Thoughts of an engagement professional

Wednesday 15th of April 2020

Michael Hill, Tpas Business Development Manager blogs about how this challenging time might create some positive changes. 

I’m 50 this year, 50! Never in my life, let alone my working life, has the word unprecedented been used as much as it has in the last 5 weeks. We truly are living through extraordinary times.


This year will be looked back on as a watershed for many things, as in this period of social distancing people will have made many decisions about their work, home and family circumstances that will change their lives. People are talking of potential baby booms, divorce, loss of social contact, increased alcohol consumption and also a concerning rise in domestic abuse from this period of managed containment.

All of the above will have a profound effect on people, careers, homes and lifestyles in the coming months and years once we return to whatever ‘normal’ will look like. I want to delve into a couple of areas, housing design and engagement.

I read recently of a rise in the search for homes on Rightmove using words like ‘garden’, ‘acres of land’ and ‘outdoor space’ and it got me thinking about how this current situation might affect future living choices and housing design.

The council housing of the 50s, albeit lacking imagination in my opinion, had space to live, breathe and play. Some might say the gardens were over-generous, but families could isolate reasonably well there without feeling they are in a goldfish bowl. They could grow a few veggies and conduct a school lesson on garden wildlife more than those living in homes built in the last 30 years.

I may be wrong, but it appears the majority of new build homes in the recent past majored on us not wanting to spend a lot of time there. The rooms got smaller, the gardens even smaller, dining rooms disappeared and the outdoor street space narrowed off to make it almost impossible for children to play out.

So will this period spawn different thinking? Will it give housing strategists something to consider, will Local Authority Planning Departments encourage homes and a sense of place rather than houses? What will be the housing legacy of the social distancing and pandemic of 2020?

One of the things that have been a huge positive during the lock-down has been the sense of community. It’s been truly heartwarming to see on social media the activities being carried out such as street dancing, cello concerts, group singing as well as the shopping, waving and talking over the back fence to neighbours we usually just nod to as we race off to work. We have been more mindful haven’t we, we have lived in the moment a bit more.

At Tpas we are part of CaCHE, the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, an academic, housing policy and practice think tank made up of several housing sector organisations led by Glasgow University. Over the course of the five-year programme, it will produce evidence and research which will contribute to tackling the UK’s housing problems at a national, devolved, regional, and local level.

At a recent session, we discussed how the public might drive the housing building of the future in terms of place. We discussed how creating tenure blind communities might work. This theory expanded into what type of communities do people want to live in, and does it change over time?

The answer will be different for each person, but it may be that if we started to look at how people want to live their lives, we might end up creating better collaborations with longer-term positive outcomes.

I think we are long overdue a national conversation on housing – not just social housing – ‘everyone’ housing. How do people want to live? Are there people who want to live in a car-less environment, a gardening community, a sports activity hub, child-free haven, and what about the options to move in and out depending on your time of life?

We need to be a bit more imaginative in my opinion, we have to stop building boxes and calling them lifetime homes because putting a stairlift power point and wider doorways is just putting lipstick on the pig.

How can you build a home that will go from; a young couple, go out, socialise, no time/desire to garden > two children, want garden > teenagers, need own space > young adults, three-car family > Mid-life parents, back socialising > Grandparents, babysitting, need garden > older people, can’t garden, no car.

The point here is you either move several times, or you make the best of it and suffer from your home not meeting your needs. That can be mentally challenging and if you are in social housing, the issues are magnified as the choices are limiting.

But not least, moving in and out of different communities does nothing to build a sense of belonging. Is it too much to suggest that a community of mixed property types that homes people who have the same work and community ethics might exist in the future? One that encourages people to move within depending on their circumstances and time of life.

I’m not here to create the financial model for this, I just think we should use this time to just consider an alternative model of housing.

When it comes to tenant engagement, this time has had a profound impact on our work. We have had to postpone many of our headline events such as our engagement professional’s conference, Awards Ceremony and our National Engagement Conference as well as Regional gatherings and face to face training programmes.

As an organisation that relies on face to face contact to deliver projects, it has meant digitising at speed. Are we completely there yet, no, can we deliver aspects of the projects we have, absolutely.

We are meeting online, delivering webinars, recording video chats, creating online forums and preparing podcasts. But we are also remembering that people still have phones, they still use good old fashioned emails and the Royal Mail are still delivering letters so we shouldn’t moan too much.

We have seen the sector make the change to home working seem effortless. Yes there have been challenges and some still exist, but we have seen a huge effort to maintain services to residents across the country and that has been pleasing. Zoom, MS Teams, Yammer, WhatsApp, are our friends more now than ever, and it is amusing to see it happening without a fight from the gatekeepers and ‘we’ve always done it this way’ gang.

When it all comes to an end and we return to face to face meetings, I think we will have taken great leaps in making digital part of that norm. I think we will reduce the time we spend travelling unnecessarily, we will have the confidence to use tech more and we will value our time, and that of those we are looking to engage with a little bit more. If nothing, the fragility of life must push us to be creative and objective when using ours and others time because as we have seen things can change very quickly.

Michael Hill, Tpas Business Development Manager