If Theresa May wants to build a country that works for everyone, she should come and talk with housing associations. That’s what we do.

  • One of the most successful private/public partnerships, mixing social conscience with commercial skill
  • Manage 2.5m homes for 5m people across England
  • Provide homes for all of society, for the young and old, for those starting out or those that need a bit of extra help
  • Built 46,000 affordable homes for people in housing need last year, to rent or buy – that’s 37% of all homes built
  • Work hard, alongside local authorities and partners, to make great places to live and work
  • Generated £3bn of surplus, a profit for a purpose, which is reinvested in homes and services
  • For those that need it, work with residents on employment and skills to help them back to work or retrain for a new career
  • Invested £1.9bn in existing homes, including keeping bills down by making homes more energy efficient
  • Major employers, investing in local communities and businesses, improving estates, bringing groups together and working to tackle anti-social behaviour
  • Directly employed 12,000 apprentices over the last three years
  • Built 3,500 market rent or outright sale – providing good landlord services for those in private rent

Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments section below.

As demand and prices continue to rise, quality and affordable housing remains out of reach for many.

It’s #housingday. Today, be proud of what the sector does, enjoy the stories, and then get back to it.

Work hard and try new ways to be better, more efficient, more effective, so that we can do more for people. Build more homes, invest more, make more of a difference for our current residents – as well as that growing group of people in need of a housing association home.

(Sources: A mixture of National Housing Federation, DCLG and the Homes and Communities Agency.)

Does #ukhousing need activism or slacktavism?

My arms hurt. It’s day 7 of my #22pushups challenge, the latest social media craze, where people are posting videos of themselves doing (in my case terrible) push ups.

Here’s my day one video, with a little help from my boy.

It’s got people engaging, sharing and talking about veteran mental health – an issue that doesn’t normally get attention. But is this just ‘slacktivism’? Do people just feel like they’re making a difference with minimal impact?

And is there anything #ukhousing can learn from these crazes?

The #22pushups challenge

The challenge was started by #22KILL, a campaign group based in the US – to honour those who serve and to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention through education and empowerment.

The ‘22’ bit comes from a survey in 2013, which said 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the US.

Here in the UK, CombatStress, a mental health charity for veterans, is supporting the campaign, seeking donations to help those veterans left battling stress and depression.

But does it DO anything?

It’s a PR dream. Huge celebrity endorsement. Wall to wall media coverage around the world. Social media is stuffed full of people talking about the issue with their friends (for 22 days each!).

The problem is the original message can get lost in translation. It becomes just a challenge, rather than connected to the original cause or issue. And sometimes charities and causes bustle with each other for the online attention – and donations.

As I’ve done the challenge I’ve donated to Combat Stress, something I probably wouldn’t have done unless I’d taken part and gone on to find out more about the issue.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t donate to the last charity that posted something through my door, hassled me in the street or paid for an advert on the TV.

Another success story was the Ice Bucket Challenge. The money raised for ALS has left a lasting impression, as their infographic shows.

InfoGBut, as with all trends, the world moves on, and the issue often remains unsolved. This is never truer than the headlines about the Calais refugee camp running out of food as donations dry up – other issues have crowded it out, for now.

Is activism better?

Junior doctors are proving that activism can get your cause attention with a bit of rebellion. But will it ultimately get them the result they want?

I have an occasional photography blog on Facebook called One Million Lives. It’s a collection of photos and stories.

One incredible person I met was Angie Zelter, a campaigner and founder of a huge number of international pressure groups. She started her activism career chained to the fences of the US base at Greenham Common in the mid 1980s, protesting about the nuclear weapons there.

Angie_4_webThat passion has grown and intensified, and I met her outside one of the AWE (Atomic Weapon Establishment) sites in Berkshire in the summer, where she’d organised a month-long protest.

She was passionate, informed and has dedicated her life to this cause.

But despite this, media coverage was light, her message didn’t carry to the masses. MPs voted heavily in favour of renewing Trident just weeks later.

So what can housing learn?

#Ukhousing has felt that it’s struggled to get its voice heard for many years.

