Life in the Lakes - EHN

March/April 2017

I’d like to start off my blog with a huge ‘thank you’ to David Gibbens for originally setting up the EHN (which was originally called NAEPP) and for regularly ‘going that extra mile’ in dedicating his time to making the EHN the success it is today.  Without David’s passion, time, enthusiasm, terrific eye for detail and ability to understand complex issues, we would not have our current thriving EHN.  We’ll miss you when you retire, David, as no one person could ever replace you.

This set me thinking back to when I ‘posted’ my very first question on the EHN forum (years ago).  I had expected to wait a week or so for a reply from others doing empty homes work, but was hugely appreciative of getting a quick reply, then others started replying too, so I had a lot of very useful advice when I started out in my empty homes role.  Thank you David and all the best for the future!

I’m already looking forward to this year’s EHN conference in Birmingham on 24th May, where David has everything down to a fine art.  There’s the usual wide selection of speakers (including myself on the ‘Rural empty homes strategy’ panel and David Sanderson from Carlisle on ‘Making the case for an Empty Homes Officer’).  And it’s always great to learn new ways to help our empty home owners and to ‘network’ with new and old colleagues.   

On the conference programme is Helen Williams of Empty Homes (Agency) who will be talking about ‘The challenge of empty homes’.  Helen visited our Cumbria Empty Property Group back in January and listened to the variety of empty homes issues in our one county whose six regions include one city, towns and rural areas.  Each area has different problems and therefore different solutions are needed.  It was a very fruitful discussion and exchange of ideas and hugely useful and supportive.

Best wishes from the Lakes,

Lynne Leach, Empty Homes Officer, South Lakeland District Council

Comments

Hi Lynne

Thanks for your kind words but I really must correct the impression that it was I who set up EHN. In fact Paul Palmer, then of Newham, was the guy that initiated the first meeting - to the best of my knowledge - and right from the beginning it was very much a collective effort.

I couldn't make the inaugural meeting in London, and probably it was the second or third one before I was able to attend as Chair of the South West Empty Homes Forum. What I had done, though, quite independently of these ealy moves, was set up an email group for empty homes officers, so empty homes officers already had a mechanism for communicating with one another. 

There were representatives from each forum at that meeting, which was pretty large - 15 people or more I'd say. We used to meet at the British Property Federation, thanks to some judicious persuasion by the Empty Homes Agency.

Along with Paul, I can remember Darryl Lawrence (now Rochdale but then from somewhere on the South coast) and Keith Gunner (Southampton) being present, but I can't place any others from amongst our 525-strong current membership. If you were there, please say!

There was a Parliamentary launch of the National Association of Empty Property Practitioners in May 2001 with a little bit of funding from a Housing Corporation Innovation and Good Practice grant again secured by the EHA. I think we had champagne and a goverment minister. By this time Paul had moved to the EHA as their full-time 'Local Authority Executive'.  (Those were the days: it as a post funded by whatever DCLG was then called).

When we launched, we had about 80 paying members - there was no Associate membership option - but the admin was all handled by the EHA and we did not have our own bank account. Technically, we did not really exist despite having launched.

The initial phase of our existence culminated in our first Conference and AGM, held in Coventry in November 2002. The Consitution was agreed a bit later, by email. And so we came into existence as a quasi-legal entity (despite having already launched over 18 months previously!) Admin for the 2002 Conference was handled by the Chartered Institute of Housing, who took all the income - we made nothing.

After the initial enthusiasm we started to face the challenge of 'now what?' We were proud of our first newsletter - a glossy hard-copy that needed to be posted to all our members - but began to realise that we were on a treadmill.  Nothing to do but buckle down and get on with the next one - but who would actually write what?  We put on a range of courses jointly with the CIH. They were nearly all cancelled because of a lack of interest (minimum numbers were 10).  Feedback was not terribly good - particularly the one where the trainer didn't turn up!

There were some tensions with the Empty Homes Agency - Paul had left the EHA, to be replaced by our then Chair; however, she then herself resigned from NAEPP in what might reasonably be called a huff. 

I started to play a more central role at this time, as I was determined that the organisation should not die. So I perhaps foolishly volunteered to become Treasurer, taking responsiblity for memberhip, and set about engineering genuine independence from the EHA by setting up our own bank account and requesting the transfer of the 'NAEPP" money from the EHA. That process had concluded by Autumn 2004. 

By this time, too, someone was being paid to do the admin, such as it was, as I couldn't deal with it alongside my day-job. So at least some kind of infrastructure was starting to be laid down.

However, none of this fixed the underlying issues,  Grand 'Business Plans' were produced but didn't come to anything. Attendance at the Executive meetings, which at that time were supposed to be quarterly, started to ebb away. Meetings were now being held in odd places such as the Troubadour club in West London, where people like Simon and Garfunkel had performed in the 60s.  As numbers declined we couldn't justify the cost of the meeting room and ended up in a small side-area in the main bar - just fourof us on occasion. We were not clear what our members were supposed to be getting for all this and so declined to charge membership subscriptions for a couple of years.

The first turning point was probably the creation of the website, a task which I took on, and which involved a lot of hunting around to find the best platform.  The development of the initial site occupied me and a consultant over a very hot Autumn bank holiday weekend in 2005. We finally had something that our members could get some benefit from day in, day out.  The mailing group, which was still in existence, was wound down a litte while later. We created Associate status so that non-members could participate in the website, although they couldn't use the Information Library.

Our 2007 Conference was another milestone. We organised it ourselves this time and established the 'income-share' model whereby the person doing all the work also took a big chunk of the financial benefit.

The next key event was when we put the whole organisation onto the same basis, with me leaving my job - I was at that time the Housing Enabling Manager at Exeter City Council - to support EHN on the basis of sharing in the income. It was not a move made for financial reasons - my income reduced to under a half of what it had been. But it did provide more autonomy - I was supposed to be writing a book, which I have so far spectacularly failed to do - and the satisfaction of really being able to build EHN in a way that simply wasn't possible before.

I think our model remains a rare but valuable template for a small, niche organisation such as ours. I perhaps mourn the morally higher ground I occupied prior to 2009, when everything I did was on a voluntary basis. But our current model has a simple and effective logic to it: the stronger I can make the organisation, the more I earn. On the other hand, it does seem to make my profile over-prominent and gives a somewhat misleading impression of how EHN works.

Interestingly, concentrating the day-to-day running in one pair of hands also allowed the Executive to flourish. New faces appeared and were enthused by what they found. We got added impetus in 2010 with a further Conference, since then an annual event, and from the launch of the Coalition's empty homes programme in 2011.

As with any not-for-profit, whatever the paid staff do, the well-being of the organisation hinges on the dedication of the volunteers behind the scenes - our Officers and Executive - who keep the thing ticking over and on track. So we are collective through and through.

David Gibbens

 

 

David, that was a fascinating insight into how the EHN became what it is today, thank you.  I did chuckle at the unusual locations of the early meetings, like the Troubadour Club!  You WILL get that book written I'm sure, once you have more leisure time on your hands.  So it just remains for me to thank everyone involved in setting up and running with our empty homes network.  It's our one constant, particularly for those of us who work in councils where we are the only person doing empty homes work - it feels like an invisible online support network and often offers solutions to our empty homes problems.  Best wishes to you, David,

Lynne Leach, South Lakeland District Council

Lynne Leach