#TogetherStronger – Housing, Development and Communities – The value of Co-operative Housing

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#TogetherStronger – Housing, Development and Communities – The value of Cooperative Housing

I’ve written this article in response to Mark Smith’s (Wales Co-operative Centre) blog ‘Network proves that houses become homes in Co-op’ . Far from being a blatant attempt to gate-crash what is now a widely known hashtag (in Wales anyway), this article aims to show that unity is required on many fronts to face the various challenges and potential rewards posed by the Co-operative Housing model.

I too was in attendance at the Wales Co-operative Network event in November of 2017 in Carmarthenshire, the first in my new role of Community Asset Team Manager in Coastal Housing Group.

The meeting was attended by a small amount of officers like myself who work in various roles in Housing and the third sector across Wales. More interestingly, the majority of the attendees were community members who were in attendance either to speak about their own communities or hear from others in attendance and take their own ideas back to their own organisations, or both.

Anyone who sits in endless meetings will know how refreshing it is to be a part of a discussion where people speak from the heart rather than a spreadsheet or Key Performance Indicators (no offence to any Finance people reading).

Heart of ‘Old Oak’

The event was a fascinating insight into one particular co-operative in Carmarthenshire called ‘Old Oak Housing Co-operative’

‘Old Oak’ was formed in 2014, PRIOR to the development being built. Through regular housing management sessions, training opportunities with their landlord (Pobl) and the Wales Co-operative Centre, they have fostered a democratic spirit and elected a Board for the co-operative, who oversee any decisions and agree on expenditure.

The attendees were a truly inspirational group of people who were clearly passionate about their community and their homes. They held an extremely mature and respectful relationship with their landlord and were solution-focused in their outlook to any issues they may be presented with.

 

Open Up Your Door

Following a quick visit to a vinyl shop in Carmarthen – the wonderfully named ‘Tangled Parrot’ – I drove back home pondering the various considerations I had and how these could be progressed within Coastal:

  • How do we start a conversation that dovetails the role of Housing Management with Development in Coastal so as to engineer a similar scenario whereby residents are able to take steps to be a part of a community long before they move into a scheme?
  • How do we achieve an aim of growing our co-operatives by being passive and responding to demand?
  • Could we promote the co-operative model far more and give people an informed choice?

 

 

The ‘Design for life’ approach to new build – wider doors, adjustable ceilings, etc – inevitably leads to a place where people can potentially stay in their homes, longer into their lives. This enhanced period of independent living results in communities being less transient and more stable. A stable community can engineer a much more positive relationship with the landlord(s) that own housing stock there. A better relationship with the landlord potentially leads to properties being treated much more favourably by those who inhabit them, resulting in greater budgets due to decreases in expenditure bringing properties back to a lettable standard, with lower rent arrears and far less ASB than a community which is ever-changing and therefore resource intensive.

Housing win. Development win.

Welcome though the announcement was, It is worth mentioning that even where some landlords have got this right and have spent so much time responding to predicted legislative changes, their hard work has been rendered futile overnight – i.e a Co-operative in Rhyl which is building all 1-bed properties, in response to the LHA requirements.

 

Co-operative Housing and Asset Based Community Development

Co-operative Housing sits atop 6 founding principles

  • Self – help
  • Self – responsibility
  • Democracy
  • Equality
  • Equity
  • Solidarity

There is much to be held in parallel with the principles of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). As outlined by Nurture Development, ‘ABCD’ emphasises the ‘community’ in driving forward the needs of the community. Not institutions. And starts with the very things that exist to make that community unique, and not it’s deficiencies that make it needy. Its passions, its talents, its assets.

When there is so much that is ‘strong’ in co-operative housing communities, why does the funding landscape require us to highlight what is ‘wrong’ to such a dangerous level that it can often rip away belief and make active citizenship retreat?

How do we know it works?

Resilience in cooperative communities is apparent from the get go. From my earliest conversations in Coastal, I have heard stories of the tenants of our cooperatives helping each other on various activities (maintenance, filling in Housing benefit forms, etc). One group bought a mower and a strimmer to save money on their service charges. Why not? This was also evident from ‘Old Oak’. There is distinctive maturity in a relationship that tenants know landlords are there to ‘do with’ or do by’ but not ‘do for’.

Agreeing a set of community principles long before the ribbon has been cut on the development is a credible aspiration and a proven valued commodity by landlord and co-operative alike. To see wider integration, from communities not only identifying gaps in provision, but responding to that gap themselves.

Cormac Russell mentions that ‘the challenge for institutions along the way is to work out how we let go of our power, power that wasn’t ours in the first place and move from a ‘leader’ to ‘enabler’.

This sits perfectly with the Wales Co-operative Centre’s vision that “co-operative housing can provide an innovative, affordable and alternative model for home ownership in Wales”

What more can we do?

There is absolutely more work to be done in Coastal, with giving our existing Co-operatives an increased identity, such a section of the website, access to training, etc

Whilst co-operatives can often be a major challenge for the working practices of organisations, very barely will the sky fall down, and at the edge of our comfort zones is where most learning is done. Tenants hear time and time again that they have to be adaptable to change (LHA, Universal Credit, etc). What about us? Shouldn’t associations and institutions lead by example?

If we start these relationships from a position of trust we reach new heights in the maturity of the dialogue between housing management and the tenant base, which can lead to communities pulling on staff only when they need to and being largely self-reliant. One resident of Old Oak stated in the meeting that as a result of living in a cooperative, “I’m not lonely anymore”. Surely that is what we are aiming for?

This firmly underpins the Asset Based relationships we are now trying to foster in Coastal Housing and leaves an exciting 2018 ahead for us, where we will all surely face challenges. Challenges that, if overcome, would leave us with a far greater comfort zone, stronger housing cooperatives and sustainable communities.

I’ll settle for that.

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“Meet the new boss, NOT the same as the old boss!”

This week I met an ABCD practitioner who has worked across Wales for a number of years.

We agreed to meet at the end of the M4 (and the world, during term time) at Pont Abraham Services. Driving West can be a horrendous ordeal, admittedly nothing like driving East – especially in the Autumn, with a dangerously low sun in your ‘boat race’ for the entirety of your journey – which can be a painful experience.

But this was half term. The roads were blissfully quiet. Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that children are the problem. Not really…

The M4 to Carmarthen on Friday Morning. Maybe…

It’s worth describing the comical event that took place as I entered the café area at 8:40am, for a 9:00am meeting. As I said, the roads were quiet. I walked into the services and realised (1) I didn’t have his phone number, (2) I had never met him or seen a picture, so I didn’t have a clue what he looked like, but (3) I did have his name.

I sat until just gone 9:00am. I didn’t buy a coffee, fully expecting to buy 2 cups when we finally met. In the fifteen minutes I had waited, I had narrowed it down to 5 people in the café, with 1 eye still on the door, vetting all candidates as they walked in.

But there was a chap sat across the aisle and two tables up from me who was starting to become a dead cert. He looked professional (whatever that means). He could be an ABCD practitioner (whatever they look like) and he was looking eagerly around the café, perhaps looking for ‘the guy from Coastal’. So, I sat on my phone googling the person’s name and not getting much luck, whilst my work phone was upright with Coastal branding face up. This was him. This was definitely him!

