by James Scott Vandeventer, Tom Hindmarch and Steve Millington
The ‘Transforming Places from the Inside Out’ conference, sponsored by One Manchester (an IPM Partner), took place at The Studio in Manchester’s Northern Quarter on the 18th November 2019. The conference included talks from a host of experts, including IPM’s own Dr Steve Millington, as well as discussions with social housing providers and other stakeholders. The day centred on the challenges and opportunities the social housing sector faces as it increasingly adopts a place focus. Throughout, a fruitful dialogue about the intersection of place and housing generated a palpable sense that the emerging housing-place nexus is here to stay, and highlighted some areas that place management can contribute to thinking about place in the housing sector moving forward.
The intersection of housing and place
The conference offered a series of ways for thinking about housing as the sector begins to focus on place. The first session comprised a series of talks that drew out key concerns, challenges and opportunities for social housing providers to consider as they begin to embrace place within their practice. Former CEO of The Joseph Rowntree Foundation Julia Unwin CBE kicked off the packed morning session with a compelling keynote, arguing that housing is a basic human need and pointing to the vital roles of housing associations and other anchor institutions in enabling people and places to thrive. Lorna Heslington of Tipi Research followed, discussing research commissioned by One Manchester to help understand their tenants’ sense of place. Then, Katie Teasdale, from the National Housing Federation, outlined a series of recommendations for changes both to national policy and local housing providers’ practices to align with their Great Places programme. In the final talk, Samantha Jones described the great work of community land trust and co-operative bakery Homebaked in the Anfield area of Liverpool.
Then, two breakout sessions enabled more participatory discussions in four workshops tackling the range of issues housing providers face as they work to both meet the needs of residents and improve the places in which those residents live. Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) discussed place as part of a broader recalibrating of local economies, as well as their innovative research on the importance of anchor institutions in community wealth building, which CLES recently articulated in The
Manifesto for Local Economies. In another workshop, One Manchester highlighted challenges facing their communities and the attendees exchanged ideas about best practices for addressing them. The third workshop included an art installation by The Caravan Gallery, which displayed works by people depicting their hometowns and visually capturing their pride of place.
In the fourth workshop, Oldham Council delivered an interactive session around their innovative Thriving Communities Index. The index is a comprehensive data source for all 115 neighbourhoods within Oldham, summarising data such as voter turnout, levels of crime and A&E admissions in each area. The data has been plotted on a dynamic map and made available to various stakeholders in Oldham to help inform decision-making. The workshop exercise focussed on ‘Nebula,’ a locally devised assessment tool designed to supplement the index with rich qualitative data. Nebula involves consultations with selected professional panels to rank each neighbourhood across 13 different components. Participants were asked to assess fictional centres on neighbourliness, community tensions, social norms and accessibility to jobs, which are all components in the tool, leading to an engaging discussion around the index and place data collection.
The final session began with Steve’s talk, which overviewed of several recent IPM projects, including High Street UK 2020, Big Data for Small Users, and the Vital and Viable programme. Then, a One Manchester resident and Manchester poet, Pauline Omoboye, read several provocative and stirring poems she has written about her everyday life. Finally, a panel brought together different speakers throughout the day to reflect on questions submitted by attendees, and One Manchester Chief Executive Dave Power delivered concluding remarks, including the perceptive comment that ‘large-scale problems require small-scale changes within a large-scale framework.’
Place management: A way forward for housing providers?
From an IPM perspective, place management is a large-scale framework shifting the focus of organisational practices toward a place-based approach, a shift that has the potential to draw together the work of housing providers with others seeking to address the transformations to our economy, society and places. Still, this begs the question: What does place management mean in the context of housing associations?
To date, IPM research has tended to focus on the myriad concerns that a place management lens brings to town and city centres, retail, tourism, and communities. Our expertise in these areas led government to award IPM and our partner organisations the contract to deliver the High Streets Task Force.
However, as the restructuring of our society continues, whether through austerity and the withdrawal of the state, or the failings of an ‘inclusive growth’ model (which CLES has described in depth), place management is extending to other contexts as well. This conference indicated the interest from housing providers in adopting a more robust place focus and, as their sponsorship of this conference indicates, One Manchester is a leading organisation in this area, with ‘place’ as one of its strategic priorities.
At the same time, housing providers’ traditional remit is carefully circumscribed: they provide housing. While the Social Value Act requires social housing providers to consider social value in delivering services, this can be applied in a variety of ways. If, as this conference seems to indicate, delivering social value extends the remit of housing providers to providing for places, a host of new questions emerge, which place management is well positioned to address. From an IPM perspective, the turn to place among housing providers should remain sensitive to the insights derived from existing place management research and practice, and strive to adapt those insights in a housing context. This is a significant challenge given the disconnect between most housing literature – and practice – and wider debates both in academia and in society. Consider, for example, that the draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework failed to adequately link housing provision with allocation, and could have gone further in connecting housing with creating and improving places. Integrating these concerns in the final revision would be welcome, but more work is necessary to change the ‘silo’ approach to housing. A place management focus would contribute significantly to integrating housing and place.
Building on the above, Steve’s talk emphasised the importance of developing and maintaining partnerships, which facilitate place-based decision-making, lower barriers to action and avoid duplication of efforts. Still, while partnerships can catalyse joined-up action, housing providers must address the potential tension between partnerships aimed at improving a place and more narrowly delivering improvements for their customers, the residents who ultimately pay housing providers. Further, if housing providers strive to become place-based anchor institutions, they should connect with other anchors and build place management networks, drive investments in urban areas to restore the vitality and viability of high streets and address problems of social exclusion and gentrification.
Additionally, the importance of data in informing housing providers’ place-based decision-making deserves further scrutiny, such as how Oldham’s Thriving Communities Index might require adapting to other places, or how Nebula can bring qualitative insights to housing place management. There appears significant potential for footfall data – a key metric of places’ vitality in IPM’s work – to be extended to housing and neighbourhood contexts in which retail plays a lesser role. Relatedly, developing the ‘signature types’ of housing, whether tower blocks, estates or neighbourhoods, and more generally conceptualising the places in which housing providers operate, would serve to help inform data-driven decisions moving forward.
Further, Steve’s talk reminded the audience that places are constantly transitioning. So, understanding the wider trends influencing places should be central to housing providers’ place management. For example, what challenges to housing place management arise from the financialisation of housing in Manchester, the trend in increased private renting of housing across the UK or the (lack of) provision of social infrastructure? In thinking about the future of the housing-place nexus, such concerns should be studied and integrated into strategies, planning and practice.
Finally, homes, similar to town centres, are also situated in neighbourhoods and communities, interwoven with town centres and high streets. Places are where people live, volunteer, socialise, have fun, relax, and so much more. Homes contribute to making places, but places also contribute to making homes. Therefore, while there is a role for proactive place management approaches from housing providers, there are also limits to the control that can be asserted on place: housing providers who strive to adopt place management should recognise when to step backand not intervene in managing places. As society changes, taking a more proactive approach toward place management from housing providers is a welcome development, but it also means that the above concerns need to be addressed and better understood. Indeed, the ‘Transforming Places from the Inside Out’ conference showed how pressing it is for housing providers to continue to think through the implications of a place management approach for their work.