As part of my work (and if I’m honest, my own personal fulfilment) I attend a huge number of conferences and events throughout the year; sometimes as a speaker or panel member, sometimes as staff and sometimes as a punter. One thing that rings true is that I often value the networking opportunities presented by these events over and above the content. I look forward to meeting like-minded people, bumping into old colleagues, sharing ideas, eating cake, filling my pockets with business cards etc. Sometimes there is a free bar. Did I mention cake?

It’s not always the case though, some events have amazing content that rings all of my bells (the TPAS Engaging Communities Conference and the CECI Community Investment Conference have been stand-outs in 2019), not just for a chance to meet the attendees, but to learn. I was genuinely excited when I read about the Festival of Place event next week, as this is a subject that I am particularly passionate about.

Having been involved with Community work for many years, I have come to really appreciate the idea of place-making, particularly in a Housing and Local Authority context. I have worked on so many schemes where the recurrent issues have literally been designed into them from the start. So much of our development is commercially driven, and designed with margins in mind, that we don’t give enough consideration as to how the people who are destined to live there are actually going to live there.

How members of the community interact with each other is not based on tenure, or political boundaries, so how we interact with those communities shouldn’t be based on this either. Business cases for investment in new developments don’t focus on the ongoing costs of the sheltered nook that is going to invite Anti-Social Behaviour, or the fact that there are no bus services that can get people to work on time etc. The dynamics of a Community are based on the lives of the people within it, and we can arbitrarily restrict that if we don’t consider what people want and need.

The only way we can create more holistic and thriving communities is for the stakeholders to work together, with the existing communities, and try to understand how the lives of the residents are actually going to function in the future; pulling in expertise and insights from a range of places. There are moves to make this happen, interestingly coming from seemingly opposite ends of the equation. 

Over the past few months, I have been working with an affordable housing investment fund, who perform social due diligence on the organisations that they invest in, to ensure that they will provide appropriate support for communities in the long-term. The Royal Town Planners Institute has also been holding a series of masterclasses about how economic development, employment and skills must go hand-in-hand with real estate development. With this type of influence coming from both finance and planning, we may very well start to see a change in how schemes are developed, with a move away from the pure drive for profit.

Social Landlords are massive stakeholders in any area and they are a major influence, not just on their own residents, but on the wider community. I doubt there is a single community investment worker in the Housing Sector who hasn’t heard the “but they’re not our residents” argument when pitching a project. Or that “a large group is effectively paying for interventions for a relatively small number of people” (which is pretty much how National Insurance works…).  We need to stop thinking like this, about discrete groups of people, and start thinking universally. Social Landlords are just part of the fabric, as are the private landlords, and the businesses, and the support services, and the charities, and the public sector, and the residents, and the politicians, and the CCGs, and the sports teams, and the faith groups etc etc. When we talk about communities, we need to be talking about all of these things and more.

The Festival of Place is an event that is bringing together experts from across multiple sectors and disciplines to discuss how we collaborate to make effective and supportive places for people to live. The speaker list includes politicians, academics, architects, developers, investors etc and is really trying to get the broadest variety of experience and understanding to the table. This is the only way we can accelerate this agenda, and not just preach to the converted. We need to have more cross-channel, cross-discipline conversations; we need to make it normal. There are a number of Housing Associations attending; it would be interesting to see which part of the business they are from (Development, Community Investment etc), as different teams would have a different take on this agenda.

In my excitement I fan-boyyed the organisers (much like I did when I met Mr Motivator at Gordano services as a boy) and they have very kindly offered a 20% discount on delegate passes if you use the code SOCIAL20. I think this is a really important event, and whilst it is not aimed solely at Housing, I would love to see it become part of the regular calendar for the sector, where we talk outside our circle to people with whom our paths may not usually cross. This would be a great opportunity to move beyond our echo chamber and speak to people with priorities very different to our own.

The event takes place at Tobacco Dock, Wapping, London E1W 2SF on Tuesday 9th July. For more information, please click here for the website. The agenda can be found here.

See you there folks!

Festival of Place