At a critical time for social housing and with the terrible Grenfell disaster fresh in people’s minds, UNISON Cymru Wales convened a landmark conference in Cardiff.
On 9 November 2017, experts, residents, workers and community campaigners from the housing sector gathered at the Park Inn hotel to discuss social housing, its importance and future in Wales. Here’s UNISON Organiser Seb Cooke to tell us more.
The idea behind the event was to bring people together to discuss ideas and chart a way forward for the future social housing in Wales. Speaking ahead of the conference, one of the main organisers, Lynne Hackett, said that “Years ago, it was our civic pride to look after every member of society and provide a decent council house to everyone who needed one.”
But for decades, she added, the government has overseen the gradual decline of decent social housing. According to Lynne, this has led to a situation where
“People in privately-rented homes are struggling as rents rocket and the result is evictions and increased homelessness, particularly for those who are mentally ill. Women’s refuge centres are closing and those escaping domestic violence have nowhere to go.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. We need well-planned, well-maintained and safe social housing for people to live in.”
This was the backdrop to the conference, and was the reason it generated a huge amount of interest from across the world of social housing.
Brian Robson from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation told the opening plenary that “social housing is as relevant today as it has always been.” He went on to say that social housing was the most pro-poor, redistributive part of entire welfare state and that insecure, low quality housing has more of a negative effect on health outcomes and employment prospects than other areas of social policy. 14 million people in the UK are in poverty, he said, and a quarter of this is directly related to housing costs.
Addressing the conference, Jane Mudd, head of social policy at Cardiff Metropolitan University, began by quoting Nye Bevan when he was UK Housing Minister who’s vision was “to see the living tapestry of a mixed community” through decent housing development.
Moving on to the modern day, Jane quoted the author Lynsey Hanley who, she said, “believes the greatest division between people today isn’t the work they do or what they earn or whether they have children, but the kind of homes they live in.”
Jane outlined the policy position of the Welsh Government, which has declared as part of its national strategy that it wants “everyone to live in a home that meets their needs and supports a healthy, successful and prosperous life.” How we achieve that is a major challenge we face.
Gavin Edwards, UNISON’s national officer for the community sector, lambasted the Prime Minster for the astonishing lack of ambition when it came to building council housing.
Gavin highlighted the work that UNISON members undertake in the housing sector and how many workers are often subjected to violence. He said that in some cases, the pay of housing association chief executives had rocketed up whilst the housing crisis only got worse.
From here, the conference kicked off into three different panel sessions, where contributors and delegates discussed their own experience of social housing, mental health, inequality and campaigning. What came through so strongly was the passion for social housing with the acknowledgment that the situation needs to dramatically improve.
To that end, Lynne Hackett addressed the conference in the afternoon and invited everyone to get more involved in taking the ideas forward into the development of a social housing charter for Wales.
This work will be taken up in the New Year by all those who have expressed an interest and reported back to everyone in the coming months.
Photo credit: Tracey Paddison