Can I start with a terrible confession which might get me thrown out of the Honourable Company of Politicians forever? I don’t know everything that there is to know about housing! Yes that is obvious to everyone that reads these columns but it’s not supposed to be something that I admit to. You see the myth is that we come out of the egg fully formed. A new Minister of housing is injected with a magic serum which contains everything that there is to know about the subject and can dispense wisdom immediately. A new Cabinet Member for housing in a council has learned at their mother’s knee the intricacies of the HRA.
Total rubbish of course which is why I have a rule about spending at least 5 or 6 days a year taking time out to learn, think and contribute to discussions. My latest trip would be described by some as a jaunt; or a jolly; or a holiday especially so as I had the temerity to go abroad to a mysterious place called Europe. What I was at was the International Housing Summit in Rotterdam and it was worth every penny of the fees, travel and time that my C-Ex, Ken Perry, and I put into it.
It had been my intention to write my column based on one of the things that I heard at the event. But I wouldn’t know where to start. Would it be to tell you about the self-development achievements of Almere? It could be the marvellous work done by the Humanities Foundation whose work could be described as ‘keeping people happy until the day they die’. I pondered about telling you about the excellent work being done by Jon Lord of Bolton at Home in the field of immigration. I was so bowled over by the opening address by Claudio Acioly who told us about some of the problems and solutions from the third world that I could probably write a book about what he said and what I thought. So much to see; so much to learn and so much good practice.
I was also struck by the fact that we were meeting at a time when some people predict that the Eurozone will break up and Europe will go with it. I don’t believe either of these things but we need to be aware of the short term dangers. One work stream at the conference looked at finance issues. If the Eurozone were to break up it would massively increase the cost of borrowing and make it harder to borrow at all. Those people who believe that the Good Ship UK on whose Empire the sun will never set should realise we are not immune to problems in our nearest neighbours. Perhaps as the Euro goes through its disturbances we should be looking at cross Europe financing and cross Europe housing partnerships to ‘bulk’ up our activity to provide a more attractive market.
But instead I am going to talk about the conference itself and why I think international learning and discussion can be even better than UK discussion. I come to this conclusion not only from this and other housing visits I have made overseas but also the work that I do heading up the international work of the Local Government Association.
The first step is to realise that you do need to look outside your own past and the past of the organisation you are part of. Too many people judge the work of their organisation in the past rather than compare it in the present to the best that is around them. My experience of both councils and RSLs is that the best want to do better; the coasters want to keep their head down and the worst don’t know which way is up! That’s why in Rotterdam almost all the people that I knew from the UK are already amongst the best providers in the UK. People like David Cowans and Paul Tennant gave their time to contribute and to listen. If it’s good enough for them it’s certainly good enough for me.
The next step to take is to commit the time in your diary to look and think. I know that this is very difficult. I have 4 part time jobs so if I can do it so can you. The e-mails keep coming and the queries keep flowing and the reports need writing. BUT what will you put in those reports if your eyes have not been opened and your ideas have not been challenged since Adam was a lad.
Lastly, in this context, you need to have the courage sometimes to go abroad. Why courage? Because as described in the opening paragraph there will be those who think that you only cross the Channel to go on holiday. In fact of course the travel, hotels and conference costs are often cheaper than going to a UK based conference. Certainly my air fares to and from Rotterdam were cheaper than my rail fares to and from London. Why abroad? Because it will challenge you more. If I go somewhere in the UK I know that the background will be very similar to that which I face in my day to day life. I have evolved as part of the system and I know what happens here. That does not mean that I cannot learn from the best of UK experience of course I can But as Hercules Poirot would say it sometime needs more to ‘stimulate the little grey cells’.
Listening to experiences from other countries means that you have to go back to basics. When you see what they do you then have to think how you would apply back at home in a way that fits into our customs, legalities and culture. I have yet to see anything that I can pick up and plonk down in Liverpool just as it is. But when I have deconstructed what they do and reconstructed it in a vehicle that I can use I have ended up with some fine policies and programmes indeed.
So over the next 5 to 6 months Ken and I will introduce a range of discussions back at the ranch. We will say what we saw and through the magic of the Web others will be able to look at what we have seen at second hand and make contact so their ideas too are challenged. The result of this is not a holiday for participants. I came home knackered but with loads of positive ideas about changes for our tenants and clients.
I’m not going to go to the next International Housing Summit but someone from Plus Dane will be there so that they too can be stimulated and provoked into new ideas which will enable them to do their job better. If people want to criticise that – well let’s face up to them and show that they can be ignorant but we will not.
This article first appeared in Inside Housing on 17th November