It wasn’t him.

The man now had his phone in his hand and was jerking from side to side, with his tongue alternating from left to right across his lips. He was clearly playing some kind of car racing game. And so engrossed in it that the dad and 2 children sat in front of me were also looking on in disbelief. Now I was really hoping it wasn’t him.

With that, a tap on my left shoulder and a voice of “Your name wouldn’t be Ross would it?”. Drama over. Phew!

We spoke for just over an hour, over coffee, about our previous experience and where we were from. He told me a story about how a charity he had run had purchased a building which I was familiar with. And to his regret, they hadn’t nailed down the contractual separation between the two. When the building suffered, the charity did too and it had all gone horribly wrong. It had clearly been an ordeal.

ABCD or not?

When we spoke about Asset Based Community Development, he commented about some of the work he had done and what he had upcoming. When we talked about the principles of ABCD he commented that it’s not ‘that’ different to traditional Community Development and as long as you have the right values that’s all you need. I found this interesting. This was similar to advice from a friend of mine (who I respect a great deal, as who has worked successfully in Community Development for years) said,  I should “forget about the ‘A’ and ‘B’ and concentrate on the fundamentals of Community Development alone. Both, her advice and his stance, sat somewhat uncomfortably with me, which is by no means a criticism.

I am a relative newcomer to ABCD, and in truth I find it fundamentally different. Many are doing ABCD and not defining it as that, which I think is a close match to her organisation. Some purport to be doing ABCD, when they are doing nothing of the sort. Why? The answer is simple…. It’s the ‘A’ and the ‘B’.

ABCD-driven change is driven through active citizenship, involvement from those who want to see change happen for them and by them. The ‘C’ and ‘D’ agenda has a track record of simply throwing money at the issue or increasing service provision to seek change. In its simplicity, looked at what was missing and filled the gap.

A deficit-based approach. This approach has caused many unintended harms to communities which, in turn, have placed huge demands on services as a result, across health, education and care in particular.

‘Money’ is perceived as THE key resource for change in deficit-based thinking and communities see themselves as recipients of that service. ABCD places a much greater emphasis on relationships which are the capacity for change, with success fundamentally measured against those relationships, NOT outcomes. These relationships are the raw ingredients that make up communities.

The organic nature of ABCD allows it to grow over time and be in the ascendency for longer periods. When those ‘outcomes’ we speak of don’t deliver, or relationships fall apart, or money runs out, deficit approaches can often spread itself thinner over time, or worse, walk way.

Back to the café.

What became clear was that he was paraphrasing his own beliefs to a point. He made the valid argument that the ‘community development’ had been unashamedly hijacked in the last 20 years or so, and used to the benefit of agencies and institutions, and politicians. But not to the benefit of communities. It was hard to disagree.

Communities often seek permission from those who have wrestled control away from them. Inevitably this permission is monetarily based. But do they need permission? It’s very difficult for a community to realise its own value and capabilities when, for too long, they’ve been told what they are missing, and worse still, defined by it. This is where ABCD isn’t just a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

ABCD is organic in its nature. The change is owned and delivered by the community. Not by institutions. Not by funding bodies with ‘outcomes’ to evidence.

Nurture Development explain this as “supporting the proliferation of inclusive, bottom up, community driven change. Conditions are created where any neighbourhood can identify, connect and mobilise its assets for the whole community benefit”.

In other words, organisations like mine either help, or get out of the way.

An easy way to understand this is in the Pixar film “A Bug’s Life”. Stay with me.

In the film, the Ants have been persecuted by the Grasshoppers for long enough and, finally, one rogue ant stands up to them, challenging the status quo and the way of life – the ants pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food – for both groups. There is a speech by Hopper, the Head Grasshopper, given to his group, “You let one ant stand up to us… and they might all stand up. It’s about keeping those ants in line.”

Permission is an unhealthy concept and interchangeable with power. For one person to gain power, someone else has to relinquish it. A legacy of a deficiency-based relationships has a profound effect on a person’s, a community’s, ability to do for themselves.

Coastal Conversations

Also, this week @SerenaMjones , @Kirsty_Coastal and I were discussing our ‘Coastal Conversations’ initiative where we discuss ‘what matters to tenants’ WITH tenants, and how we shape that discussion throughout 2018. How are we going to go about this in an organisation that doesn’t have much in the way of traditional ‘tenant participation’, but focuses on the things that matter to tenants in all that it does?

Quite often both front-line staff and tenants will clearly see what change needs to take place. It’s only when ‘management’ get involved that there becomes a disconnect or an agenda. The agreement was that this may push some (tenants and staff alike) out of their comfort zones. So be it! All 3 parties in the same room, where it’s ok to disagree and “I don’t know” is a valid response.

We will take this approach forward. Ultimately it will require a dogged determination and there will be difficult conversations along the way. There will examples of success, and examples where more could have been done. But if we maintain this commitment to each other and to communities, we will set the tone for how ABCD will succeed….. through a relationship of honesty, which means that sometimes the response will be ‘No’.

In doing so, we’ll give communities the opportunity to tell many positive stories of how they found their own solutions so others can avoid these pitfalls and help their communities identify, connect and mobilise their own assets.

In doing so, our aspiration is echoed in words by Cormac Russell, to ‘not to build a bridge between a person and their service, but a bridge between a person and community life’.

 

Community Housing Cymru’s #onebig17 and the man from A.N.K.L.E.

In support of last week’s blog (You never get a Second Chance to make a first Impression), last week I attended the CHC #onebig17 Conference event in Llandrindod Wells. An event which was booked for me, prior to me starting in Coastal, as part of my induction.

Unfortunately, I missed the opening session on the Thursday Morning, having attended my first Local Area Coordination Leadership Group meeting in Swansea at the fantastic new Swansea Bay Campus on Fabian Way.

This gave me the opportunity to meet the expanding Local Area Coordination team and partners in Swansea University, as well as the Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing in Swansea Council, Councillor Mark Child, who in true support of his portfolio, had cycled in from his ward of West Cross.

The meeting discussed the role Local Area Coordination has played in creating a supportive network of resources for communities across the Western Bay area. I’ll be talking more about the work of LAC in future weeks.

Following the meeting, I headed North to the beautiful town of Llandrindod Wells for the conference.

#OneBig17

Having spent the last 3 years in a secondment in an RSL and a stint in the Third Sector, I was very much looking forward to the programme, and in all honesty, felt I had some catching up to do, having been absent from similar events since around 2014.

I arrived at the Metropole Hotel at lunch and caught up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a very long while. I was delighted to hear that ‘Rooms4U’ – a Shared Housing project for under 35’s affected by LHA, funded by Crisis UK and hosted by Newydd Housing – had won the Pat Chown ‘Capturing Creativity’ Award. It was lovely to get to meet the staff who worked on this project and clearly their passion went over and above the requirements of the role. Well done guys! (Remember to take the award home).

