to championing new talent, and our legendary Rising Stars Cymru competition includes a task list of (not quite) Herculean proportions, to identify a new housing champion.

Our three finalists have now been selected and their labours include a pre-TAI twitter takeover, writing blogs and presenting plenaries to the TAI 2015 audience. Our judges will be evaluating the finalists throughout the competition and selecting their winner on the final day of TAI 2015. Our oracles this year are: Michala Rudman, CIH Cymru board member; Vikki Hiscocks, from Cardiff Metropolitan University; and Jules Birch, editor of Welsh Housing Quarterly. They will be joined by a fourth judge at TAI 2015.

And who is the fourth judge?  Well, that could be you!  Delegates at TAI will cast their vote to help us find a victor.  Join our housing chorus and cast your ballot at the CIH Cymru exhibition stand at any time during the conference. 

The winner will be announced at the final session of TAI 2015. To help you get acquainted with our three potential legends here’s their first task as Rising Stars Cymru finalists. Three housing-themed mini-epics. Let the games begin!


Jennifer Lewington, housing strategy officer, Vale of Glamorgan Council

How do you think the housing profession should address the negative representation of social housing and tenants in the media?

As housing professionals we understand the benefits of social housing and we know that the stereotypes are just an oversimplified view of a broad group of people. Coverage of welfare reforms across mainstream media has, at times, supported views that are demonising the poor and vulnerable. The media has an important role in responding to topics of popular interest and public attitudes, so it isn’t hard to see why the television industry has latched onto the benefits and social housing agenda with programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ and ‘How to Get a Council House’.

We promote the role of social housing; the achievements of tenants, the contributions to our communities. We get on Twitter and SHOUT about housing as much as we can. We wax lyrical to our families and friends. But mainstream media is spoon feeding the public a narrow view of social housing, which is eroding empathy and support for people living in and most in need of it.

We can’t prevent TV companies from presenting the sensationalist view of social housing; Benefits Street attracted 4 million viewers, so there is clearly an appetite for ‘poverty porn’. But the message is so often lost. For example, I wonder how many people watched How to get a Council House and appreciated the staggering statistic that only 40 of the 24,000 applicants in Tower Hamlets will be housed each week.

These programmes place social housing hand-in-hand with the ‘Broken Britain’ mantra and they fuel hateful comments on social media. So we must be ready to provide the counter argument, the real statistics behind social housing. We need to change the focus of the media’s representation of social housing; we need to promote the positive images by personalising the experiences of social housing and by telling the public about its real impact and role as a safety net, a settled home and a secure future. There are a number of grassroots campaigns that are trying to challenge the negative reporting around social housing by sharing positive experiences and opinions, such as Council Homes Chat and SHOUT. We can provide blogs, first-hand experiences and our tenants’ stories to provide a balanced debate around social housing.

Social housing is a residualised tenure, stripped bare by the right to buy and rationed to those in the highest need. The need to build more homes, across all tenures, is gaining political momentum and likely to be a key policy area for the 2015 elections. There are a number of opportunities up for grabs here. Firstly, to promote positive representation of social housing; we may never return to a time when social housing is a ‘tenure of choice’, but with increased public awareness of housing issues now is the time to promote  the benefits of social housing outside of the usual sphere of housing bods and on-side industry Twitterati. When the story is interesting enough the media may choose to use its power to influence and inform public opinion for the better.

Secondly, as is the answer to most housing questions, the solution is to build more homes as quantity creates equality. By addressing the supply and demand problem, accessing social housing becomes a reality for more people. In itself this will reduce the stigma of social housing and provide a readymade good news story. 


Alexandra Weaver, neighbourhood management trainee, Cartrefi Conwy

What recommendations would you make to improve the diversity of leadership in the housing industry?

I believe that diversity throughout the housing industry in general is hugely important to the success of the sector. Having leaders that come from different backgrounds and experiences enables the industry to draw on their different ideas and approaches aiding successful and sustainable growth within our sector- let’s lead by example from the top!

Recommendation 1

My first somewhat obvious recommendation is the hot topic in housing at the moment – we need more women in leadership roles. Only 22 of the top 100 housing associations in the UK are led by women, which has increased from 12 in 2001. The work carried out by groups such as Chwarae Teg in raising awareness and providing opportunities for women to network will assist moving forward. However, this issue of the glass ceiling is not just specific to the housing industry.