There have been some great campaigns, with lots of engagement – you can never doubt people working in the sector don’t believe in its importance or social purpose.

But we’ve not struck on a moment recently, mixing the activism – to fight for what we feel is right – with a slacktivism hook that gets people talking, engaging and sharing. That gets the housing crisis on the front page of the Daily Mail. That gets politicians clamouring for change.

The last time we had that powerful connection with the public was when Cathy Come Home appeared on our TV screens some 50 years ago.

We could do with another moment, but more than that, we need a movement.

A moment or a movement?

As Ken Loach said of Cathy Come Home, ‘a film isn’t a movement, it’s just a film. A film can agitate a little, illustrate, but it’s part of the process. Unless you organise, nothing much will happen – people turn off the telly or walk out of the cinema and that’s it’.

A moment is not enough for what we need.

Dan Slee asked Twitter this week what were the three main challenges facing the sector. It was a good list. Lack of money, lack of houses, welfare reform and so on.

As well as needing a long-term, non-political plan to meet the broad housing needs of the country, the main problem, in my view, is that housing’s stakeholder map encompasses everyone.

Whether you’re a politician, a landlord, a developer or a labourer. Whether you’re a renter, a homeowner, a landowner… or none of the above.

Everyone has a stake in the game.

As the sector comes under greater and greater pressure, housing communicators have a vital role to play in bringing people together through a shared cause.

This means getting the story right, absolutely. But this also means focusing on fostering the right relationships – strengthening some, rebooting others. With so much change politically this year, if anything now is the right time to take stock and rethink how those with a role in housing can make it work for everyone.

Yes, we need to agitate, to create a moment that connects people with housing – but it’s only through true, new and progressive relationships that we’ll build the homes our communities need, at prices they can afford.

Right, I’m off to film my first #HomeRun challenge.

Housing perception survey 2016

Four out of five people agree there’s a housing crisis.

Crisis means different things to different people, but a recent survey revealed the root is the same: decent, affordable homes are becoming harder and harder to find.

What is more surprising perhaps is that four out of five people would also accept more development where they live, so maybe we’re not a nation of ‘not in my back yard’ after all. We’ll need that local support for housebuilding given we need around 300,000 new homes each year, double the levels we’re building right now.

I feel like I’m never going to be able to buy a house and that scares me. What happens when I retire?

Female, 25-34, south east, private rent

And the survey says…

I’ve worked in housing for many years now, and I’ve seen how something as simple as a house is intrinsically bundled up with people’s emotions, their aspirations and their financial security.

It’s not just a castle for an Englishman. It’s a bank, a springboard, a safety net, an investment, an inheritance, a pension.

So I decided to carry out a survey. As house prices cannot carry on booming, I particularly wanted to track the trends as the market shifted, but mostly I wanted to hear firsthand what housing meant to people.

I had around 140 responses, mostly through Facebook and Twitter, spread right across England and Wales, from homeowners to renters, from families to singles.

The majority were in the south east and I appreciate it’s a small sample size. But what was most eye opening were the individual stories that people shared. Housing, the place we call home, is so vital to our quality of life.

I was homeless for 3 months last year! The b&bs around our area were bursting at the seems. My housing officer said its the worst they’ve seen since they’ve worked here.

Female, 35-44, Yorkshire and The Humber, private rent

When is a crisis a crisis?

A third (32%) of respondents said they were worried about keeping up with their mortgage or rental payments.

Given record-low interest rates, this was higher than I was expecting. But, on average, houses cost first time buyers 4.5 times average incomes in the south east – up from 2.6 times in 1996.

Where I live, a 3 bedroom home can cost £500,000.

Getting on the property ladder to be a first time buyer is near on impossible despite good incomes the deposits are astronomical.

Female, 25-34, south east, social/affordable rent

And low rates often benefits those with a home, bought a lower price and with some equity. Those buying at a peak of house prices will take on a larger debt, albeit at low rates. Should rates rise payments will quickly become more difficult to meet.

(Note: the survey was before the EU referendum, so people may feel more secure if rates stay low or fall as they’re expected to in the short term.)