The first session I attended was a Sub-Plenary discussion discussing ‘Housing Association’s Approach to Social Impact’. This is a major priority for me in my current role. If I am to embed the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach across Coastal, then it is incumbent on the Community Asset Team to be able to demonstrate the impact we have made. At a time of Universal Credit, rightly so, others will be sceptical about its relative importance, but I am firm in my belief it is intrinsically linked and digital inclusion/employment support can facilitate a reduction in worklessness which allows tenants to grow their own disposable income, increase their quality of life and pay their rent on time. Community cohesion is best achieved when those communities are settled and people live in the same places for longer periods.

I’ve heard Steve Cranston talk several times and always find him engaging and intriguing in his assessments (this was no different), but this was the first time I had heard Stephen Russell, from HouseMark speak. Stephen has previously worked in Midland Heart and outlined his thoughts on how HA’s approach social impact. Stephen challenged the audience to understand “How do you know your work makes a difference?”.

Social Impact is not just an opportunity for us to pat ourselves on the back and practice good PR (although it IS that), but it is also a worthwhile tool to understand your customers and the difference you have, or haven’t made.

Core messages from this session included strong advice to talk to lots of staff and not be passive in your approach. Duly noted!

How do you go about this? Stephen was less precious about this, describing ‘methodologies’ as “like iPhones. Something new every time but fundamentally, they’re all the same”.

Steve then knitted these messages in with the work currently ongoing at CHC’s Housing-led Regeneration Network (a group I had signed up to earlier in the week). Steve added that the credit we give ourselves as landlords is ‘limited if our communities are blighted by poverty and worklessness’. I couldn’t agree more.

The easiest way to make a difference to these communities is to deliver ‘what matters’. The easiest way to achieve that is just to talk to our tenants.

Debbie Green, Chief Executive of Coastal Housing, called upon the sector to make better use of research and the role of universities in understanding this subject to a far greater extent, something Coastal is doing in conjunction with Manchester University to strengthen the Foundational Economy in Swansea.

Again this will be a future area I’ll cover in due course.

Renting Homes

A quick coffee and it was on to the next session – The Legal Implications of the Renting Homes Implementation Phase – with Jamie Saunders, Coastal Housing.

I’ve worked alongside Jamie for 2 weeks and inevitably when someone presents to a group of people you see another side to them. Jamie is a brilliant legal mind, and a natural presenter to people. Think L.A. Law meets Tom Selleck. (Not sure how that’s going to go down to be honest).

Renting Homes will come into force in Wales in ‘Autumn 2018’, hardly definitive. I suppose my attendance at this session was two-fold. 1. As a previous Head of Housing in the Third Sector, I wanted to better understand the implications of the legislation to see the extent of how it will change the housing landscape, and 2. (linked to the point raised earlier) Housing Management in Coastal are going to feel the brunt of this, and in asking them to buy into the Community Asset Team’s journey, we all HAVE to better understand the pressures they are going to face on a daily basis, and be a part of the solution.

Earlier in the day, Simon White from Welsh Government had given some indications on the next steps for Renting Homes and Jamie’s session put the meat on the bones of the practical implications of this legislation. Safe to say there were a few concerned faces by the end of the talk, and I wouldn’t mind betting a few Directors/Chief Executive’s absent from the conference received a few emails on Thursday from their managers who were in attendance stating “We need to talk!”

Jamie’s passion for this subject is evident but it has scaled the dizzy heights of him now joining Twitter (@JamieSaunders01). He’s promised not to tweet pictures of his kids, and his phone will remain off during #BBCQT. But in all seriousness, follow him to keep abreast of developments with regards to ‘Renting Homes’. You won’t regret it.

Fashioning Foundational Economies in Wales

The final session of the Day was hosted by Kevin Morgan from Cardiff University. I always relish being in Kevin’s company because I always learn something and admire him greatly as a gifted public speaker.

My first 2 days in Coastal were spent travelling to Manchester with Kevin and Steve Cranston for a conference discussing the ‘Foundational Economy’ with some tremendous examples on show in Manchester from various industries.

Kevin spoke passionately about how Housing Associations can play a fundamental role in encouraging an inclusive and strong local economy. Again this is so closely linked to the ABCD philosophy and challenges HA’s to invest in a path towards identifying and mobilising community assets.

If you aren’t familiar with the work of Cormac Russell (@Cormac Russell), you should follow him on Twitter for some truly inspirational examples of ABCD in the UK and beyond.

Wales is a small country and for years top-down subsidy has been the answer to alleviate community concerns, or worse, we do nothing until someone else does something for us. But ABCD concentrates on what is present rather than what is missing. What’s strong, not what’s wrong. Cormac’s TedTalk explains this better than I could ever hope to 

Coastal is fundamentally built on the principles of systems thinking, a bottom up approach which befits the values of ABCD and requires a relationship. As Kevin put it, these ‘relationships have a value but no price’.

To give this issue the traction it needs to make a difference, organisations would benefit from identifying their allies, to share the journey and the belief. We are far more capable in greater numbers. In order to achieve this, good practice has to become a better traveller.

This will be a big focal point for us in Coastal in the near future and I’m keen for anyone interested to make contact and build those allegiances.

The Evening

True to our word, Kirsty Ellis and I took in the sights of Mid Wales with a 3 mile run. We saw a beautiful…. Industrial Estate and a Tesco Garage. I think we took a wrong turn but our evening meal was well and truly earned as a result.

I spent the evening in the company of proud Newydd Housing staff, fresh from their Pat Chown success and met some CHC staff I hadn’t met before, discussing personalised number plates, ‘how much is an acceptable spend on a watch?’ and ‘why was last year’s naughty table so well behaved?’


Alan Evans (@Alane_Newydd , Senior Housing Officer, Newydd Housing) is one of the nicest, funniest people I’ve met in a long time. But to his own personal misfortune (and I say that literally) he is evidently unaware of said monetary limit on a nice watch.

Following the meal, we retreated downstairs in the Metropole Hotel to savour the delights of the casino, disco and Wii activities which me to the inevitable conclusion that Welsh Housing is extremely competitive. Following a successful hour on the blackjack table, but paying the price with some mysterious ankle injury, I retired to bed at a modest 1:15am. With my ankle increasingly more painful I berated the fact my room was on the 4th floor of the hotel and the lift was out of service.

Day 2

With several high-quality sessions on the agenda the conference continued in abundance on the Thursday Morning.

Intergenerational Homes

Session 1 was scheduled to be presented by Dr. Gea Sijpkes, CEO of Humanitas Deventer to give the inspirational story of the Residential and Care Center Humainitas, a long-term care facility in the riverside town of Deventer, Netherlands. Unfortunately, Dr Sijpkes was victim to a cancelled flight (I never found out whether this was down to the collapse of Monarch or Michael O’Leary’s inability to do a staff rota). However, credit to CHC staff, the workshop went ahead with a Skype session, where the audience heard the wonderful tale of how, in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month, students were able to access free accommodation in an elderly Residential Care scheme.

Regrettably I missed this session, as I was told it was cancelled (culprit will go unnamed) but I’ve since found this wonderful video, entitled ‘My 93 Year Old Flatmate’, telling tales of beer pong and the amorous tendencies of the elderly clients (all in good fun), but it is a truly inspirational story, and as an example of how to facilitate Intergenerational activities. 

The UK clearly has an awful lot to learn. And until we see the elderly as a huge value to society and not a blight, we don’t stand much chance.

