17 December 2018

Sonia Thompson, Board Member at Tuntum Housing Association and a Great Places Commissioner, explains why community engagement is essential for creating great places, and offers practical advice on how to do it.

We have learned a lot about loss over the course of the Great Places Commission’s visits to the Midlands and the North – loss of quality employment, transport connections and services. But we have also learned about community, and how it is the people that can make or break a neighbourhood.

‘People make places’ has been the overarching theme throughout our journey. We’ve witnessed the value of community when all around you is failing, but also how hollow and grey life can be when so much around you is disintegrating and there is no effective community to fall back on.

I firmly believe that, for most people, housing associations offer the best opportunity to have a great place to live. But make no mistake – we are asking extremely busy housing associations to become anchor institutions, moving into the space largely vacated by local authorities reeling under the loss of finances and a variety of quangos that were eliminated back in 2010.

So how can housing associations do this effectively? Castle Vale Community Housing is an example of a housing association that has embedded community and high levels of tenant involvement at all organisational levels, including its board. Their example reinforces what we all subliminally are aware of – that you need individuals with commitment to community empowerment operating at the highest levels if you truly want to fuel your housing association using an ‘asset-based community development’ approach, whose premise is that communities can drive development themselves by identifying and mobilising existing but often unrecognised assets.

Tenants and residents have worked well together in Castle Vale to take on a range of increasingly complex projects that benefit the community, from a library to a football stadium and swimming pool. These projects could be considered as just assets but from the community’s point of view each of them has added rewards, from employment and training to creating affordable places to socialise. At the same time, they’re strengthening the community and helping make Castle Vale a better place to live.

When people see others like them getting things done and doing them well, their confidence in themselves and their community grows. The level of trust and self-belief in Castle Vale’s board was extremely high, as was the knowledge and skills – the result of 20 years of community experience and strategic decision making.

Unfortunately this is not the position that most housing associations find themselves in, and many may well be asking where to start. I would argue that community needs to be taken seriously – as seriously as any other aspect of the association’s work. This requires its own strategy, with its own outcomes and success measures. It would be a mistake to simply bolt it onto an existing role, or to be unclear what the benefits to the association would be in getting this work done.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. There are others who have done the work before you and we have found them interested and excited to share their experiences of what worked well – as well as what they would have done differently.

People up and down the Midlands and the North told us that for them a great place to live means more than just a beautiful house in a surrounding desert. So, if we want to be able to say that we, as housing associations, offer great places to live, we would do well to capture the energies, skills and knowledge of our communities and engage them in responding to the issues that they face.

Share your views

Interested in how your organisation can help create great places to live? Get involved in shaping the next exciting phase of the Great Places Commission’s work by reading and responding to our interim report.

We're also hosting three regional workshops in February where members can join us to discuss the Commission's findings so far and shape the final recommendations. Find out more and sign up:

Sonia Thompson

Sonia Thompson, Board Member at Tuntum Housing and Great Places Commissioner

Take community engagement seriously to create great places