As well as house prices, rents have been on the up over the last few years (as the graph shows below), while wages haven’t kept up.

What should government do?

Government has always been interested in the housing market. It impacts on jobs and economic growth, consumer confidence and spending, social mobility, health and education – it affects the income government can receive from taxes and it simply makes people feel wealthy. It’s importance is not in question, but where government gets involved – or leaves to the market – varies greatly.

The survey question assumed that government would invest in housing, and respondents were split fairly evenly on where they thought they should put the money.

Not surprisingly affordable homes to buy topped the shopping list, but affordable homes to rent was seen as a slightly greater priority than helping first time buyers. 

Perhaps, the solution is about combining cheap, long-term finance options for those starting out with building more homes that everyone can afford, from first-time buyers to those looking for the home for life.img_7659

It was reassuring to see tackling homeless was a priority given the survey was an exclusively housed group of people. But interestingly private rent was low down the list, as was older person’s accommodation.

Perhaps the reason for the latter was because most respondents fell in the 24-45 range, but the issue of decent, affordable housing – with the right level of care and support – will only get more important as our population ages.

What are housing associations for?

I work for a housing association, and have been in this sector for about seven years now.

Since I’ve been here there’s been a concern that the sector doesn’t have a unified voice, a single elevator pitch for what it’s for.

img_7655This is reflected in the words people used to describe housing associations (left). People know we provide affordable homes, they know we’re ‘social’ or charitable and many are positive about the difference they make.

When asked about where their priorities should lie, while being a good landlord was the main focus, they recognised housing associations role in building new homes too.

Interestingly, and probably not surprisingly however, people didn’t see  helping those on middle-incomes as such a high priority. These housing options, such as shared ownership and private rent, do meet a need (people on middle incomes can also struggle to buy a home while some want the flexibility that comes with renting).

img_7658While you can argue whether it is for housing associations to meet these needs, the truth is that to build more affordable housing, housing associations have had to change how they operate. In the past, housing associations would have received government grant to subsidise the construction of a home so it can be rented at sub-market rents. This grant has all but dried up, so housing associations have been adapting, seeking other sources of finance to keep the building going.

Selling properties and providing more homes for private rent is one way to bring in more money to replace the grant. This income then makes it possible for housing associations to build more affordable homes and provide services for those that need them.

Housing associations provide a vital safety net for vulnerable people.

Female, 35-44, London, own – mortgage

Housing associations may not always get it right but they are doing their best and have a hugely important role in helping people who are usually doing their best to get on in difficult circumstances.

Female, 45-54, south east, own – mortgage

How to solve the housing crisis

We’re not building enough homes, many are not available at a price – to rent or buy – that people can afford and that meet the needs of our changing and ageing communities.

There is no way the housing crisis will be solved, as no-one is doing enough about it – government, housing associations or councils.

Male, 25-34, South East, private rent

The main levers government has to affect housebuilding are planning, investment and regulation.

But getting the balance right, given financial and political constraints, is the challenge. If you bring one down, you need to dial others up. For example, if you reduce investment you could mitigate the impact by removing planning restrictions and red-tape. But you don’t want to reduce it too far or you could impact the quality of the homes or not build the types of homes that meet the broad range of needs in an area.

Government can try to force those who can build but don’t (or are not building the type of housing needed, or not quickly enough) while incentivising those that want to build, but can’t.

I believe that housing associations have a big role to play. Last year the top 50 housing associations built 40,000 homes (Subscription required). This is a decent effort, but we need to go much further.

I disagree with the respondent that said government, housing associations and councils don’t want to solve the housing crisis. They all do, and, in difficult and uncertain circumstances are doing what they can to build more homes.

But what struck me most from this survey, which came through strongly in the individual stories, is how many different types of crisis’ there are. Every person, couple and family, at each stage of life need a safe and secure home.

The challenge is knowing which crisis to solve first.

A divided kingdom

We woke to a new reality on Friday 24 June, and a new direction for our country.

If, like me, you’d hoped to remain, I’m sure it was a disappointing moment when you realised the result had gone against you.