Supporting Communities in Crisis – Lessons Learnt from Grenfell

Clearly still an emotive subject in UK Housing, following the fire in West London on 14 June 2017, the session was expertly handled by Tony Thompson, Chair, Emergency Planning Society and discussed how asset management and maintenance teams can meaningfully respond to the landscape changing events and ensure that tenants are safe in their homes.

A huge crowd, understandably, listened to Tony talk about the immediate reaction from the community, in the apparent wake of inaction from the system, but emphasised “the role of the public was key but management of spontaneous volunteers is a huge risk in itself”. The conversation progressed to the new risk management environment which is predictably undergoing significant change and pleaded for organisations to prepare – “Response is a product of preparation” – and left the session with 4 priorities for those listening

1. Know your tenants

2. Listen to your tenants

3. Respond to your tenants

4. Review and act on Fire Risk Assessments

The first 3 of these are a must for all areas of HA service delivery to help strengthen community cohesion.

Universal Credit Full Service – Lessons Learnt So Far

The single biggest threat facing UK Housing at the moment, who better to host the session than Bron Afon Community Housing, who participated in the DWP pilot study back in 2012/13 and gave an insight into what the rest of Wales can expect, as the Government progress with their policy, despite widely reported IT issues and operational failings.

Full service rolled out in Neath Port Talbot on Wednesday of this week and this was an opportunity to hear, first-hand, the experience of 2 organisations within their areas.

Ian Simpson advised that during the pilot study Bron Afon had 927 tenants on full service and it took 3 years to recover from the rent arrears it produced. This forced Bron Afon to revisit their pre-tenancy work, which it was acknowledged, now started ‘much further upstream’.

The session ran on the Thursday also, but such is its importance, it was repeated on the Friday, and very well attended. It was jointly hosted by Flintshire County Council who lay bare the failings of the system and the inability of the DWP to listen, having been the first Welsh area to roll out full service.


Jen Griffiths summed up tenants’ experience of the system and the attitude of the DWP, who were simply holding up their hands and saying “We don’t care, go away”. She struck a real chord when she reported that personal budgeting had now been brought in-house and that budgeting sessions were now being held in the job centres to …and I quote… ‘make them feel like a safer place’. This is an indictment on the destruction caused by this policy. Claimants know that their only chance to qualify for benefits entitlements means they have to attend the job centre, yet they choose not to do so because the place makes them feel unsafe. Unacceptable.

But what surpassed this was the determination that came from Jen when she spoke of how Flintshire continue to overcome the adversity they are presented with on a daily basis. It is no wonder HA’s are increasingly seen by many as a major lifeline.

Jen commented that it is imperative for staff to build a relationship with the work coaches in the job centre. Credit must be given here to Coastal’s Nigel Lewis, Digital Inclusion Officer, who brokered such a meeting this week between Work Coaches and Housing Officers in anticipation of the roll-out in Neath Port Talbot.

If the audience went away with two messages from the session it was these; 1. Universal Credit is going to affect us all, in one way or another, so in addressing it we need to involve the whole organisation. Spread the net far and wide to all frontline staff and beyond. 2. If you are finding failings… BUILD THE EVIDENCE! The DWP have proved they require evidence if the system is to change in any way so we need to record and report its failings.

We hold our breath.

Are Customer expectations growing faster than we can meet them?

It has to be said, the final stint of the conference is a difficult gig. Many delegates would, by this point, have tried to beat the Mid-Wales traffic, and those who remained may have been very low on energy (or suffering from the effects of the previous nights ‘Vimto’).

However, when Helen Reynolds is providing a session, CHC staff needn’t have worried.

Helen, or @HelReynolds as I’ve known her until now, is an award winning digital communications professional and this was the first time I’d heard her speak. She is wonderfully compelling and engages with a crowd in a way that few manage. It was a wonderfully energetic and passionate, and very funny, workshop discussing how the use of digital technology can change the relationships we have with our customers. I don’t like that word. But that’s just me.

Social Media has transformed the way in which we reach and engage with people. It took the Radio 38 years to reach 50 million users. It took the TV just 13 years, with the internet taking 4 years. The iPod, or the ‘evil little fridge’ as labelled by Noel Gallagher, took 1 year less.

In comparison, Facebook added 200m users in under a year.

Game changer.


In talking about how organisations can personalise their approach, I was reminded of the wonderful Eddie from Southern Rail who, as a work placement student, took over their Twitter account earlier in the year with wonderful success. Not 5 minutes later a gentleman in front of me asked a question and gave Eddie the recognition he deserved, commenting on how it had transcended Southern Rail’s public profile in a period where they were blighted with operational failures.

The message from Helen was clear. “Technology will not transform the relationship between tenants and housing. We will!”

Louise Chard from Linc Cymru quoted a tweet of mine later that day and asked whether it is possible for a tenant to ‘do an Eddie’ and run their social media for a day….. why not?


 

Until next year…

And with that, delegates faded away and made their journeys North and South, East and West, armed with coping strategies, lessons, tips or contacts with which to better their working lives and ultimately, better the lives of tenants across the Welsh Housing sector.

CHC staff should be very proud of themselves for a fully loaded and highly relevant programme. The racing car on Thursday evening was inspired, even if I couldn’t quite pull myself away from the Blackjack table.

On the way home, I stopped off in Brecon, 1. to rest my ankle, still shrouded into mystery into how it had even happened, and 2. To admire the breath-taking view of the Beacons on a clear Autumn afternoon.


CHC have provided a great opportunity to ensure Welsh Housing is now equipped with the tools to provide an equally positive outlook for their tenants.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression!

In a flash, my first full week in Coastal Housing is over.

And for me as much as anyone else (as an opportunity for reflection), I wanted to capture it on paper (old skool!) before the weeks turn into months, and all objectivity is lost.

Does what it says on the tin!

Immediately, I’m struck by the culture in Coastal. In time, I’ll learn how to articulate this better but in short It’s an extremely friendly, open plan and ‘flat’ organisation, bolstering the systems thinking philosophy that runs through its DNA. 

Each evening I’ve come home and could have so easily fallen asleep straight away, not because of the volume of work – understandably- but the sheer volume of information and the unfamiliar surroundings. 

Photo Wall in Coastal Housing


I am forever grateful to the ‘photo wall’ (above) for helping me against the dizziness of faces/names that have been thrown at me. In a good way. 

Getting it Right First Time

The value of a meaningful induction for any employee, at any level, cannot be underestimated and to have that process owned by the whole organisation is an essential ingredient of its success. 13 years into my working life, my inductions have ranged from average to non- existent, but something was different about this. Something that stretches beyond 10am on Day 1 and may still be ongoing by Month 3 or 4. After all, when do we actually stop learning? 

Monday began with the necessary form filling with HR, followed by a Health & Safety talk to myself and another colleague who was also starting her first day. This was followed by being provided with the necessary IT equipment, or what I like to call, Christmas morning #presents .

