Shelter Scotland knows how to build variety in to their Conferences. Last year, featured a powerful session by the photographer and famously ex-punk ex-drummer ex-Mancunian John Maher. This year the artistic highlight was provided by Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar (Scotland's National Poet).
Adrian Mitchell once famously wrote 'most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.' That is not an accusation that could ever be aimed at Jackie. Her personal style at once disarmed, charmed and engaged the audience, and her poetry - she read several short pieces - all demonstrated just that accessibility which is often so lacking (for low-brows such as me, anyway).
Jackie had written a poem specifically for the Conference which was distributed on a postcard, pictured below.
I couldn't help being reminded of Adrian Mitchell's light-hearted celebration of Nothingmas Day, which I love too much not to sign-post here, given the time of year.
Jackie's contribution was sandwiched between the various breakout groups that dealt with the practical challenges of empty homes work. There were three such sessions, each offering a choice of three workshops.
My first choice was a session that dealt with the need for good internal partnerships. The challenges in this case were extraordinary: Argyll & Bute Council is over 200 miles from top to bottom (I think that might mean North to South) yet only has a population of 90,000 - some of whom are not even living on the Scottish mainland. Go figure.
Nevertheless, the importance of face-to-face meetings - however difficult to arrange - was emphasised as a basis to develop the necessary trust and buy-in from amongst the many different departments involved in the empty homes initiative.
The challenge of geography was actually relevant to our own Conference earlier this year, when James Lafferty of Argyll and Bute won one of our Empty Homes Awards, and was Highly Commended in another category. However, even to get to Glasgow for the Scottish Conference involved James in a 6.00 a.m. start: the logistics of getting to Birmingham in May made it impossible for him or anyone else from Argyll & Bute to be there to pick up his Award in person. So I was pleased to be able to get a shot of James in Glasgow to make up, a little, for his absence from our own Conference report:
Empty Homes Loans
My next choice was a session on Best Practice in Empty Homes Loans. There is quite a lot of evidence out there about what works, for example in the Kent and Welsh loan schemes. The latter in particular has received extensive evaluation from Sheffield Hallam University. I was curious to see whether new variants had been developed.
As it turned out, the session highlighted the same key points that seem to have emerged elsewhere, the most important of which is the need for flexibility for owners. In principle, the Dundee/Angus scheme had additional constraints because rents for properties that were let under the scheme had to be set at the Local Housing Allowance level. In many parts of the U.K. that would be a major disincentive - not to say a deal-breaker. But as Sean Maxwell, the shared service empty homes officer for the two councils, was keen to point out, the LHA - which seemed to be standard across the entire area - was actually higher that the average market rent in a number of locations. It was no surprise that those were the locations where take-up had occurred, whereas take-up had been virtually non-existent in areas where LHA was lower than market rents.
The loan periods seemed relatively long by Kent/Wales standard, where the expectation is that properties under the scheme would be sold or re-mortgaged within two or three years to repay the loan - depending on whether the home was to be sold or let. i didn't discover whether there was any pressing reason why the loan periods needed to be longer.
Empty Properties Making a Difference
The final session featured Mary Hill from the YMCA Glenrothes and Samantha Stewart from the Nationwide Foundation, which many will know has run successive grant schemes to support empty homes projects.
The YMCA schemes had originally tapped into Nationwide funding but Mary had been able to line up multiple successor sources of finance, which I thought was exemplary in showing how voluntary organisations can build on the confidence deriving from past experience once they have a couple of projects under their belt.
An important factor had been the growing partnership with the local authority. The local authority was referring properties, whilst benefitting from the move-on accommodation that the YMCA was generating as well as the volunteering and employment opportunites that were being created. Overall, this struck me as a classic example of what can be achieved by a focused voluntary sector organisation. These sorts of outcome have been well-documented in the research into the Empty Homes Community Grants Programme 2012-15, but it is gratifying to see the model continuing to thrive.
Samantha Stewart, for her segment, emphasised how much the Nationwide Foundation had valued the outcomes from the empty homes grant funding it had provided. The commitment to empty homes was still there, but current funding was starting to address the need for capacity-building in the voluntary sector - the benefits of which the Glenrothes YMCA had amply demonstrated. In fact I had approached the Nationwide Foundation a few years back about the value that would be derived from focusing on replicable models and the process of replication itself rather than just individual project outcomes, and whilst I don't think my intervention had any bearing on their current directions, it was good to know that there is a shared vision. Samantha gave a strong sense of the dynamism and a commitment to problem-solving that underlies the Nationwide Foundation's work and implies that more will emerge in future that will benefit our sector.
People make Conferences
Thanks, finally, to Shaheena Din and the team at Shelter that made the Conference such a success. Kristen Hubert, the architect of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, was in attendance but is currently on maternity leave. It must be gratifying for her to see that the foundations she laid have proved to be so strong, giving her what should be seen as the ultimate accolade of making herself replaceable.
I didn't get to talk to Kristen but I did have the pleasant surprise of running into Ashley Horsey, whose work with Commonweal is proving increasingly valuable. For those that don't know the history of the Empty Homes Agency, the EHA brought forth Bob Lawrence, Bob Lawrence begat Ashley Horsey, Ashley Horsey begat Jonathan Ellis, Jonathan Ellis begat David Ireland, and David Ireland begat Helen Williams (though not exactly in the biblical sense). So Ashley very much belongs at an Empty Homes Conference even if he left the sector 15 years ago.
I left the Conference as enthused as ever by the people who are attracted to the empty homes world.