If you’d voted to leave, I’m sure you’ll be excited that the United Kingdom will have the chance to take back control of its destiny and stand on its own two feet.

As the dust settled, the pundits have looked for reasons why we turned away from Europe.

You could blame anti-immigration, anti-Conservative, anti-Cameron or anti-Corbyn, anti-European or anti-establishment. You could blame years of EU-myths and the right-wing media. You could say it was about freedom, fear or hate.

But it was probably all of them. And what this referendum has revealed, especially when combined with the divisive general election results, is how fractured we are right now.

A very British revolution

Owen Jones in the Guardian wrote that this was a working class revolt, with millions fed up with the system. And when there was nothing to lose, leaving, making a change, was never a gamble. It’s true that for so many the system has failed them again and again.

Meanwhile the young have been left speechless and powerless. Politics is cyclical, and with 75% of 18-24 year olds voting remain, the next generation will have their day, someday.

Migrants and European workers in Britain will be uncertain about what the future holds for them – and what their place is in their communities is.

The butterfly effect

The ripples from the vote are already being felt.

The markets and pound crashed (and bounced), some big businesses and financial institutions revealed plans to leave themselves, our EU neighbours postured (some calling for a quick exit and tough deals and others demanding their own referendums), and political leaders toppled (or perhaps began to topple slowly). While Spain eyes up Gibraltar, it’s likely, and understandable, that Scotland and Northern  Ireland will try to seek their own freedoms too.

David Cameron promised One Nation politics. Sadly his legacy will be a country that’s never been more divided.

This may be a short, sharp shock. It may be the start of another recession, job losses, falling house prices and rising costs of living. We’ll see, no one could really predict the future on the campaign trail.

I’m sure we’ll all roll our sleeves up and get on with it and we’ll make Britain a success in the long run. But we’ll be judged on our efforts, there’ll be no-one else to blame or bail us out from now on.

Stronger, together

But the real challenge is how we get our society back together.

The first step will be for both ‘remainers’ and ‘brexiteers’ to work towards building a new country together (I’m working through the change curve, I promise, I’ll get there).

Theresa May’s leadership – and her choices for her top government posts – will be crucial in starting to heal the country and recreate much-needed stability. Her vision of a country that works for everyone is an honourable one – one that Cameron would have endorsed – now we’ll see how successful she can be.

And we all, and I mean all of us not just the political class, will have to stand up and start healing the rifts.

Whether you backed remain or leave, hold Labour, Liberal or Conservative views, we now have to make the most of this opportunity, put the past few months behind us, reengage positively with our neighbours, next door, across the channel and online, and try to reunite our United Kingdom.

Is time running out to save Great Britain?

At 10pm on Thursday 23 June, polling stations across the country will close. Boxes stuffed full of scraps of paper will be taken to halls to be counted and, unlike a General Election, the result will have irreversible and lasting ramifications.

It’s a big responsibility.

So it’s a decision for the head, right?

I’ll admit, when the referendum was called I intuitively felt remain was the right choice. But I wanted facts. What frustrated me was both sides claimed to be the expert on every topic – the economy, immigration, education, the environment, housing and so on. Facts, ones you can be really confident in, were, and remain, hard to find.

But almost all world leaders, scientists and most economists seem to back remain. In the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, which actually backs leave, they listed the main supporters for both sides. On the leave side they included Ian Botham and Sol Campbell. While Beefy is an excellent cricket pundit, 14 centuries and 383 Test wickets does not make him an expert on what’s best for a nation.

So it’s got to be heart then

I want Great Britain to be a country the rest of the world looks towards. We’re a small island with a big history, a nation of just 65 million people that has grown to have a large say on the way of life of the 7.4 billion people living around the world.

We’re lucky that we remain in a position to show the world what democracy can achieve and that we make the right decisions when push comes to shove. As a nation we feel deeply, and we give what we can. The outpouring of vigils, words and even financial support for Jo Cox’s fund in the days after her murder is just one example.