More seriously, it has also afforded me the opportunity to sit down with key people, to understand their role and how mine will, at some point, share the same objective. As mentioned, the ownership of this process is an interesting bone of contention. It is not simply my managers job to sort, and therefore the managers fault if/when it goes wrong. Coastal – the whole organisation – has owned my induction from Day 1. From 2 days in Manchester last week learning about the Foundational Economy in Wales and the parallels in England, to the pre- arranged (prior to me starting) appointments with HR, Customer Services and 4 members of my team. A certain amount of responsibility has to fall to me. The onus is on me to identify key staff (In- House Solicitor, Development, Procurement, Governance, IT, Home Adaptations and more), and seek them out for a conversation and to develop relationships that benefit the company. But surely this is only achievable when the culture permits it. The willingness for me to do this was evident from the get go. 

So many people have taken the time to come to my desk and offer help, support, a coffee, a chat throughout the week and that kind of selflessness doesn’t have a pricetag. I’m so grateful. 

One of those coffees went cold when I bumped into the Chief Executive on Thursday in the kitchen area, and we started talking about the previous weeks trip to Manchester, the Board meeting that night, the recent speech given by a local AM on the Foundational Economy and the now-submitted City of Culture bid for #Swansea2021 . 20 minutes later I made myself another coffee and returned to my desk far more educated and clearer about that particular aspect of my role as a result. 

They say the true measure of a persons integrity is when they offer you something when you have nothing to offer them in return. What better to offer a new employee than, simply, your time? 

CAT man

My role, as Community Asset Team Manager, or “the new CAT man” as I overheard one staff member refer to it, is to embed Asset Based Community Development across Coastal. My managerial responsibilities cover numerous areas:

  • Digital Inclusion
  • Employability and Skills
  • Community Inclusion, and
  • Health and Wellbeing (which includes Extra Care and Adapt)

The team have been self managed for a spell, and this presents opportunities for the manager when given the responsibility of bringing the services closer together and, critical for me, benefitting housing management, the core reason we all have jobs.

Throughout the week I’ve met 3 of the 4 officers above, with the 4th set up at the beginning of next week. The potential these services have to provide opportunities to tenants that would not otherwise exist is vast, and it’s still this factor that drives my belief in their need to be retained.

It is also an indicator of how Coastal, and many other Housing organisations up and down the land, go above and beyond simply providing housing. ‘Beyond bricks and mortar’ is a phrase regularly spoken within the sector, and it will be of interest to many that housing caters for careers in these lines of work. 

The simple truth is that a persons home, and their community, is everything to them. Its where they work, where they play, where they relax, where they pull on a network of friends and family, where they feel protected, and where they feel able to be themselves.

In a time of austerity, the services I am responsible for have come under intense scrutiny and some may see them as optional extras that organisations cannot afford to fund, when faced with unprecedented pressures elsewhere in the business. My own view is that they become more important. Developing (building) Landlords are in a unique position, through the beauty of key tools like Community Benefits, to provide employment opportunities for those who seek them. 

Targeted recruitment and training is a key function within this and in my first week, I’ve been fortunate enough to see 14 young people complete their CSCS cards which move them closer to employment in the construction sector. Key joint working makes this possible and relationships are enhanced with communities along the way.

Clare Watkins, Katie Morris and Rob Morgans of Coastal Housing


Coastal works with an array of local partners in every aspect of the business. This week, through referrals made by those partners, a 2 day tenancy sustainment course was held, provided to equip prospective tenants with the skills and tools they will need to run their own tenancy. The sheer beast of Universal Credit is enough to frighten anyone into never wanting a tenancy, but why shouldn’t people want independence, their own home, a place to call theirs and an opportunity to start their own story? Again, this course is delivered in partnership with housing officers and as such, gives tenants a sense of reality from numerous perspectives. Critical. 

From the Other Side

It is essential also, for non-front facing staff to understand the roles, pressures and methods of front facing staff. My role requires others to buy into its philosophy and I couldn’t honestly ask them to do so if I hadn’t paid them the respect of understanding their role first. I’m forever grateful to the Customer Services team for allowing me to spend time with them firstly on reception and then on the phones to understand the many and varied demands placed on the team. These ranged from responses to letters, rent payments, ownership queries, ASB complaints, police enquiries, registering for housing and many many more. I’d encourage anyone, in any job, in any organisation, to do the same. You will learn. And if you don’t walk away with an understanding of how to do your job better, you will undoubtedly walk away with a better appreciation of theirs. Plus, it only cost me one packet of Hob-Nobs (other bribery tools and biscuits are available). 

The Weeks Ahead…..

The plan at this stage is to keep a diary as a source for reflection and an opportunity to measure progress or thinking. Who knows?

What is certain is that in a new role, it takes new ideas to be successful. Faced with the same old problems staff only succeed when they try new things. In order to feel able to try new things, people need to feel safe. Innovation comes from staff who dare to fail and who work in a culture where they know failure is just another way that didn’t work. Coastal have this in abundance and many could learn a great deal from them. If we fail, we get up, we dust ourselves off, and we try again. Give me that any day.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Coastal needed just one attempt to impress me, and got it right first time.

Bring on Week Two.

My Desert Islands Discs

Having read Serena Jones’s selections a few weeks ago I was inspired to write my own entries. But, 2 weeks later, hands down, this is the hardest blog or article I’ve ever written. I’ve deliberately waited to see if other selections justified entry or if I changed my mind. So I’d like to apologise to U2, Jeff Buckley, Oasis, Interpol, JJ72, Billy Bragg, London Grammar and Arcade Fire for not including them. It was close.
1. Open up your Door – Richard Hawley

https://youtu.be/I6xUMfRdp3E 

It’s only right that I start with the ‘Hawl-meister General’. His music has become such an integral part of my life in recent years. When I discovered him on his guest appearance on Elbow’s mercury prize-winning ‘Seldom Seen Kid’, his deep tones had a massive effect on me. He had the aura of a 50s crooner but this was 2008. Then I discovered he had 6 solo albums. I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. I was 29 and felt like I did when Oasis released ‘Definetly Maybe’, music felt alive, and important again.

The beauty of this particular song is very much in its simplicity. A beautiful opening, perfectly formed, and each layer building to a wonderful crescendo at the end. “Love is so hard to find, and even harder to define”. It remains a song that can reduce me to tears and live, it is earth shattering, without actually doing very much. 

He is a man who, in a just society, would be the huge megastar he deserves to be. But…. I’m sure I’m not alone and that even Richard Hawley himself is happy, just the way things are. Let’s keep him our little secret.

2. I still Believe – Frank turner 

https://youtu.be/sZ-D4jmkUiQ
I first heard this song in 2008 . By this time, the Winchester guy was several albums into a solo career which I had not yet discovered. The truth is he’s become such a part of my life for his political beliefs and support of the mental health agenda, as much as his knack for writing a bitching melody. I could have chosen any number of his songs. But this song has, in my humble opinion, the best Middle 8 ever. 

“I still believe in the need for guitars and drums and desperate poetry (my tattoo in waiting)

I still believe that everyone, can find a song for every time they’ve lost and every time They’ve won

So just remember folks we’re not just saving lives, we’re saving souls, and we’re having fun”. 

When the hell has that ever been more important?

3. Baggy Trousers – Madness

https://youtu.be/Dc3AovUZgvo
This song evokes the earliest memories of my life. Coming downstairs on a Sunday morning to my dad sat in front of the record player playing ‘Complete Madness’. I’d tiptoe across the living room, treading as lightly as a 3 year old boy could for fear of making the needle jump, sit on his lap and open the inside sleeve of the album which just fascinated me.

