We can build back better if we do it together: reflections on the Housing, Learning and Work Conference

By Michelle Dawson


25 02 2021

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Sponsoring the Housing, Learning and Work Conference was a natural fit for us. Not just because it posed an essential conversation-starter, but because we felt it was going to open doors into a brighter landscape for communities. And while it’s only early days, we feel it served as a positive catalyst for both.

The running theme of this year’s conference – at which attendance had trebled, signalling the great need for it – is the opportunity ahead of us to do things better. And to do it collaboratively.

While there was much reflection to be had during the event about the terrible impact of Covid on our communities (6million furloughed, 0.7million out of work for at least seven months), there was also plenty of room for hope. Optimism for a brighter future filtered through the event, a sentiment shared by every participant as Stephen Evans asked us to share suggestions on how we can ‘build back better’. As Communities that Work’s Lynsey Sweeney said, housing and employment is completely key to that: “No sector is an island and today is about partnerships”.

Lynsey Sweeney, managing Director of Communities that Work pointed out...
...no sector is an island and today is about partnerships.

Perhaps our biggest takeaway is the urgent need to work together, in new ways. Because another key theme was that of starting anew, taking what we know works and leaving behind what we’ve learned does not. There was a shared enthusiasm for finding different ways of increasing employment and opportunities for communities, many of which will be born out of collaborative ventures.

In his keynote, Mike Brewer of The Resolution Foundation, confirmed what many of us already suspected: the employment crisis has disproportionately affected certain people within our society. To make a real difference moving forward, and ultimately increase employment for those we’re here to support, we need to really target our services at the sectors (hospitality, retail, entertainment) and the people (women, the BAME community, young adults) who have been most affected.

How do we achieve that? Many shared their ideas, with a general consensus that letting communities steer us, and tailoring our services to meet their needs, is a good starting point. Many attendees were curious about how our role as housing providers can change the employment landscape for the better.

It’s a valid query, one that Ralph Facey our Executive Director of Operations summed up well: we are community anchors. This means we listen to communities and provide resources to help turn their neighbourhoods into thriving pockets of opportunity. This takes work; a meeting of minds with the same end goals – in this case to increase employment for those struggling to find it – to really tackle the issues we’re now facing.

Empowering people is a key part of this. James Reed shared an important message about the pandemic being a portal to change, and community empowerment must have a place in that future landscape.

Many participants and attendees alike were inquisitive about what the next ‘normal’ might look like. It’s a pressing question that no one person can answer just yet, but it will certainly require a more joined-up approach. As Minister for Welfare Delivery, Will Quince, said:

“It is the local partnership working that will yield the best results… a spirit of joint working and collaboration.”

In the afternoon attendees gathered to hear more about funding employment support, the direct impact of Covid on the working environment, and the changing landscape of the labour market. Two things were made clear at these sessions:

  1. Out of this crisis has come many new into-work programmes.
  2. A local, tailored approach is essential to achieve sustainable results.
Minister for Welfare Delivery, Will Quince, said
It is the local partnership working that will yield the best results… a spirit of joint working and collaboration.

So while the last 12 months have been remarkably challenging for all, good, positive schemes have been born out of that challenge. The question on our collective minds now is the sustainability of these programmes and the wider impacts of short-term schemes.

Many agreed that this is where the housing provider can really make a difference: providing wraparound job support, one-to-one mentoring and additional services such as resilience training. Additionally, we can utilise our connections locally to bring tenants and providers of employment and training support together. We can help facilitate a move towards a better employment climate on a local level – which is where it really matters and feeds in more widely to the national landscape.

The conference came to a close with plenty of fresh ideas on the table, new contacts to touch base with, and an optimism for the future. Most importantly, an understanding that there is still so much to be done. So, let’s get started.

Michelle Dawson, Managing Director of Community Services at Abri