Times are tough right now, I know years of austerity makes it more difficult to look beyond our own homes and family’s needs, but we shouldn’t neglect our moral duty to stand up for those that cannot stand up for themselves around Europe and the world. Immigration is an issue, so let’s have a grown up debate, but by leaving the EU and taking the ‘Trump’ approach to our borders is not one that’s good for us or the world.

And it’s true that anti-EU feeling is not a UK-only trait. Brexit could lead to others following, a splintering of the continent that has brought decades of peace and prosperity to so many.

The UK should be a country that leads. And no-one leads from the back of the pack, let alone from the sidelines.

It’s not just a vote for you

I’ve got two kids, aged one and four. If we leave, what will they ask when they look back at the referendum in their history lessons in ten years or so?

They may ask why we isolated ourselves when the world was moving towards greater collaboration. They may ask why, after the ‘empire’ had collapsed, we thought a return to greatness was through severing ties with our closest neighbours. They may want to know how we couldn’t see it as the first step towards the end of the United Kingdom itself.

Stronger, together

There’s a reason nearly all major companies have collaboration as a ‘value’. Why, when the world is becoming a more competitive market place, would UK PLC want to purposefully put itself into a silo?

The EU obviously has faults, like all major governance structures. But what the EU does is create an opportunity to make a difference on the big issues of our time. Issues that don’t follow borders or respect a national flag.

Tackling terrorism and crime, alleviating poverty, making major companies pay fair taxes, peace keeping and environmental threats – they all need more collaboration, not less.

Ticking the box

I’m sure all these arguments could be reversed, but I know I’ll vote to remain on Thursday. I’ll vote for a future within the EU because I believe the UK is stronger by keeping our seat at the top European table, that it’s the right thing to do to use our influence to do more for our people at home and around the world.

I’ll do it because I think it’s the right choice for my children and, one day, my grandchildren.

But, honestly, I fear that we’ll decide to leave this week, or, maybe worse, we’ll vote remain by such a narrow margin that all the hatred and divisions created by this campaign will never get the chance to heal.

Housing Perception Survey 2016

IMG_0793Housing probably seems pretty dull right? But we all want a safe and secure place to call home don’t we? Without it, everything else just doesn’t work.

I work in housing, and I’m surprisingly passionate about it. I write about it here on my blog (along with politics and PR) and I’m currently researching peoples’ views of housing in England and Wales.

I want to better understand what people think about their home, new development, affordability and to get opinions on the role of housing associations too.

So, I’ve put together a really simple, 100% anonymous and no-more-than-10-minute Housing Perceptions survey to get as many thoughts and views as possible.

I hope you can take part too. The survey will close Friday 27 May, and I’ll share the statistics and the stories right here on my blog in June.

Please do come back to see what the survey says or, if you’d like, you can subscribe by email to my blog so you don’t miss the results.

The big stories on Super Thursday

It’s Super Thursday, with voters heading to the polls across the country. Here are some of the big stories to watch out for.

Has the Panama Papers scandal and EU rift damaged the Conservatives?

Cameron concernsA few months ago the Conservatives were unstoppable. Even with a small majority, they were pushing legislation through parliament at pace while the media focused on the chaos on the other side of the House.

And then came Europe and Iain Duncan Smith’s astonishing attack on his former cabinet colleagues. Since then the party has been divided as Conservative heavyweights campaign against each other ahead of the EU referendum next month.

Throw in the Panama Papers scandal and Cameron’s particularly uncomfortable week as he slowly revealed his own family involvement – and it could be an uncomfortable night for government.

Can Corbyn continue the recovery?

Take a bow CorbynIt seems a long time since Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph.

While the party has been hit by a divisive anti-Semitism row, Corbyn and his grassroots supporters have survived longer than any commentator expected.

But today is the first public test of Corbyn’s leadership. Labour are likely to win back London, but will that be enough to show the party is getting back on its feet?

Have the Liberal Democrats delivered on their fight back promise?

IMG_7248Paddy Ashdown eating his own hat is a haunting image of the 2015 general election. The polls had been so wrong and the LibDems were in ruins.