Me and my big sis Louise. Madness LP just out of shot!


There were pictures of the band (usually in genius symmetrical formation), pictures of gig posters, tour passes, badges, but more importantly, when I reached reading age….. lyrics. 

To sing ‘Baggy Trousers’ word for word is no mean feat, to do it by the age of 4 is pretty impressive. My fascination with music began with this song on that album. I would stare at the cover longer than Side A lasted and get lost in music. I hope I’m never found.

4. The Loneliness of A Tower Crane Driver – Elbow

https://youtu.be/fX0B9ZpdZEA
I’ve adored Elbow since ‘Asleep in the Back’ was released so when ‘Seldom Seen Kid’ hit the dizzy heights that it did in 2008 it was no surprise, it was just reassuring that these 5 humble, beautifully poetic guys from Manchester were getting the plaudits they so richly deserved. 

If you aren’t aware of the format, on the night of the Mercury Prize each act performs a song from their nominated album. Elbow played ‘…Tower Crane Driver’ and it is said to have massively influenced the result. It is an incredible ballad with a powerful orchestral drumbeat that never changes throughout. The song is supposedly a metaphor for affluence and ambition, and if that’s true, all the better. There is a chord change after the line “Send up a prayer in my name” which can reduce me to a quivering wreck. 

In Southsea, Portsmouth in August at Victorious Festival, I get to see them for the third time with my girls at my side. To me, they’re a perfect festival band. Songs that make you want to throw your arms around your loved ones and thank life for what you have. 

5. My hometown – Bruce Springsteen

https://youtu.be/z6LABdHtkUA
Hidden away as the album closer on ‘Born in the USA’, this track takes me back to William St where I grew up. Most weeknights when my dad would arrive home from work I would be out playing. Whenever I was in the street, I would ask to drive home. I’d sit on his lap and hold the steering wheel and ‘drive’ the 200 yards up the street to the front door. Inconceivable in 2017, but back then I thought I was the bees knees. I never saw his hands on the bottom of the steering wheel guiding us the whole way. 

The song itself is as poetic as ‘The Boss’ gets. The story starts in his own childhood, 8 years old, sat on his dad’s lap in the car looking out at ‘My Hometown’ and the civil rights struggles of 1960s America. Taking the song right up to present day with the narrator, now 35, and a father of young lad, who is sat on his lap in his car looking at the same vista. At the point where it becomes apparent the story has gone full circle there is the most beautiful chord hold which gives the listener enough time for the penny to drop. It’s genius is, again, in its simplicity and in my dictionary, next to the word ‘genius’, there’s a picture of Bruce Springsteen.

6. Try A Little Tenderness – Otis Redding

https://youtu.be/IQ9n2_5mbig
6 Music and Radio 2 DJ, FLC frontman and all-round hero Huey Morgan says “Otis could sing the alphabet and you’d be moved”. I wholeheartedly agree. His voice is a vehicle that just transports you somewhere and this song has so many dimensions. The slow start, the build, the crescendo and scatting. It’s difficult to appreciate sometimes that it all happens in just the one song.

My introduction to this song came via my ‘big sister’, who I am indebted to for much of my musical influence, in the film ‘Pretty in Pink’. The scene where Duckie walks into Trax records and mimes this tune in full is a delight and was watched repeatedly in our house in the late 80’s/ early 90’s. Once the humour wears off and you listen to the tune, it dawns how colossal a voice Redding had. Otis Blue is a phenomenal album that would be up there with What’s Going On in my collection. Redding, along with Jackie Wilson, is about as perfect as the male voice gets. Turn the lights off, put headphones on. And be taken away.

7. All My Friends – LCD Soundsystem

https://youtu.be/eN5I1fMie0o
This was the hardest choice to include but made the list purely for the amount of memories it evokes. Those memories aren’t directly related to the song but simply what the lyrics remind me of. Immediately, I’m taken back to University to a carefree time with house parties and …. all my friends. 

The London Sessions version of this track is what hooked me in. The repetitive piano is hypnotic throughout and the pounding beat just glides the track along for all 7 and a half minutes.

My time in University was cherished and I met so many wonderful people from different places and cultures. If this song had been written at this time it would have only enhanced the many 3am’s standing in a room with your arm around a friend and a drink held aloft. 

“If the sun comes up and I still don’t want to stagger home” 

8. Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd

https://youtu.be/cryTiFrtHqA 

A song that doesn’t need an introduction, but certainly deserves one. I was late to the Pink Floyd party and always liked them. But just 2 years ago I saw Roger Waters The Wall, a live show mixed in with the dark cinematic experience you’d expect from such an eery concept album. And what an album! In that time, there isn’t a band that has dominated my playlist quite like them. 

Admittedly, growing up, they were my sisters band. Perhaps a substance based decision at the time. But she always had good music around the house. Floyd, James, R.E.M, Talking Heads, Blondie, Prince and Pat Benatar (maybe not). 

I could well have chosen Hey You from The Wall, but this track is just such a beast live, and the climactic moment in the tearing down of The Wall. Plus, on record it has arguably the greatest guitar solo in music.

My book

Im so envious of friends that are proper bookworms. I put it down to a childhood in a busy house and a workingmens club. My daughter is 10 and has read 10 times the amount of books I have. Although a huge fan of crime writers such as Michael Connelly, Peter James, Iain Rankin and James Patterson, I would have to pick a classic. So… give me To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. People I think a lot of swear it’s their favourite book and that’s good enough for me.

My Item

Having sung in various bands and solo since I was 18 I am happy with my voice and ability to carry a tune. However I am nowhere near the guitarist I would like to be so I would have to take a guitar. A beautiful Fender acoustic guitar would keep me happy on rainy nights and quiet days. 

What are yours?

My Housing Story

My Housing Story

1979 – 1994

I grew up in Tynewydd, a small village at the top of the Rhonda Valley, unknowingly at the time, through a time of prominent pit closures and amongst a community which was to be ripped apart by The ’empowering policies of Conservativism’. Sarcasm, very much present.

My childhood was spent in one house. A modest 3 bed terraced house, bought in 1977 by my parents, their first step on to the housing ladder in a time of high interest rates and high inflation. As stable an upbringing as it comes. Outside the front door at least. Myself, my 2 sisters, a mother who had more part-time jobs than Pauline Fowler and a dad who saw 2 engineering companies go under from a blend of the collapse of the manufacturing sector in Wales to the unfortunately deep pockets of a company director.

We lived opposite 4 blocks of 1 bed Council flats, book ended by the 2 best conker trees in Tynewydd. The flats were, until the late 90’s, occupied by over 55’s. It was a wonderfully warm Street. Yes, we fell out with residents if a ball was bouncing or our enjoyment drowned out the volume of Juliet Bravo, but there was always a respect and a cooperation to make the community better. Always. Proved no less than the fact that everyone who lived there was addressed by their surname. “Morning Mrs Jones!” – you’ll never believe it but that was her name.

My horizon until the age of 8 stretched only as far Mountain View, known locally as “Bulls Row”, where my gran lived in a council house and my dad had grown up.

