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Opinion: A Tale of Two CIHties

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Opinion: A Tale of Two CIHties

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing

CIH conference special: “Time for some honest debate about housing’s future” CIH conference special: “Time for some honest debate about housing’s future”

Rob Gershon, a council tenant known in the Twittersphere as @Simplicitly, gives his verdict (from the coverage provided on Twitter) on two very different housing conferences held in Manchester this week.

I realise that the CIH Conference 2014 isn’t really about tenants and that the heady, innovative workshops of House Party 2014 aren’t really about tenants either.

No, they aren’t. I know you might think that one or the other is, but they’re not, from out here.

Ultimately of course, both conferences serve tenants. For now at least, without us there would be no need for either. As a (genuine) council home tenant, I’ve been jolted into taking notice of what is happening to my tenure by welfare ‘reforms’, so it was with a degree of fascination that I set up extra tweetdeck columns for #housing2014 and #HseParty14 to see what they have to offer me.

I’ve already discussed with my Twitter pals Cheryl Tracy, Gudrun Barnet and Jules Birch that watching events on Twitter isn’t the same as being there. Despite the wonderful inclusiveness that social media can give us, 140-character snippets, however enthusiastically reported, can’t cover enough detail to give anything other than a passing flavour of what is going on. Links to other content certainly help, but the twitter timelines themselves develop a certain character.

Nevertheless, I was quite amazed that the #housing2014 feed seemed, where it wasn’t sequestered for deliberate advertising for conference stands, to be intelligible, focused and accessible. As the first two days of conference passed, different events occurred at the same time. It was therefore sometimes necessary to filter out what the tweets, predominantly provided by conference attendees, were talking about. Whether it was Grania Long’s heartfelt, solid message about saving the entire sector, David Cowans' stalwart call to invent the future by including housing as part of a broader infrastructure offering or Owen Jones, among many voices over the first two days, highlighting the disgusting effects of poverty and welfare reforms on tenants, the #housing2014 column was a robust feed of relevant stuff.

It was equally surprising to experience the #HseParty14 feed. From ‘out here’, it seemed a confusing mix of repeated messages, anticipation for sessions about to start, appreciative tweets about sessions that had finished and photo opportunities. Many of the tweets were steeped in impenetrably corporate jargon, often with links to content awash with language that one might consider being pure management jargon.  Some things really worked - Frances Coppola’s Housing Finance Monopoly translated well, despite only limited Twitter coverage of the pertinent points that were presumably being made.

Julian Dobson’s argument for “Slow Policy” was also perfectly pitched for the medium and for both conferences, even though it was a compelling template for handing all social housing provision back to local authority control!

Perhaps because it was the first House Party event, there are still some areas where communication improvements might be made - I’d suggest a reduction in the baffling spread of hashtags that crept in, and maybe just lightening up a bit. At times it felt like the fun was all a bit too well organised, and was sometimes hard to see the message through the medium.

So, while the main CIH conference may have suffered from being ostensibly more commercial, the House Party conference lacked direction and finish, and ironically struggled to get its messages across in a digital format.

House Party also seemed mightily concerned with who was trending, without looking too closely at what was trending, who was trending, or why they were trending. From here, the number of tweets on each hashtag seemed roughly consistent, though I’m sure there are probably some metrics somewhere, and tweetdeck thankfully spares the user from having to see all the retweets.

What really struck me about the two conferences were just how similar they were, from reading their Twitter feeds. Neither of them had an extrenal tenant focus. I’m not upset about this - I witnessed the 2013 CIH conference and I know it’s an event that focuses on the big picture, with speakers like the Housing Minister, who though he appeared somewhat lost is a big headline draw. The House Party, on the other hand clearly had a lot of practical workshops that I’m assured attendees could start using straight away, but I think it was harder to convey those. The CIH side also had coherent pointers of a growing realisation of what is about to happen to housing - and it’s here that the schism between the two hashtags was at its greatest.

CIH has the SHOUT campaign - a seemingly carefully researched, evidenced piece of work that shows how capital grant subsidy is required to build more homes (for tenants). This approach seems to be viewed as more traditional, perhaps even old-fashioned, with occasionally caustic asides from some observers at both events suggesting that this approach is out of date.

Nobody else at either conference had a strategic alternative. There was lots of talk about innovation and new ways of thinking and a changing marketplace, but nobody has been able to provide a documented alternative to the SHOUT manifesto for meeting the scale of building required. A different focus meant that House Party events may have had nothing to do with these strategic views, but the rather good “Housing Question Time” did cover some of these areas. For me, this is where I wanted to take people from each event and bang their heads together, figuratively speaking.

Housing - you’re in serious trouble! As a result, people like me - tenants, are in serious trouble. At some point, people from both sides of your internal schism are going to have to have a conversation about what you are going to do for your future, and more importantly for your tenant’s futures.

- You have to build many homes.
- You have to decide what the common strands of the housing association product are.
- You are going to have to think what you offer other than bricks.
- You are not grant junkies for reasonably asking government to offset your wider costs up front. Drug dealers don’t work that way - they want to get you hooked for the long term. You’ll be taking bigger doses of government money-drug if you let Housing Benefit take the strain through the laughably named Affordable Rent model.
- This is not a straight choice between one solution and another.

Finally, somebody needs to sort out the sketched ideas from the “Museum of Future Housing Technology”. I realise you didn’t have much time to prepare and that brainstorming is just about saying things, but I couldn’t stop laughing at them. My personal favourite was the notion that, as part of an initiative that included stopping the stigmatisation of tenants, you’d build small portable homes that tenants could take with them, and turn them into Travelers. I’m not sure this solution really strikes at the heart of trying to reduce stigma.

Equally, this was just one of the initiatives from both conferences that made me think of a link I’d been shown by a Twitter friend - many people have visions for social housing seem to have ones like those developed by Gregory Kloehn, and as innovative as this may be, I am not sure where the idea of homes for poor people stopped being aligned with the ideas we have for homes for everyone else. Sometimes, experience and traditional approaches to the sector might not be a bad thing.

Oh, and I’m nobody’s ‘customer’. The notion of tenancy comes with long-established legal implications and established protections. It is not cool to mess with this relationship. Equating it to one where you serve me fast food is not edifying for either of us.

Please work together to mend the rift in your differing commercial approaches. Neither one needs to be sneered at. Plenty of speakers at both events pointed out that there’s no real shortage of capital, and I’m not saying affordable rents couldn’t be better tailored as Peter Hall suggested on 24housing the other day. They just need to be tailored so that they’re social rents, is all. Figures on poverty and foodbanks and inequality aren’t going to be made better by the current affordable rent model, of this, thanks to Frances Coppola’s Monopoly, I am sure.

The bedroom tax still exists, so in this I consider both conferences to have been abject failures, anyway.

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