Tim Farron picked up the reins from Nick Clegg and started what he called a fightback. There were good early signs with a big spike in new memberships, but the damage has been done and today will be too soon for the Liberals to make a significant step in returning to former glory.

Can 16-year-olds be trusted with a vote?

IMG_7250In Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds will join their more mature peers to cast their vote. Not so for those south of the border and government blocked moves to extend the vote to these teenagers for the EU referendum.

But it’s a step in the right direction, engaging the younger generation in politics and hopefully one day every 16 year old will have a say.

Will UKIP make local elections a signal post for the EU ref next month?

IMG_7251The smaller, topical parties will be hoping to ride anti-European sentiment into local councils.

With the EU referendum next month, today’s votes could throw up a few surprises. While many won’t win seats, a good show of national votes for Brexit parties will make Cameron and the StrongerIn campaign very nervous.

How will voters react to an evolving language of politics?

hustings01In the US, a defining policy of Republican Donald Trump was the Trump Wall to keep immigrants out. Here in London, Zac Goldsmith was criticised for a ‘passionate plea’ in the Mail on Sunday – which included an image of the 2005 London bombings.

The language of politics and politicians defines and reflects the society and culture in which we live. Zac apologised and blamed poor picture choice, but the article was an attack on his opposite number, far more than setting out a vision for the world leading city he believes London can become.

But, while this approach has been criticised online and the doorstep, will it make the difference when a voter is behind the curtain casting their vote?

Is it good enough, to just do good?

signThere’s no denying Kids Company, the charity run by the iconic Camila Batmanghelidjh, did great things to help inner city children during its 20 years.

But serious financial and governance problems caused it to close its doors; and it’s perhaps the most famous example that doing good, in the end, wasn’t good enough.

Housing associations are charitable, which means they’re not-for-profit, no shareholders expecting a return on their money, and any profits are put back into new homes and services. Housing associations are well known for providing homes for those in housing need, investing in services that help their residents get on in life, and working to build great places to live.

They’re officially public sector bodies right now too, but later this year, they’ll be deregulated by government.

Deregulation will bring new freedoms to a sector that has been tied closely to national and local government for so long. And with increasing control over its own destiny, pressure and expectations for it to deliver – both for its residents as well as building much-needed new homes – can only increase with it.

So, in this new world as private, commercial organisations, will doing good be good enough? Or, like Kids Company, can they carry on doing good if their businesses are not good enough?

A balancing act

There’s always been a need for housing associations to balance three interlinked but sometimes conflicting pressures. What’s best for the business? What’s best for current and future residents? What’s best for society?

Government policy – rent reductions, benefit changes, an unerring focus on homeownership – will continue to pile on the pressure on housing associations to deliver, threatening to unsettle this delicate balancing act.

So, associations, particularly at Board level, will need to be alive to this, and not allow commercial objectives overshadow the social purpose – and vice versa.

Getting the governance right

Just like at Kids Company, Boards have such a crucial role to the success of their organisation.

There are some excellent chairs and Board members from associations large and small, who bring substantial experience and a range of skills, from housing and other industries.

But these Boards will be tested in a deregulated world, and collectively they will need to ensure they have the right skills and experience round the table as the world continues to change around them.

They also have to lead, setting and scrutinising an appropriate strategy, making sure the business is strong and stable enough to navigate difficult waters, achieving commercial and financial success alongside demonstrable social impact.

Given the pressure to increase homeownership and the financial benefits of an expanding private rent portfolio, they must also act as the guardians of the homes our communities need for an affordable rent (with a very deliberate lower case).

Keeping the money coming

Deregulation will obviously move housing associations away from the financial safety of the government and its Treasury. They’ll still be sound places for investment, but lenders may well be more wary.

Government grant has all but dried up for affordable homes and when you add in the rent reduction, which devalues a housing associations assets, lenders might lose their appetite for housing or at the very least impact the low interest rates the sector has enjoyed for so long.

When I’ve met funders who’ve supported housing associations, they wanted to see that healthy surplus and strong balance sheet – but they also wanted to see that social ethos too. It is that balancing act again.