Football was played ‘down the garages’ where leaseholders rented a small space from the local authority only to have us rowdy bunch bang balls against it on a daily basis. My whole world was within a 250 metre radius and life is pretty fantastic when, in a pre-social media age, all your friends just ‘know’ to be at the bottom of the street after Neighbours.

1994 – 1998

Our (my sisters and I) lives seemed to be thrown into a washing machine in 1994 and in many ways we didn’t all come out until 1997, or at least I didn’t.

The most profound impact on my childhood happened in 1994 when my dad beat the local milkman (not literally) in an election to become the new steward of Tynewydd Labour Club. This changed everything, for the better (in my eyes).

This club was the lifeblood of our community. It had the largest membership in Wales and the biggest function hall in the valley. It had bands on a Saturday night and my friends and I would gather on the wall to listen. It was a hub of activity. It had 2 snooker tables – which I became very familiar with and shot my highest break on (87).

Tom Jones sang there in the 60s. Along with Brotherhood of Man in the 90s but they were atrocious and members were not happy with a 45 min rendition of ‘save all your kisses for me’ to justify the £5 ticket price. Ritchie Burnett played darts there 6 months after winning the World Championships in 1995. This club was huge. And we were technically moving in.

Besides the opportunity to earn some extra pocket money, significant pocket money when I hit 16, it also gave me the opportunity to earn something far greater. Something I’ve never lost and never will. It gave me an education on what generations before us had gone through to get where we were.

I spent night after night being entertained by countless tales (many of them more than once) by working class men and women. Miners, factory workers, cleaners, union workers, politicians and stand-up comedians who were all invigorating company, funny and humble. Stories that would have you in tears one minute and roaring laughter the next. That’s a whole different blog entry.

Working behind the bar in Tynewydd Labour Club was my window to the world. It opened my eyes and made me realise that I could accept that one day I’d be sat there regaling the same stories, or I could choose a different path. There was no cavalry coming over the Rhigos to save the good folk of the Rhondda, they felt forgotten about. No jobs, no prospects, no training, poor transportation links and 2p on the price of pint of Albright in the upcoming price review by the brewery.

We went through a honeymoon period for a year as we settled into a new life, and life was really exciting.

In 1995 my parents told us they were separating. Honeymoon over. I came home from my third GCSE and was asked who I wanted to go with. I said I was staying put. I had 8 exams left and needed to stay put. Perhaps a few more weeks wouldn’t have harmed but there we are, they’d been through enough. So had we.

In August of that year I had my results. I passed 3. I failed 8.

Through a time of family trouble, I found myself flitting between my house, the club and my grans. But that was all about to change too.

In mid-1996, then owners (a small Housing Association) decided to upgrade the homes in ‘Bulls Row’. This preceded WHQS and my gran was temporarily decanted to a house around the corner and she moved back in several months later.

But 5 mountain view was no longer hers. Her front room (for best, and certainly not for kids) was now the main room. The back kitchen was part of the living room and the new kitchen was the wrong shape. The bathroom was upstairs and not in the garden. Where was the coal shed? Where was the long passageway where my yells of “Graaaaaannnnnnn” would reverberate through when she couldn’t me knocking the door over the shenanigans in Corrie.

This house was no longer her home.

My dad was offered the house by the coal board in the late 70s for £4,000. That’s not a typo. He said no. And I think he still regrets it now.

That summer things went drastically south. During what was the greatest cultural influential period of my childhood (Blur v Oasis, Tony Blair on the brink of being elected PM of a seemingly unelectable Labour Party, Euro 96 in full flow). Not a day would go by where I wouldn’t be hurriedly called from a football kick about or cricket game and taken to see her wandering the streets in her nightie. Communities like that take care of their own. I’d take her home, make her a cup of tea, and try, longingly, to find my gran. I was sure she was in there somewhere. She wasn’t. I never found her again. Her mind had cracked, and it sent a shockwave through our lives. She said something to me one day, making very little sense,  and I laughed, in desperation more than anything else. If I did! She looked at me and started crying, “don’t laugh at me”. I never laughed at her again.

She comes to mind whenever I see organisations, governments, authorities, anyone in authority, doing things TO communities instead of WITH them. We haven’t learned as a society. We haven’t grasped that communities and people are unique. Perhaps that’s why I work in Housing. I like to think so. It’s far easier for decision makers to put a blanket over a community, every community, and label them the same.

My sisters and I regularly have chats about my gran. And collectively we’d all give anything for one more day in her presence and wisdom*. To take her shopping. To show her her great grand-children. To give her a big bloody cwtch.

* I once told her I had a girlfriend. When I told my gran her name, she advised me her family ‘had too much money for the likes of us’, based solely on the fact this girl’s dad was self-employed and had his own transit.

In March 1997, as a 17-year-old who had been moulded by 3 years working behind a bar, I was offered the opportunity to go to work in Portugal. I thought long and hard, for about 8 seconds, and left Wales on St David’s day for the Algarve. This was my opportunity to choose a different path. I was in Pontypridd Technical College at the time, in the latter part of year 2 of a business and finance GNVQ. I could always pick this up again if things didn’t work out, couldn’t I?

It didn’t work out and I returned to the UK after 1 season. I re-joined the course and made a whole new friendship group. These 4 boys from Tonyrefail and Caerphilly changed my life and would be my housemates a year later when we all moved to Swansea to University. We knuckled down, shared coursework, musical tastes, experience and we all achieved what we knew we needed to do. We needed to get out.

1999- 2003

I have a deep love for Swansea. The area has undergone such drastic regeneration and it’s hard to think back to the time in University and picture how it was. Townhill campus on a Tuesday night was something to behold, and if you made it to Spoofers afterwards, you had done well.

SA1 bears no resemblance now to what it looked like then. The student accommodation in Mount Pleasant was plentiful, but dilapidated.

In 3 years in University I lived with friends and had dealings with 3 private landlords. I never had a good experience with any of them, even after a ceiling fell in in one house when I was sleeping and there was a significant asbestos threat. It was immediately apparent this was a quick buck from kids who had parents who could afford it. I didn’t have that. I worked all through University, in order to stay in University.

I moved from Swansea in 2002, in the final year of my degree, to a private sector rented house in Port Talbot. I lived with my girlfriend at the time and her young son. As the property was managed by an agent on behalf of the landlord, we had no dealings with the landlord directly. Until one day the mother of the landlord turned up threatening us with eviction if we didn’t pay the £800 rent owed. Not a threat you want to be made with when nearing the completion of a dissertation. In what was an intimidating conversation to be on the receiving end of, it’s amazing how your character surprises you in times of adversity and I had to be quite frank in my exchange, pointing out that we had receipts for every payment to the agent, and if there was a trust issue between the landlord and the agent, that had nothing to do with us.

I’d urge any private tenant to do their homework and find out anything they can about the landlord before taking up a tenancy. Not an easy task, especially as the ones who have most to hide, stay well below the surface and any legislation put in place to address this only serves to increase the burden on the responsible landlords out there, of which there are many. Are you listening Rent Smart Wales?

In September 2003 I moved down the road, still within the PRS, to Margam.