In order to create change in leadership roles there need to be more opportunities for under-represented groups to develop their skills. This can be achieved through working with specialist organisations or through an employer with tailored opportunities for individual development and talent recognition – or through an organisation that has an open approach to board recruitment.

Recommendation 2

Housing associations are becoming more and more commercial through diversification. They are no longer simply landlords, they have branched out into the private rented and sales market, specialist support and unique business ventures through social enterprises. They are also in an excellent position to support services that have suffered recent severe cut backs such as local authorities and the police. As a result, different skill sets are required in housing leaders for these new diversifications to be realised and successful.

The sector needs leaders with varied backgrounds. When housing associations were in their infancy, they needed housing experts to lead them. We have now moved on, and are expanding as enterprises, and as a result now require different types of leaders. The housing sector is an exciting place to be, as housing professionals we need to ensure that this message is communicated and that there are opportunities for movement into the sector at board, senior management or leadership level.

Recommendation 3

It seems a common occurrence that people working within our sector at all levels tend to ‘fall into’ housing as a career. Once they are in the sector, they embrace it. It is important that CIH qualifications adapt and evolve to produce the range of leaders from diverse business backgrounds with the required skill. It is very encouraging to see CIH exploring this issue and looking for views of professionals in the sector

This will ensure diversification throughout the skills of leaders in the housing industry. This will increase sustainability and future-proof us as a sector. We are frequently asking people to be open-minded. It is important for us to show that we ourselves are open-minded when it comes to acknowledging that we need different types of skills and experience in order to keep improving as an industry.

To conclude, as social landlords we embrace diversity every day in the way that we work and provide services to customers. I believe that in housing the right leaders with the right skills from diverse backgrounds are required at board and officer levels.


Chris York, policy and projects officer, Monmouthshire Housing Association

We have doctors, solicitors, engineers and surveyors.  What term do you think we should use to describe housing professionals and why?

Housing is such an important sector and probably does not get the recognition it deserves. Everyone depends on housing every day, in one form or another. In many ways the sector is taken for granted in the UK and this has definitely helped to contribute to a housing crisis. Owned housing is very difficult to obtain, social housing is the same and also unfairly stigmatised, and the private sector is expensive and often (rightly or wrongly) regarded as having poor standards. Somehow, housing professionals do not seem to hold the same importance as the other professions. We are, however, essential and as a profession almost always a force for good.

The word ‘housing’ brings to mind bricks and mortar, although in social housing the work often involves much more than the home itself. There are, for example, a number of tenants who rely on the support housing professionals provide to manage their tenancies. Some people simply could not manage without this support. Individuals working in social housing often need a whole host of skills to help counter-act a seemingly unlimited number of social and economic problems.

The word ‘professional’ implies someone qualified and experienced in the type of work they do. To become a doctor, solicitor, engineer or surveyor a person has to qualify academically and undergo on-the-job training. In contrast, only a limited number of roles in the housing sector require both qualifications and experience, while others require one or the other and some positions neither. So, there is a fundamental difference between the way in which a career is developed in housing and the other roles.

While the term ‘housing professional’ doesn’t seem to adequately describe individuals who work in social housing, in reality there may be no single term to describe a housing professional. Trying to sum up the concept is hard, not least because there is often no standard career progression and the work is multi-faceted and often changing. Describing the work of the other professions somehow seems easier: doctors heal, solicitors provide legal advice, engineers build and surveyors assess and calculate. How can the work of a housing professional be summed up?

In the social sector, generally, the aims seem to be to provide homes and services and help people, whilst ensuring value for money and remaining financially sustainable. In the private sector, it could be said the general aims are to provide homes and services for profit. These seem like straightforward definitions that broadly encompass the work of a housing professional.

Rather than re-wording the term housing professional, it can be suggested it’s the definition behind it which should be the focus, so everyone understands what working in housing means.

Practical ways to do this are to move housing higher up the political agenda and increasingly define housing as a viable career option. The sector should also seek to not only promote what housing is and does, but also the positive effect it has in other areas such as employment, the economy, education, health, the environment and crime reduction.

So can a housing professional be described in any one single term? Perhaps, although it makes more sense to focus on the depth and importance of housing, so that when someone hears the term they know exactly what that means and the power behind it.



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