Redefining partnerships

It’s certainly time for new partnerships. After a rocky start a working relationship is forming with government – housing associations can be the answer to the conundrum of how to build one million new homes. But there’s also a need to redefine the way they work with local government. This historically close relationship is under strain as they try to balance the books while meeting the needs of their communities.

Ultimately we share similar values and objectives and can help each other, but it needs to be an equal and open relationship. We’ll need to work closely to make housing developments viable and affordable.

And, of course, true joint ventures with housebuilders will get more homes built, share risk and provide benefits for all partners and the community at large.

But what about doing good?

Expectations on a deregulated housing association sector will certainly continue to rise. Government wants them to build, build, build. Local authorities want them to meet their local housing needs. Lenders want a safe return on their investment. Residents, rightly, demand a decent home and a service to match.

Ultimately new freedoms will give housing associations more control over their destiny. Freeing them to build more and do more. They’ll have to behave like a business and think like a charity.

I know there’s some concerns over the so-called ‘mega mergers’,  but as long as the starting point for discussions is whether they can do more good and provide decent services by becoming stronger businesses, then it should be encouraged.

In the end, what makes housing associations different is that every decision is a balancing act at all; they’re social businesses in the truest sense. Each decision should continue to balance the benefits to current and future residents and wider society, as well as the commercial gain.

So this social ethos will be tested when the sector gets hold of its new freedoms and flexibilities, but I’m sure that doing good, but doing it even better, will remain central to their purpose.

Is storytelling really just about talent?

Whether you’re working on a novel, annual report or a corporate case study, is great writing really just about talent and creativity?

As a journalist and PR, I’ve done plenty of the latter, but I’ve not written a long creative piece since I finished a novella at university…which was some years ago. However last month, armed with an idea, I started work on a novella – but have had little success so far.

I know I can write, so what was the problem? Was it writer’s block? A lack of inspiration perhaps?

As I struggled to get creative, I turned to some great writers to better understand what makes storytelling happen – and found there were some basic rules to building a story that I needed to understand before I could find any of this mythical free flowing creativity.

There are just two types of stories

At the very foundation, there are just two types of stories. And it is believed Homer – the Greek one – defined them both when he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey around the 8th century.

In the Illiad he chronicled a few weeks of the decade-long Trojan war, while the Odyssey follows Odysseus’ perilous journey home after that battle.

Homer's Iliad - the original siege story

Homer’s Iliad – the original siege story

The siege

The action comes to the main character, and the drama often comes from the abilty of the main protagonist to resist and endure.

The Iliad…or The Martian.



  The Quest or Journey

The main character has to move forward, taking action which require courage and intuitive

The Odyssey…or Star Wars

Applying this to my emerging story, I was able to lay the platform from which to build the narrative. It’s to be a siege.

Every story has a shape

On top of these simple foundations, Kurt Vonnegut explored the shapes of stories – and his work was turned into a brilliant infographic by Maya Eilam.

Kurt Vonnegut's Shapes of Stories

Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories

What these stories have in common is there is always a change, a problem or an interruption that sparks or forces a reflection, a reaction or a transformation within the characters.

For example, this is a pretty terrible idea for a story:

A man and his wife have been having problems. But they sort their problems out.

Whereas this could be the start of a summer blockbuster:

A man and his wife are having problems. Aliens land. They are forced to work together in order to save the world. They sort their problems out.

Although I think Will Smith may have done this one already.

There are obvious exceptions, writers such as David Mitchell often tear this rule book up, but before I started to write I took some time to work out the shape of my story.

It’s roughly boy meets girl, but with an extra bump or two.

The rules of write club

Now I’ve got my story structure and shape, I’m turning to write.

And, having now consulted the thoughts of many successful writers, here are some of the other nuggets I’ve found to help turn a blank page into something you’d be proud to share.

Read. Read all the time. You can’t be a great writer if you’re not a great reader.

Write. Write every day. At the same time if you can. Ritual, habit, consistency – it’s like training for a marathon, it’s hard, sometimes you won’t want to, it’s raining and there’s something good on the tele…just write.

