Community Links December 2016
Jonathan Lawn
Jonathan Lawn
Thursday 16th February 2017 - 00:00

The aspiration for housing associations should be to foster human happiness

There’s no colour and no sound. There’s nothing here.”

You know the kind of place I mean. You’ll have seen them from airport buses, or driving around the outskirts of cities. Home next to home, flat above flat, with nothing much else besides. A lonely takeaway. A bookies.

I work in what could have been that kind of place. Sometimes we debate the name of this place in South East London. Is it Catford? Is it Downham? It was once Southend Village, but that name fell away in the 19th century. Instead we’re reduced to using a postcode. I work in SE6.

It’s the Bromley Road, a traffic-dominated cleft between two great inter-war estates – Downham and Bellingham – built for First World War veterans desperate to escape inner city overcrowding. And it once enjoyed happier times. A pleasure park, a cinema, a lido, pubs. All gone now.

There are places like this all over the country. Places you pass through, where you’d rather not stop. Places where you look at people and wonder what they do with their lives, what they do with their evenings. And there may be more of these places on the way.

So I’m listening to Doves’ Black and White Town: “You should follow me down / In satellite towns, there’s no colour and no sound / This is a dangerous place, there’s nothing here / Got to get out of this satellite town.”

But of course you can’t get out. Even private renting’s a lottery win away. Here comes stagnation, low self-esteem, youth loitering, antisocial behaviour.

That’s what could have happened in the area where I work. Then, ten years ago, tenants made an unusual and radical choice. They decided to take control, establish their own housing association, take responsibility for their own services and their own lives, for the future of their community. A ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’.

I’m not sure too many held out hope for little old Phoenix at first. Yet slowly, almost miraculously, it’s starting to work. An annual festival, a thriving job club, an annual £100,000 fund for community projects, a whole host of events at a new community building, The Green Man, a community building for south Lewisham, built on a former pub site.

The Green Man

And now we’ve our upcoming £4m Lottery-funded restoration of another pub – the Fellowship Inn in Bellingham, which is to become a cinema and performance venue, with new jobs and apprenticeships. Resident-led landlords like us take the views of residents seriously, and we’ve undertaken a large-scale consultation to ensure that when it opens next year the Fellowship will deliver what local people want, at a price they can afford.

All present new opportunities for our residents to socialise, escape the home. All driven from grass roots, from the energy of the community itself. And as more and more happens, so that energy grows.

Back in November I was at the Placeshapers conference and joined in the traditional agonising over public perceptions of housing associations. Do people know what the sector does? Inevitably all the talk’s about supply. Are we home-builders? While we’re proud at Phoenix to be building our first homes, the limited (and very expensive) land available to us means we’re never going to be known primarily for development.

I’ve been reflecting on this. I have this notion – and perhaps it’s simplistic and naive – that the overriding aspiration for housing associations should be to foster human happiness. We’re the organisations who are there for people of the least means and greatest vulnerability, supporting them into employment, laying on social events, helping them sustain their tenancies, celebrating their diversity, offering financial support when things get difficult. The organisations who can get to know their residents, treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. The organisations with the ability to reinstate pride in place and pride in self. We all have a choice over how much attention we want to give to this.

I’m not playing down the housing crisis or the urgent need for development, but our work’s surely about much more than that.

It’s about making people’s lives a little better. About taking black and white towns, and often black and white lives, and doing all we can to inject the technicolour.

This blog was first published by the National Housing Federation in February 2017.