CIH Eastern chair Russell Heath reflects on this year's Eastern conference
After signs of a welcome change in approach to housing from policy makers, this year’s CIH Eastern conference was all about making the most of opportunities while they last, says CIH Eastern chair Russell Heath.
Few people in housing would have predicted the recent change in rhetoric from policy makers, and the increased listening and awareness from society. As a sector, we must continue to show the reality and talk positively of the role we have to play and the difference we make.
What stood out to me was the change in the UK government’s approach – one could argue is it reactive to the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower but it is now openly talking about housing policy and building. We have a chance to make our thoughts and evidence heard amidst Brexit and internal disagreements. Where I feel more progress has been made is with increased reporting in the media of the issues housing faces – it has seemed more balanced and in some cases quite damning of current policies. A lot of organisations and individuals have been clearly heard and more is being taken in. As Mark Easton, BBC home editor and chair of the conference said: “These are exciting times in housing with the politics of the day and ministers thinking what was unthinkable – what a moment to come together to discuss and learn.”
In the first keynote speech, CIH chief executive Terrie Alafat relayed some important messages from challenging ourselves to act, stating that current levels of homelessness are a disgrace and for organisations to focus on what they have not just new supply. Terrie also called for the sector to make the most of its skills.
We heard from many speakers challenging where we are and the opportunities and changes ahead. Anthony Hilton, senior economics and business commentator at the Evening Standard and the Independent, demystified the economy and used a cake to show that growth figures on their own do not tell us anything – they are essentially meaningless. He focused on the Eastern region and warned that Brexit will ‘shake up the economy’ through skills shortages, squeezing house building and putting the cost up initially. He observed that governments fail to apply the ‘spend now to save later’ view to housing. Short-term, incoherent policies and funding does not create a lasting change – some spikes may be better but the dips are damaging.
I really enjoyed the big debate on whether we are really making an impact on the housing crisis. There are to quote Joseph Rowntree Foundation policy and research manager Brian Robson ‘some chinks of light’ but also in my opinion an awful amount of fudge that’s moving in parallel.
For me, there’s the choice of what we build and where and keeping the term affordable simple, there’s the evidence that points to the private rented sector affecting homelessness and levels of affordability but all can be solved. There was a strong call and general agreement with the need for more collaboration, working together across the region but we need to break down the ‘people’ barrier. We can all provide examples on the ground where the way homes are built and services delivered simply don’t make sense. There is also a growing awareness of demographic changes and our ageing population. There is more to be done about the use of technology in build and services but there are some really interesting developments. Claire Astbury, head of housing strategy and development at Luton Borough Council, summed it up nicely that there is frustration but this is a positive sign of ambition, the want to do more. CIH president Alison Inman challenged us to think about what the housing sector would look like in five to 10 years and whether we have the right number of organisations.
The conference painted a clear picture for me that we must take the opportunity now to make decisions and do this together. Homelessness, poverty, affordability and welfare reform continues to loom above us but below we can make positive inroads to the benefit of communities and people in our region.
Russell Heath is Chair of the CIH Eastern Board
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