What makes a great place great?

As the Great Places Commission begins its work to answer this important question, Ruth Davison reflects on the places that matter to her and the role that housing associations play in their communities.

Ruth Davison is Executive Director of Public Impact at the National Housing Federation

Ruth Davison is Executive Director of Public Impact at the National Housing Federation

1 March 2018

In the days before data protection laws, I started a new role and opened a commendably brief, but catty, hand-over note from my predecessor. It said of a new colleague: "if you've spoken to her for more than a minute, you'll know her husband is an orthopedic consultant".

I was reminded of this recently – in a meeting for our new Great Places programme – when I mentioned I was from Hartlepool. "I think we all know that Ruth," came a colleague's retort. I’m glad. I'm proud to be from Hartlepool, though I haven't lived there for more than a few months in the last 30 years. This once thriving North East port, surrounded by the once thriving Durham coalfield, had shipbuilding, fishing, steel and other industries.

But it was never the industrial history that made me proud to be a Hartlepudlian. It was the place and the people. But what is a place? It’s not as straightforward a question as it seems. Is it a town, a village, a spot by a brook? It's all of those things.

In a literature review for this project carried out by a brilliant research colleague, I was struck by her summary of the work of human geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, from 1977: "place is more than a location, but a location created by human experience. Places are created when meaning is invested in space and people become attached to it."

So the concrete blocks on the Hartlepool Headland are not a blot on the landscape to me, but part of the old First World War battery where my great granny worked and fell in love. They were also a prompt to my nana explaining why she didn't save anything for 'best' – her mother's Sunday china took a direct hit, so "best enjoy it while you can."

The stone at the edge of the town wall is unremarkable to many, but it marked the end of our walks and I know it's where the Middleton Ferry used to run from – a memory of a memory from three generations back. The beaches of the North East would be beautiful to anyone, but to me they are extra special, suffused by sunny childhood memories, driftwood fires and toasted marshmallows.

So when I think of great places, I’m not just thinking of them in an academic or professional sense. I have skin in the game on this one. As do all housing professionals and leaders. The vision for the sector, Ambition to Deliver, says that by 2033 the following statement will be true: “If you want a great place to live, come to a housing association." The recent sector and political focus has necessarily been on driving delivery and building new homes. People need a roof over their head. But we won't deliver our vision if we don't build these new places well, whilst also focusing on the places where we already own and manage two-and-a-half-million homes.

Housing associations operate in every part of the country: in places that are great, in places that are not so great, others that appear to be hanging on for dear life and others that ostensibly look pretty dreadful. There may be complex geo-political reasons for this.

But in many communities, housing associations are uniquely placed – with others of course, especially the people who live in them – to create real, positive change. I see them do this every day, when I visit our members up and down the country. They are social and economic anchors.

Homes for the North members directly employ 19,000 people, similar to the combined total of Nissan and Ford, and support another 30,000 jobs. In the Liverpool city region, housing associations have a combined annual turnover of £1 billion and have invested £4.2 million in apprenticeships in the past three years. Build 25 homes in Manchester with housing associations and £1million gross value is added to the local economy.

In short, housing associations are builders, managers, employers and enablers – often helping people into employment and training or to get the benefits they're entitled to. I have seen transformations in some places, but I have also seen failure: places where cash injections from Europe, national and local Government and associations have failed to make any discernible difference at all. Why?

What works? What doesn’t? If you have a few tools in the box, what order do you deploy them in, to get best results? These are the questions we'll be asking, with our Great Places Commission, professionals and stakeholders, over the next year or so. Many people are already working tirelessly to deliver great places, but we want to smooth and expedite that and understand how we can better work alongside the Government in this space.

But the most important people we’ll be talking to are the people who live in the places we manage. Only they know when a stone, isn’t just a stone. When a concrete block isn’t only a concrete block. It’s they who need to tell us what great looks like. 

Find out more about the Great Places programme

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