First Words With: Julia Unwin – Know your place, social housing

Julia Unwin CBE (Demo)

Speaking at a housing summit in Manchester, Julia Unwin CBE made a powerful case for civil society’s vital role in achieving the sector’s social purpose. Mark Cantrell was there to hear what she had to say

“Social housing today stands on the shoulders of giants.”

SOCIAL housing is a creature born in civil society and nurtured by its roots in community, but it was conceived in anger and a determined impertinence to change society for the better.

“Social housing today stands on the shoulders of giants,” as Julia Unwin CBE told her audience at the NHC’s Northern Housing Summit in Manchester last year.

“[It] was created by campaigns and challenges within communities. It was led by people who put mattresses on church floors; by people who were angry and wanted to make change… We are not providers of housing; we are people trying to serve communities.”

The sector is about more than bricks and mortar, then; as is so often proclaimed by its chiefs. But does it really know those communities it claims to serve; has it lost touch with its sense of place to the detriment of its roots?

“We – and I speak as someone who comes from the housing world – have too often lost connection with the places we serve,” she told her audience.

“[T]he host of new names for housing associations; it’s become quite fashionable not to sound too local, not to sound too familiar. What this signals to people is that the organisation is distant.”

Unwin, who is the former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, was speaking in her capacity as chair of the independent inquiry into the future of civil society. The inquiry, which ran from 2017 to 2018, culminated in the report, The Story of Our Times: Shifting Power, Bridging Divides, Transforming Society.

The inquiry was carried out, and its report published, while the nation still fulminated over Brexit; now that leaving the EU is a ‘done deal’, the document’s findings remain highly pertinent – and sobering for housing.

This is a story of place and identity and belonging, and the way that people and communities forge such bonds; it’s also a tale of deep social and political division, not so much created by Brexit, as simply brought to the surface.

The origins of this sorry saga are decades-old: economic decline and uneven recovery, social, cultural and technological shifts, compounded by the pressures of rising inequality, recent austerity, and political indifference. The story takes in the collapse of traditional focal points of identity – be that of places of worship, work and trade union – compounded by the decline of the high street. It’s all taken quite a toll on our sense of national and communal cohesion.

“People feel demoralised and they feel let down; they feel decisions were made elsewhere, without engaging them,” Unwin said. Housing organisations, too, fell afoul of this sense of aloof indifference, accused of “making decisions in boardrooms some distance away”. The net result is not only a loss of connection – with place – but a bond of trust.

“That threw me,” Unwin confessed. “Because I don’t want to think of housing associations doing that. I want to think of housing associations as absolutely central to the wellbeing of thriving communities.”

She added: “All of us have a huge obligation that goes back to our roots and our core purpose to do things differently. All of you who are providers of housing… are entirely dependent on civil society, particularly community organisations, for what you do.”

Indeed, it’s a dependence that borders on the existential, she argued: “If you don’t have people in your communities who look out for their neighbours… if you didn’t have people who welcome the stranger, if you didn’t have people who pick up the phone and shout at you, or be horribly rude on Twitter when things go wrong – your businesses will not survive without those angry voices. Those protesters, and those people who tell you what you are doing wrong, they are the canaries in the coalmine.”

Civil society can be a bruising place, then, but that’s precisely where social housing providers must be, if they are to play their part in healing the hurts of these fraught and difficult times.

“Strong civil society can help to repair our dented democracy and help to enable us to make difficult choices. Strong civil society can help to bind our social fabric. Housing is central to that,” Unwin added.

It’s all about stewardship, and maybe being something of a neighbourly presence, too. “I know your balance sheets look strong when you own lots of housing, but you don’t own it – you hold it in trust for the people who live in them now, and for future generations,” she said.

We can hardly do justice to Unwin’s speech, or the report itself, in such a tight space, but perhaps the key thing to take from her message is that all is not lost: if housing organisations can once again learn to know their place.

As Unwin said: “We stand on the shoulders of giants – and we can do it again.”


This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing Magazine, #7 March 2020


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