2005

This was short-lived and following my relationship ending, I returned back home to the Rhondda in early 2005. Back in the same bedroom in William Street but now aged 24, not 14. A daunting proposition. Work was the only thing that gave me a life outside of the valley, and particularly on the weekends where I sang solo in clubs/ pubs.

6 months later, I moved out of dads for no other reason than I wanted my own space and we were getting under each other’s feet more than either of us cared to admit. I moved in with a, then, friend in the lower part of the Rhondda. A joint tenancy. Travelling to Port Talbot every day did not bother me as you never get tired of the view from the top of the Bwlch road. If you haven’t stood and had an ice cream and savoured the view of Cwmparc and Treorchy from the Bwlch, I urge you to stop what you’re doing  and go now. You’ll know what I mean.

2006 – 2013

In early 2006, whilst still working in Port Talbot, I started a new relationship and moved to Brackla in Bridgend. The community of Brackla is an interesting one. At the time there were 4 ward councillors (2 Labour, 2 Conservative). That seemed to be replicated in the dichotomy between the affluence and poverty in Brackla. There are areas which have 3rd/4th generation unemployment sitting right alongside an array of £220k 4/5 bed detached houses.

Expecting the birth of my daughter in late 2006, we began our quest to get on to the property ladder. In April 2007, at the age of 27, I purchased my first home in Brackla. Whilst there, a young lady lived down the road with her 3 children. I would guess there were 6, 4 and 2. She was quite pleasant in the beginning and would say hello when passing. This all changed by the following Summer and her visitors to the property were really starting to affect an otherwise quiet cul-de-sac.

By mid-2009 with my daughter approaching her 2nd birthday we were awoken to the sound of fighting in the street. It transpired that a gang of people in the house were being called out by a gang of individuals outside. Anarchy ensued and there were some savage scenes that I could not quite get over were taking place on my very own doorstep. The very next day I got home from work and there were several ‘tip-top’ wrappers on my lawn. When I looked down the street I could see the eldest girl, now 10, eating a tip-top. I collected the wrappers and walked down the street and politely asked “Can you put these in your bin please? Is that ok?”. The reaction I got was quite sad. To hear a 10-year old girl use some of the words that she did was really heart-breaking, and extremely difficult for any parent to tolerate. There was nothing I could say and she even followed and threw them back on my lawn. The mother followed. With language as colourful as a Coldplay concert she echoed her daughter’s sentiments.

The genius that is Prof. Dave Adamson told the CIH Cymru conference in 2011 that ‘a good home in a bad community is not a good home’. This was not a good community.

In the months that followed, the lady in question lost all 3 of her children to Social Services and started using her home as a bail address for her ‘friends’. This brought all types of individuals back and forth the house and one particular day, a Sunday, I was approached by 2 Polish men who asked me if I knew anything about THAT house. It transpired that one man, who had moments earlier, ran past me carrying a laptop had entered their garden 3 streets away and opened their kitchen door taking said laptop and a wallet. Police were called and the property was searched, uncovering endless drugs, needles, lamps (for cannabis growing) and recognised stolen items.

This property was the subject of a large scale police surveillance in the period that followed. However, it is a very difficult process for everyone concerned when the property was not rented – she had been left it in her will by her grandmother – and the community’s frustration was growing quickly. The Police were unable to disclose everything to the community, for fear of losing the integrity of their case, and the community took this silence as inaction. A desperate situation.

Following the ending of my marriage in late 2013 I returned back home to the Rhondda. This was preceded, in early 2013, by the highlight of my professional career to that date when I was nominated for the CIH Cymru Rising Star award. Unfortunately, any professional momentum was lost due to a serious illness and by September I had nowhere to turn other than to go back home. Again.

In what was the darkest point of my life, not least because I was fighting a custody battle which was every bit of painful as it was expensive, I returned home and moved in with my mother. Not 14, not 24, but 34 years of age (I’m hibernating for a whole year when I turn 44), in my mother’s spare room with 4 walls to stare at. My only sound box statement here is that if there is a responsible group who want to offer assistance to fathers in a time of despairing need, you need a bigger marketing budget. It is an unjust system that labels dads as almost 2nd class citizens in such circumstances.

Friends will never know how much I valued their presence during those 6 months. One particular friendship which became my salvation was with a work colleague who also lived in the Rhondda. He never knew how much I came to value the role he played in that period. We had the best part of an hour each way every day to work. We talked music, school friends and more music. It was the best 2 hours of my day and I could not have made it through that period without him. (Thank you Van 1)

2014 – 2016

In March 2014 I couldn’t bear to be away from my daughter any longer and I moved back to Bridgend, the only way I could get overnight access and be the father I wanted to be, the father I deserved to be. I moved in with a friend who was also single and also had a daughter. During this time the custody battle and divorce came to a very expensive close. The silver lining was that this period also spawned the birth of a new relationship with my current partner. In what seemed like a military operation with careful planning, after 3 months, my 2 girls finally met.

Living in Briton Ferry, this meant we often spent Daisy’s weekends in Beccy’s YMCA owned flat. Following the YMCA’s intention to sell this flat, we decided to plan long-term and move in with Beccy’s parents to save and get back on the property ladder. This was the Summer of 2015.

By February of the following year I moved to Baglan, renting a 2-bed house off a work colleague. The only time I had a stable relationship with a landlord in the PRS. Beccy and I knew that we were going to outgrow this house in the near future and we started looking for a house in late 2016.

2017

In an odd twist of fortune, my landlord and her partner were moving to Margam, and a buyer fell through for their house. We were offered a viewing and we fell in love at first sight. We moved in on 17th March 2017, sat on camping chairs with a Chinese takeaway on our first night watching a Peter Kay DVD. We even surrendered ‘The XX’ tickets in Cardiff for that evening. But we had a home. Our home. And another chapter begins….

So, here’s my tally:

17 house moves.

16 different houses.

3 student homes.

4 Private Rented Sector homes.

2 Owned properties. ………And 1 lovely gran

 

More than one idea……

Some 15 hours on, news continues to seep out of the French capital, shedding more unwanted light on last nights events.

A tragic loss of life, leaving many loved ones feeling numb with pain, and inexplicably confused and angry.

News outlets will no doubt over the next few days report increased detail about the sophisticated nature of the attacks. However, not wanting to give the attackers the time of day – the UK media put pay to that by elevating ‘Jihadi John’ – it is absolutely worth mentioning the #porteouvert campaign which surfaced almost immediately on Twitter.

In a time when details on the whereabouts of the attackers were scarce, local people quoted the hashtag alongside their address, offering an ‘open door’ to shelter those fleeing the Parisian attacks. With gunmen seemingly at large, the French publicly sympathised and told the world where they lived. Astonishing. 

When attacks of atrocity are met with such astronomical resilience, it offers hope to those who are suffering and reminds the rest of us that decency, love, compassion and tolerance is, and will forever be, unflinching.

Without being able to think of how to end this, I’ll turn to a line in ‘Isaac and Ishmael’, a special episode of ‘The West Wing’, written in the wake of 9/11. It’s 14 years on, but #porteouvert shows that decency, love, compassion and tolerance are unmoved in a United stand against this…… War.

“Keep accepting more than one idea, it drives them absolutely crazy.”