Plan ahead. In order to keep the complicated narrative on track JK Rowling plotted  her books using a simple, hand-drawn spreadsheet. Know where your story is going.

No distractions. In a world with endless TV channels and 6,000 tweets tweeted every second you should unplug from the noise for a bit.

Write, reread, revise – repeat– Write it all down, tell yourself the whole story, then go back and hack away at it until only the words that really count are left.

Don’t be constrained by what you know.Research it, read about it, talk to people about it – then write about it. Otherwise our imagination can never travel far. As far as we know, JK Rowling is not a wizard.

For more advice, from a man that’s sold 350 million or so books, have a look at the great tips on how to write by Stephen King.

And now, the Dénouement

Whether you’re stuck with a piece of writing, or have been putting off starting that book you’d always wanted to write, I hope some of these tips have been useful to get your project on track, they’ve certainly helped me.

But the best piece of advice I’ve found, among the vast swathes of writers writing about writing, is to be yourself. Find your voice, write your way, and most importantly write for yourself first – enjoy it.

With my plot plotted and characters taking on a life of their own, I’m planning to have my novella finished by the end of this month. Wish me luck.

I hope the ending for my writing story is, as Kurt would say, New Testament, off-the-chart bliss.

Has Cathy Come Home yet?

CathyOk. I admit it. I’ve worked in housing for many years and I’d not seen Cathy Come Home. When people mentioned it I’d nod knowingly and quickly move the conversation on.

Well, enough was enough. So last night I watched the famous Ken Loach film.

And while the documentary turns 50 in November this year it was still a hard-hitting, incisive and emotional story of how a family can, through some poor luck and a couple of bad choices, fall to the deepest depths – and be failed by the society around them.

When it aired in 1966, 12 million people watched, a quarter of the population, caused a public outcry, a discussion in parliament and a swell of support for Crisis and Shelter, which were set up within a year of broadcast.

But what has changed?

The slums have gone, and families are no longer split apart, but in a BBC Inside Out interview marking the 40th anniversary, Ken was unconvinced by the lasting impact of his iconic film.

And when he spoke at the National Housing Federation’s Homes for Britain rally last year he said, simply, ‘it is much worse now’.

So what can we learn from the 50-year-old film today?

The spiral can be sharp and fast

The descent from happy couple with a child on the way, living comfortably and dreaming big was rapid. An accident at work, an illness, family and financial breakdown can escalate quickly. Cathy and Reg were an ordinary, everyday family – it could easily have been me and my family.

And without a home, a stable place to build from, it is hard to put the other bits of your life together – as this graphic from Homeless Link starkly sums up.


And just yesterday, The Guardian featured an article on how poor housing affects mental health.

It found children who’ve lived in temporary accommodation for over a year are three times as likely to have mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, compared to their peers.

We’ve not changed our language

We still have a problem about how we talk about people in housing need.

In 1966 you’d hear words like ‘scrounger’, ‘lay about’ and ‘lazy’. That language wasn’t out of place in the skivers v strivers debate a few years ago.

Language matters. How we talk about poverty shapes the policies we create to tackle it.

There’s a great Open University podcast, The Language of Poverty, featuring political commentator @OwenJones84 and social policy lecturer @GerryMooney60, if you want to hear more about this.

We need a new film – but we need a movement more

The film was powerful. 50 years ago many were upset, many signed up to Shelter or gave money.

While much has changed, much has stayed the same too.

It made me want to grab a camera and film a new Cathy Come Home, for 2016 – anyone interested?

But as Ken said: “A film isn’t a movement, it’s just a film. A film can agitate a little, illustrate, but it’s part of the process. Unless you organise, nothing much will happen – people turn off the telly or walk out of the cinema and that’s it.”

The captive BBC audience has gone, but the advent of social media would help spread the idea and the issue quickly. But to solve the housing crisis – tackling homelessness right through to affordable homeownership – can only be possible with a collective, committed long term plan involving government, house builders, local authorities, housing associations and charities.

So when Cathy turns 60, in 2026, I hope we can say how bad things used to be, not be reminded of how far we have to go.