Welfare Reform is bringing a sweeping set of changes to the Social Security system in Northern Ireland and will have major implications for social housing tenants. Burying our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, is clearly not the answer … so what is?
Housing Rights and Supporting Communities joined forces to present an exciting conference on May 9th in the Skainos Centre in Belfast, designed to help us all “Think Outside the Box” in order to equip staff and empower tenants to deal with the changes that welfare reform will bring.
Ably chaired by Eileen Patterson from the newly formed Radius Housing, the conference showcased innovative projects from all over the UK that are attempting to address financial exclusion, promote digital inclusion, or to support tenant empowerment. Speakers included:
- Douglas White, Head of Advocacy at Carnegie UK Trust who discussed tackling barriers to digital inclusion and the importance of access to affordable credit, linking digital participation and social and economic justice.
- Emma Hamilton (Centre for Responsible Credit) and Gemma Glass (Amicus Horizon) gave us an overview of their new their Supported Rent Flex project offering individual schedules of rent repayment, such as pre-agreed over and underpayments at certain times of the year. It aims to reduce rent arrears and the need for people to access expensive credit. You could see ears perking up throughout the room as they explained their simple yet imaginative way of helping their tenants and offering truly tailored support.
- Melanie Lavin from 1625 Independent People detailed a peer learning project which helps vulnerable young people develop financial skills and confidence. Her passion and dedication to the work really came through in her presentation and we will surely be watching the Cash Pointers project as it progresses to learn more about peer education as an effective tool.
- We were also very happy to welcome Paul Kelly from Community Gateway Preston back to Belfast to showcase the terrific work being done by the tenants association. The Gateway model really walks the walk in terms of giving tenants ownership and real influence in the business of social housing.
- We heard from Tanya King of Stockport Homes who gave an honest and reflective presentation of what worked and importantly what didn’t when trying to prepare their tenants for welfare reform. She reminded us how important it is to share our failures as well as our successes for the benefit of the people we are trying to serve.
- Last but not least, Shaun More from Blackwood Homes gave us a look at their aptly named Clever Clogs programme which promotes choice and independence for their supported housing tenants.
And, we certainly can’t leave out the excellent presentations and panel members from right here in Northern Ireland who gave us a quick look at the vast range of work being done here at home.
Many thanks to Julie Alexander and Colm McQuillan from NIHE who outlined the innovative work that the Housing Executive is doing to improve financial capability as well as some of the recent initiatives and opportunities for tenants to engage digitally. Grainne Mullin (Radius Housing) and Teresa McCloskey (Apex Housing) also wowed us with a swift, yet edifying outline of the work that they are doing to meet the challenges of welfare reform in the context of digital, financial and tenant empowerment.
The conference demonstrated that there is definitely an appetite to take this conversation further than a one-day event will allow and we hope to facilitate more networking and discussion amongst housing associations through our new social enterprise, Empowering Communities.
The three afternoon “Master Class” sessions proved to be a real highlight of the event. They allowed us to break into smaller groups for deeper discussion and a more hands-on approach. In session A, we heard directly from tenants (Housing Executive and Community Gateway Preston) who are working in a variety of ways in their communities to effect change. Option B was a Money Matters session with Bronagh from Housing Rights and Eddie from Choice Housing which got to the heart of the matter! Option C featured a taster from Barclay’s Digital Eagles who demonstrated the work they are doing to make online banking accessible for everyone. There was so much to talk about, it was hard to break up the breakouts!
In her concluding remarks of the day, Kate McCauley of Housing Rights eloquently summed up themes that had emerged throughout the day’s presentations and discussions:
- Partnership is key and thinking beyond our traditional partnerships will yield new results for us. We definitely need to think outside the box and find new ways to work for and with our tenants.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new. As Eileen said at the beginning of the day, thinking outside the box means “wild ideas might just work!” We learn as much, if not more, from our failures as our successes and it’s going to take our best efforts to mitigate against the effects of welfare reform.
- We must be open to sharing our work. We are all trying to address similar issues and we can and should learn from each other in order to benefit the people who will be hit the hardest by welfare reform. Many conference delegates will be following up with each other on the ideas discussed today and Kate and Laura are already hatching ideas for a follow on event!