I work in the most normal town in England – it’s official!
I can’t argue with the researchers who say that, on 11 indicators, Didcot residents (actually those of five streets in Didcot) represent the national median. However, I do take issue with the London journalist who says that ‘normal’ equals ‘meh’. Easy to take a derogatory tone from a distance, but I want to write in defence of the normal, of the everyday, of the ordinary.
In many ways, Didcot tells the everyday housing story of industrialised England. It grew up around Brunel’s railways, filled up as the army barracks moved in and increased in size again when the famous power station, partly decommissioned in 2012 and the site of a tragic accident last year, opened.
With each arrival, the need for housing increased and the shape of the town changed beyond recognition.
In the post-industrial phase, we’ve seen a growth in the high tech and science industries. Didcot is in the heart of Science Vale UK, neighbouring Harwell Campus, Milton Park, Culham Science Park and Didcot Power Station. Once again we’ve seen see people coming to the area for work. House prices are high in Oxfordshire; wages do not reach London levels and so we have some of the most unaffordable places in the country
I suppose Soha is a pretty ‘ordinary’ Housing Association. We were formed by a vote of South Oxfordshire District Council tenants twenty years ago. We’ve grown organically through development, but our primary focus is on good housing management and services for our 6,500 tenants. Most of what we deal with is ‘normal’ – it’s repairs, home improvements and adaptations, dealing with everyday queries about rent accounts; it’s supporting vulnerable tenants, giving advice at tough times and working in partnership to help tenants get the best outcomes; it’s also supporting victims of ASB and Domestic Abuse. All of these things make a huge difference to the ability of people to live their normal lives.
But look more closely and I think we are something quite special. Not least because Didcot is responding to the housing crisis through exponential growth. Over the next 20 years, Didcot is due to grow by 30%. Just imagine if that sort of growth were ‘normal’ across the country!
Soha’s growth through development has regularly hit 4% a year and no small part of this is down to Didcot. We are, though, about much more than growth and development. We have a relationship with tenants that has been built up over 20 years, with involvement in service improvement, in holding us to account and in leading the association. We have a role in the local community to provide great quality housing to those who need it and to support thriving local areas. We’ve got staff and tenants who feel immensely proud of the organisation and what they achieve. And so they should!
So I write in defence of the bread and butter work that we do every day: the ordinary services which make a real difference to people’s lives. I believe we have a responsibility to build new homes, but also towards our existing tenants.
Community based associations know the challenges and the opportunities of our local areas. We all balance the need to provide new homes with the accountability we owe our current tenants. We have a continuous tension between the need to run efficiently and commercially, with the social purpose of supporting people and communities in housing need. Get that right and I think that’s pretty extraordinary.
First published 05.04.17 in Inside Housing