THE BLOG

When Good Neighbours Become Good Policy

06/03/2013 13:27 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

Where will you find a policeman being given an affordable home among the community he serves? Or a housing association boss a tenant can have a chat with in the street?

Since 1992, several hundred homes in a corner of west London have been the standard-bearers of a remarkable experiment in neighbourliness. Previously owned by Westminster Council, they were transferred to a resident-controlled housing association, Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, under the 1988 'tenants' choice' legislation.

Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH) arose from a local campaign against the council's plans to sell the estate to private developers, moving out vulnerable residents and tenants who had lived in the area for many years. At a time when many housing associations were getting bigger, more commercially minded and more distant from their 'customers', WECH was determined to put community ownership into practice.

We've now had two decades to see whether such a model can work at a significant scale. WECH owns more than 600 homes, with occupants ranging from leaseholders to homeless families.

The figures tell a fascinating story. A total of 94 per cent of residents feel secure in terms of their tenancy, compared with 62 per cent under their previous landlord; 91 per cent say they are proud of their homes, compared with 64 per cent under the previous landlord; and 90 per cent feel at home in the area.

There's more: 84 per cent feel the landlord helps them to meet their neighbours; 79 per cent say there is a good community life in the area; and 85 per cent say the landlord plays an important role in fostering community and voluntary activities.

WECH is professionally run, but not distant: people can chat to the chief executive in the street. It takes family life seriously: tenants' grown-up children are given priority for rehousing. A WECH tenancy has been offered to a local policeman; in return he plays an active role in the community and responds to requests for help and information.

WECH believes community ownership helps people to feel healthier and happier because it gives them more control over their lives and environment. It gets the basics right, providing affordable and secure homes in one of London's most deprived areas. Compared with expensive and intrusive attempts to create 'mixed communities' explored elsewhere, it appears both more human and more effective.

The example of WECH is important because the material conditions of people living in social housing are going to get worse before they get better. More than one fifth of British workers are low-paid and the proportion is higher than in comparable economies. Nearly 10,000 more working families every month require housing benefit to help pay their rent.

The route to a more productive, dynamic and sustainable economy in the UK begins when people can live lives that fulfil their potential and sustain their wellbeing. That can only happen if the homes, neighbourhoods and public services they need are supported, not threatened.

This week saw the publication of my report for the think tank ResPublica, Responsible recovery: A social contract for local growth. The title takes the current political debates about fairness and places them in the context of real people's lives, arguing that reciprocity and contribution are at the heart of any sustainable recovery.

For that to happen, policies need to be people-centred, locally accountable and locally responsive. Building on work by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, it describes the journey out of poverty as a progress from surviving to coping, from coping to adapting to change, and from adapting to accumulating.

The assets people need to accumulate to escape poverty are not just material. They include social assets such as family, friends and neighbours; human assets such as practical skills; and public assets such as local services, infrastructure and community organisations.

Undermine one set of assets through policies such as the bedroom tax, which destabilises community life and penalises those on the lowest incomes, or through funding cuts to local voluntary organisations, and it becomes harder to build the others. At the report's launch on Monday Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham, revealed that 10,000 families in London will be more than £100 a week worse off because of benefit capping - forcing them into a choice between losing local family and friends or losing money to pay for life's basics.

The report proposes three interrelated approaches to enable people to contribute fully to society.

Secure and affordable housing is the first building block. By developing intelligently, with a view to long-term support for communities rather than short-term housebuilding targets, housing providers can lay the foundations for well-functioning neighbourhoods.

Second, the public services that support poorer neighbourhoods need to be opened up to the people who live in them, providing job and training opportunities for those who are on the edges of the labour market. The Fresh Horizons social enterprise in Huddersfield shows how local people with limited experience and qualifications can provide effective and affordable home repairs, childcare and youth work. In doing so they bring income into the community and provide positive role models for friends and neighbours.

Third, government needs to make employment support sensitive to local labour market conditions. Local organisations with their roots in communities are best place to help people who are out of work develop their skills and explore opportunities.

The paper puts forward a raft of recommendations to help put these approaches into practice. These include giving local residents more say in how public service budgets are spent; 'community deals' devolving services to locally accountable organisations; selecting housing providers on the basis of their long term investment in communities; and using council contracts to create local jobs.

In a nutshell, the report is about seeing people who struggle with poverty as partners in tackling social problems, not as scapegoats for them. That's what WECH has done, and what government needs to encourage.