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A (conference) day of reckoning, 25th February 2021

Lynsey Sweeney, Managing Director at Communities that Work, reflects on the times we’re in just ahead of our joint conference with LWI.

Annual recurring events naturally give rise to ‘at-this-time-last-year’ thoughts, and our joint annual conference with LWI is no exception.

Like last year, we have an absolutely stellar line up including government officials and Ministers, true industry shapers, leaders, and elder statespersons from across the employment, skills and housing sectors. And of course, we have the chance for delegates to engage in thoughtful debate.

But just about everything else in the world around us has changed beyond our imagination and recognition since we last gathered in person for conference. We’ve gone from the record levels of employment just pre-Covid, to fears of long-term unemployment not seen since the 1980s, in the space of nine months in our national history. From ‘stubborn’ unemployment rates seen as a marginal issue, to employment as the single most important driver of the Government and Treasury in our national economic recovery, recognised within just weeks of the first lockdown and in the first Plan for Jobs.

There’s really no time like the present to get together and consider what we can do as forces for good when it comes to housing, learning, working and earning and bringing our shared communities back, stronger than ever before. And we’re delighted that with the support of our fantastic sponsors this year, who make our conferences possible, we’ve been able to treble the number of delegates joining us on 25 th February.

Before the pandemic, we knew that social housing residents of working age were more likely to be unemployed than other tenure types across the country. We also know that once in work, this group is more likely than others to be on lower earnings and experiencing limited career progression opportunities. This persistent, frustrating, and unfair status quo led Communities that Work to set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) with national politicians to understand and address these issues, once and for all.

Since the pandemic and in the new light of it, Communities that Work and the APPG delivered a national Parliamentary Inquiry into the problems and solutions of social housing and employment, publishing Improving Opportunities in late 2020. And Communities that Work led a national membership survey to assess the impact of the pandemic on our sector’s activity and investment in employment support, published last month. Here we saw results which both cause concern, and which draw out hope for the communities that we are part of, and serve.

Unsurprisingly, our survey analysis showed 94% of Housing Associations reporting an increase in residents facing economic hardship, with 66% reporting increases in residents receiving housing benefit because of Covid-19.

Tellingly, 69% of housing associations reported an increase in the number of tenants reaching out specifically for employment support since the pandemic hit, with over 80% reporting increases in rent and financial calls for help.

Encouragingly, the commitment and investment in our communities has held up – in the face of so many sector challenges – with our new figures showing that Housing Associations provided an estimated £76 million to community investment in 2019-20, a £6 million increase from 2018.

While job support schemes and benefit increases have been put in place by the Government in response to the pandemic (for the time being) we know that these initiatives are not enough to protect all those who need them most, or to operate effectively at a local level. For that, we need local partnerships and local leadership from our home, skills, and employment provider sectors.

We also need national and local Government support to forge new, mutual funding and delivery partnerships to ensure that social funds are spent in full across communities most in need, and that new ‘shared prosperity funds’ set a course for partnership between sectors.

Our mutual duty to achieve a strong and fair recovery for our communities drives Communities that Work members, our conference speakers and delegates and our partnerships through this year. In our joint conference, we seek to forge those partnerships anew for lasting, enduring and positive community impact. See you there.

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