Written from an interview with Steve Cranston
Foundational Economy Lead at United Welsh Housing Association
In 2017, all four housing associations in Blaenau Gwent (Tai Calon, United Welsh, Melin Homes and Link Cymru) formed a partnership to strengthen our local economy. Between us, we own around 20% of all homes in the county. This is a large physical footprint, but we also employ a lot of people, have large supply chains, and provide many services beyond housing. Together, we can play a significant role in the prosperity and wellbeing of our community.
It all began back in June 2017; the Welsh Government had just announced it would not financially back Circuit of Wales, the proposed race track in Blaenau Gwent that would seemingly change the fortunes of the area.
This bad news came the same day that foundationaleconomy.com and CREW (Centre for Regeneration Excellence in Wales) launched the What Wales Can Do report. By studying the local economy in Swansea Bay, they found that multi-million-pound investments (like Circuit of Wales) create no more than 5% of jobs in the area – and you can be pretty sure that very few housing association tenants would be in that 5%.
These investments were compared to Swansea Bay’s foundational economy, which is all the stuff you need to live a good life: health, education, wellbeing, housing, social care, food, retail, infrastructure and so on. Here, they found that over 40% of jobs in the area were directly connected to the foundational economy.
So, this got us in Blaenau Gwent thinking – Circuit of Wales isn’t happening, and even if it did, it wouldn’t have delivered the regeneration it promised. What next? How can we, as housing associations, make a real difference to our local economy?
We came together to discuss what areas were important to us, and identified strong, local supply chains as a key point for collaboration. We want to be procuring more services from local businesses.
At the moment, there are companies in Blaenau Gwent making door frames and windows, and exporting them to the Midlands, while driving past companies from the Midlands coming to install windows in Blaenau Gwent. That’s clearly bonkers!
In the past, we’ve focused too much on value for money over locality and reliability. But this recent crisis has highlighted how long supply chains carry more risk and potentially higher costs. By having a supplier just around the corner, it’s easier for them to fulfil their services, and they have a greater investment in the community. If they’re on the other side of the world, we’re just another number to them.
We also believe we can’t be decent landlords if there’s poverty all around us. By supporting local businesses, we’re keeping the money in Blaenau Gwent. In-work poverty is one of the biggest challenges our tenants face; some people are holding down three jobs just to scrape an existence. That’s not right. By investing in local supply chains, we can provide decent, fair-paying work for our community.
The Measures of Success
The main measure of success for us is hard cash – how much more money are we putting into local businesses? This is important, because this money goes into the pockets of local employees, and most importantly, our tenants.
The second measure is the quality of our relationships with businesses. Are these healthy partnerships that enable both sides to develop and play to their strengths? We want to move away from transactional, one-off deals and towards long-term relationships.
We’re also committed in the notion of fair work. Unfortunately, some of the foundational economy sectors in Blaenau Gwent are characterised by insecurity and poor terms and conditions. We want to be raising a fair work agenda in Blaenau Gwent, and get companies signed up to a fair work charter.
Finally, looking forward, we want to get more local businesses in a position to tender for work. Traditionally, the turn around time for our tenders means many businesses aren’t ready to apply. We want to support local businesses by removing those barriers and nurturing our relationships so they’re able to take advantage of future opportunities.
We believe this collaboration between housing associations can make a real difference. We already have relationships with other public organisations such as the local authority, health board, police and more. By working together and using our existing resources, we can make significant changes to the community that we support.