27 February 2019

Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, tells us why good neighbourhoods don't just need housing but require investments in people and places too to be able to thrive.

Twenty years ago I was showing a parliamentary candidate around a large council estate close to my then parish. Much money had been spent on the condition of the properties, and yet it had become a place whose residents were desperate to leave. Homes bought under Right to Buy had largely fallen into the hands of private landlords who cared little about anything beyond rental stream. Many other properties lay empty. One community leader spoke memorably of how "every street has its paedophile and its crack house". I couldn't tell if she was exaggerating or not, but a year or two later the decision was taken to demolish the entire estate and start again. Good housing was lost because maintenance of the physical fabric was not matched by any interest in, or responsibility being taken for, the social fabric.

For the last 12 months I've been taking part in a series of visits to different parts of the North and Midlands as part of the National Housing Federation’s Great Places Commission. The conversations we have had with residents, community organisations, housing associations and others have confirmed for me what I saw on that estate two decades ago – that our work is about much more than building and maintaining property.

There's little point in being the landlord of properties where nobody wants to live. Nor is it good stewardship of the homes we have spent large sums building and maintaining to allow the social fabric of the community around them to decline and decay. Above all, we cannot serve our tenants and residents well if we do not do what we can to contribute to their wellbeing outside of the home as well as within it.

In my early days on housing association boards I had been a little wary of straying into the responsibilities of the local authority, lest they might feel we were launching a takeover. Now, after a decade and more of austerity, I know that if housing associations don't take responsibility, there's nobody standing behind us who will pick up the baton. What has encouraged me on my recent journey around the country has been to see so many associations putting huge effort and energy into making great places by being at the heart of community life. Sadly, I've also visited a small number of places where some associations have not simply pulled out of the community, but in doing so have sold up to private landlords whose interests are as narrow today as I saw on that estate 20 years ago.

In Wythenshawe, the large former council estate close by Manchester Airport where I chair the housing association, we lead on youth provision, provide bursaries for those from our local academy who take up university places, make the annual Wythenshawe Games possible, and support the Pride Festival.

Here, and elsewhere I have visited, the work is done not by housing associations alone but in partnership with local individuals and community organisations. Sometimes we lead, sometimes we join in, sometimes we just lend a hand, but always housing associations need to be there, playing our full part. This is the way to both make and maintain a great place.

The Great Places Commission is currently seeking feedback on its interim report, and will use this to develop its final recommendations in the spring.

Dr David Walker

Bishop of Manchester, Chair of Wythenshawe Community Housing Group, and Great Places Commissioner

Investing in housing is not enough – we need to invest in people and places too