What happened at the Summit Special Edition 2021?

Ed Barber, 04 November 2021

With the NHF’s Summit ‘Special Edition’ having come and gone, and with it being my first National Housing Summit experience altogether, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect on some of the highlights from this year’s sessions.

The first (partly) in person National Housing Summit since before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic was a significant moment both for the NHF and the whole social housing sector. We brought senior housing leaders, colleagues and members together, in person as well as online, for a one day extravaganza of insightful discussion and reflection on our sector’s most pressing issues.

The event drew some of the finest minds and most compelling advocates that our great sector has to offer. It showcased some of the inspiring stories of positive action and community cohesion that our members have captured from across this tumultuous period. Contributions from a resident and core Tenant Advisory Panel member also provided a fresh perspective on the day’s events. The food wasn’t too bad either.

Our Summit chair, the BBC’s Mark Easton, kicked us off in what I gather is classic Mark Easton fashion – energy and charisma in abundance.

A roundup of the key sessions

The opening session with Julia Unwin DBE, Civil Society Futures Enquiry Torsten Bell, Resolution Foundation and Ryan Shorthouse, Bright Blue set the tone for the event. With its focus on assessing the economic and political landscape of the social housing sector post-pandemic serving as an effortless stimulus for debate. An intriguing aspect of the discussion was the subtle difference of opinion that emerged between panelists when the question of how and where government funding for levelling up should be allocated was raised.  

Panelists spoke of the need for a bottom-up, community-driven approach where trust and autonomy is granted to the organisations that are best placed to invigorate the high streets, institutions and communities of those places left behind. Others made the point though that bypassing local authorities in efforts to level up runs the risk of dampening councils’ ability to engage in the process and deliver vital services long term.

As expected, levelling up was a common thread throughout the day’s sessions. Discussions around the Social Housing White Paper and consumer regulation continued this trend as Tenant Advisory Panel Vice-Chair Joseph De Ville commented that it is vital to protect and build the social as well as physical fabric of places that people call home. In this way, the improved transparency and accountability within organisations that the White Paper can foster will go a long way to improving the often neglected social fabric of our places.

Coronavirus has made us all consider more closely what our homes are actually for and therefore what we prioritise in our lives. For many, communal spaces outside of the home where neighbours and communities can interact have been a lifeline. The impressive panel on the early afternoon ‘crystal ball’ discussion who attempted to plot a vision for the sector, highlighted the prominent role that these spaces will have in the process of levelling up. Particularly high streets and the buildings and institutions which inspire a sense of civic pride. Incommunities Group’s, Rachael Dennis, St Mungo’s Steve Douglas CBE, Homes England’s Peter Freeman CBE, and MTVH’sand Chair, G15, Geeta Nanda OBE all emphasised the role that housing associations can play in developing these relationships acting as anchor organisations in communities across the country.

But how do we measure an emboldened sense of pride and the success of levelling up more broadly? During a session dedicated to this very question, the social geographer and Oxford University academic, Danny Dorling suggested that psychological measures will be most indicative, more so than changes in housing, health or education inequalities. This is largely because inequalities have become so entrenched and seemingly accepted by leadership that it may take a long time for outcomes in these areas to improve significantly.

The NHF’s Kate Henderson was joined for the closing plenary session by Chris Stark, Committee for Change, Matt Harrison, BEIS, and Chair of the Sustainability Strategy Group Elizabeth Froude. They brought the topic of decarbonisation to the fore, perhaps the sector’s most pressing medium to long-term priority. On a day when the NHF published its very own funding report and guide for members on the journey to net zero by 2050, we were treated to an insightful panel round up of the decarbonisation challenge and of housing associations’ role within it.

A takeaway point of interest was that housing association stock is as varied as the task to decarbonise is complex. Organisations across England will have different priorities and be at different stages of their journey to net zero at present, so boards must have the option and the confidence to progress in a manner that is both beneficial for the planet as well as practical for their residents and stock.

A compelling ‘fireside chat’ featuring Leroy Logan MBE and Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon rounded the day off. It prompted all in attendance to consider topics of racial justice, equality and inclusion. I think it left us all with questions on how much progress we’ve really made, and was an important reminder of the progress we can push for as individuals, as well as leaders of organisations.

Save the date for next year’s event

In all, it was both a stellar first Special Edition for the sector and a memorable first Summit experience for me. It was in equal parts inspiring and challenging, with some immediate issues addressed in a really thought-provoking way. For me it was an apt reminder of how unique events like this are as forums for discussion, debate and the sharing of ideas, and how much we have missed them.

I’m sure I speak for many when I say I eagerly await the return of the National Housing Summit next year, in a full two-day format in Birmingham. Make sure you save the date – 12-13 September 2022