New research indicates the range of positive impacts delivered by the government’s £50million Empty Homes Community Grants Programme and the diversity of organisations that have benefited from it. The evaluation report, authored by David Mullins and Halima Socranie of Housing and Communities Research Group, University of Birmingham, was launched on Tuesday at a meeting attended by over 60 representatives from a wide range of organisations including DCLG and the HCA.
The report focuses on 6 case studies in the Midlands. It is intended to be one of 3 similar “baseline reports” each focusing on different housing markets. As a baseline report, it captures the early experiences of the participating community organisations. At the launch itself, some of those organisations provided brief outlines of their projects. No one who attended could fail to have been impressed by the conviction of the speakers or that their determination to succeed was producing significant outcomes. The research report sketches the range of benefits for individuals and communities – training, employment, resettlement, housing, improvements to local environments, significant upgrades to energy efficiency, the “mended window” syndrome lifting appeal of entire streets…the list goes on.
Notwithstanding the native strengths of the community groups involved, the importance of partnership was also emphasised both at the launch meeting and in the report itself, which noted
Partners again emerged as the key success ingredient from which all others can flow. It is clear that without the combination of support provided by self-help-housing.org and some local authorities take up of the EHCGP would have been substantially lower and delivery less effective.
The role of local authorities as enablers was exemplified by Birmingham City Council, where officers seem to have gone out of their way to draw the attention of local organisations to the opportunities provided by the funding, catalysing the submission of bids. This support was repaid by the ability of the community groups to bring landlords on board in a way that (according to the council rep at the launch meeting) the council itself would have found difficult. The outcome was not just empty homes brought back into use but housing and support for vulnerable households.
The capacity for community organisations to deliver local authority objectives thus deserves to be emphasised. But councils’ ability to benefit by developing the necessarily partnerships seems to depend heavily on the presence of champions within the local authority, whether officers or members: a simple message from the programme is just that we need more champions in the governmental and housing association world. (The presence of champions within the community organisations can generally be assumed – otherwise they would not exist in the first place.)
In the wake of the much-criticised Housing Market Renewal programme, we are advised to scrutinise the evidence provided in research reports about regeneration much more closely than we might hitherto have done. The supposedly research-backed evidence base for the HMR programme has been subject to significant challenge, with opponents claiming that research was influenced by ruling ideologies (“neo-liberalism” in academic parlance) and market factors that directly affected the research institutions themselves, well-captured in the title of a book by Chris Allen (himself an academic) called The Knowledge Business*. Without taking a position on that particular debate, it does remind us of the need to retain our critical faculties when reviewing research outputs.
Looking at the evidence presented here, the methodology described in the report was as follows:
A database of organisations was developed and updated, regional meetings were observed, six case studies were undertaken, each involving up to 5 semi-structured and qualitative interviews with key individuals.
Additionally, “a database was developed to map the growth of the sector and delivery of the programme in the Midlands”.
With no quantitative data presented, we have to trust the professional integrity of the researchers in their selection of quotations from participants and interpretation of the results. But in any case, people with a passing acquaintance with the CGP projects will recognise the picture painted, which confirms numerous anecdotal reports received by EHN. And the researchers themselves are clear that more in-depth research is needed to provide a fuller evidence base with a stronger quantitative element. They have done a solid job with limited resources and relying on significant pro bono input several different directions.
The only slight cavil is that it would have been useful if the profiling of the community organisations in the report had incuded aspects (which are presumably retrievable from the “database”) such as their asset bases, revenue streams and numbers of FTE employees. Where this information came to light in the presentations at the launch meeting it gave us a much more concrete sense of the organisation involved.
And what a written report cannot easily convey – which is not its fault – is just how inspiring these projects can be.
What next for the research programme?
The research was funded by the Building and Social Housing Foundation, which has now established a strong track record in funding research into community-led empty homes initiatives: the new report follows in the wake of reports into self-help housing and the widely-quoted New Tricks with Old Bricks. The earlier report into self-help housing was an essential platform without which the entire CGP funding stream would not have happened. This underlines the importance of research. EHN has long been arguing for a proper evidence base to inform government funding decisions, a point we emphasised at the beginning of the programme in our letter to Andrew Stunell.
So what happens going forwards? The baseline research in the other 3 areas has been started on the back of volunteer work: its completion is not funded, never mind the full research project that would be needed to evaluate the programme properly. It is essential that this research is now funded and we trust that DCLG will ensure that this happens.
Finally, the 6 recommendations were as follows:
1.Set more realistic timescales and provide greater flexibility to enable new non-registered housing providers to take part in programmes such as EHCGP.
2. Join up support and capacity building at local and regional levels to maximise impact and harness support from larger registered providers.
(2a) There is also scope for more coordinated support and to explore ‘buddying’ type partnership models to harness registered housing association’s expertise and experience.
3. Undertake a social audit of the wider impact of the projects through a low burden self-assessment framework to inform future investment, transfer learning and improve practice.
4. Promote Organisational sustainability for community-led groups through continued opportunities to engage in housing and where possible to grow their asset base through asset transfers and purchases.
5. Overcome barriers to accessing properties
6. Stimulate continued bold and innovative thinking by community-led groups.
Of these, Recommendation 2a seems to place a questionable degree of faith in housing associations, given their wholesale withdrawal from this type of work. Undoubtedly individual associations can (and have been) very helpful but the research doesn’t provide much evidence to back up the value of recommendation 2a as a general approach to garnering assistance: community organisations could spend a demoralising time banging on closed doors.
What would seem more productive would be to build a resource around the projects themselves now that they have built up significant experience and expertise.
The task of developing such a resource would seem to fit within the remit of self-help-housing.org, the central role of which (and of its director Jon Fitzmaurice) is highlighted in the report. Self-help-housing.org needs its enabling role to be appreciated and its future secured.
As for Recommendation 6, its heart is no doubt in the right place but it misses the real need. “Bold and innovative thinking” will always emerge from grass-roots organisations: that’s what they do. What we need to stimulate is not more innovation on the part of community groups (welcome though that might be) but innovation on the part of policy-makers and funders whether nationally or locally to recognise the success of the diverse approaches on offer and do something positive, systematically, strategically, structurally, to build on the successes achieved. If Big Society means anything, it means supporting groups like these.
*The Knowledge Business: The Commodification of Urban and Housing Research, Chris Allen and Bob Imrie (Eds.)(Ashgate, 2010).
See also Rethinking the Role of Markets in Urban Renewal: The Housing Market Renewal Initiative in England, David Webb (Housing, Theory and Society,Vol. 27, No. 4, 313–331, 2010. The abstract notes:
The focus here is not on the interests of capital or the material outcomes of urban renewal. Instead,attention is brought to a decision made by housing academics to view neighbourhoods as a market. This has led to the production of a number of complementary narratives. Together, these now form a paradigm which upholds a powerful network of institutional and economic actors and oppresses opposition. This article calls for a greater awareness of the partiality of expert “knowledge”, as well as for the diversification of critical urban perspectives.