Opinion: how housing associations can help transform town centres

This week, RBH Chief Executive Gareth Swarbrick wrote for Inside Housing about how housing associations can help to transform town centres. The text of his article is republished below.

Town centres are changing across the UK, but this is creating opportunities for new residential markets and housing associations have a key role to play.

Each week we hear new stories reflecting huge shifts in the retail sector with some of our largest and most well-known retail chains struggling or closing. However, town centres also offer a range of high-quality assets, transport networks, heritage and leisure facilities. This infrastructure can pave the way for investment in high-quality housing and facilities that can better meet the needs of local communities and help to breathe new life into town centres.

Housing associations are well placed to support investment in town centres and drive a joined-up approach. By working with partners, we can support local people and create great places, ensuring genuinely affordable homes are part of the mix, that wider investment can be triggered, and quality benchmarks are set for early development schemes.

Rochdale town centre has all the ingredients to help deliver major change using this approach. Birthplace of co-operation with amazing built heritage, it was hit hard by industrial and economic restructuring in recent decades, but has the potential for a much brighter future.

That’s why RBH is working in partnership with our local residents, the council, health, transport and heritage partners to give purpose back to the town centre, inject new vibrancy and protect its history. At the same time, we’re exploring ways in which we can improve people’s lives through good work and training opportunities.

Offering better quality homes to existing town centre residents and attracting new people to Rochdale town centre living is a vital part of this. The current residential offer in Rochdale town centre is very limited; a 1960s rented flat or a small 1900s rented terrace. Anyone looking for a garden or a larger family house or a route into home ownership will struggle here at the moment.

To help improve this, we’ve committed £25 million for redevelopment, investment in existing homes and building new homes to help drive up quality and choice. This investment will also improve street layouts and walking and cycling connectivity as well as the public realm to help enhance overall quality of life in the town centre.

This is the first step towards creating a new market that works for the whole community with new housing for people of all ages, including specialist homes for older people. Critically, this is a catalyst for private sector investment in Rochdale town centre which could unlock capacity for over 2,000 new homes.

This approach isn’t without its challenges. One of these is public funding and how it is allocated. Currently the focus is on supporting existing high-pressure residential markets where demand is high rather than opportunities for changing places. Metrics that project forward, based on previous market activity, will never reflect the fantastic potential that Rochdale and similar towns offer.

However, the prize for unlocking potential in town centres like Rochdale is massive and housing associations could hold a key. By joining forces with local partners with a shared vision, there is the opportunity to create new markets that better meet the needs of local communities and ensure town centres have a vibrant future as well as their proud history.

Spotlight: Step Up / Step Down

One year since the launch of our Step Up / Step Down pilot, we look back at what’s been achieved and what’s still to come.

Delayed transfers of care in NHS hospitals (sometimes referred to as “bed blocking”) have more than doubled in the last seven years. This means that there are thousands of beds which are occupied by patients who have been treated but are unable to go home. In many cases, this is because it is not safe for them to do so or because their accommodation is unsuitable.

To help address this issue in Rochdale, RBH joined forces with the Pennine Acute NHS Trust last year to launch a pilot project called Step Up / Step Down.

Our Step Down service is for older people who have to stay in hospital because their home is unsafe or unsuitable. This may be because it’s in a poor condition which could be detrimental to their health, or an aid or adaptation may need to be installed.

RBH offers an independent living home which has been furnished and is ready for immediate use. The person can be discharged from hospital and live comfortably for up to six weeks until their own home has been made ready for them to return or a new home is found.

Our Step Up service is provided if a person is living in an unsuitable home which is putting their health at risk so moving into a hospital is the only alternative.

Through Step Up, RBH can accommodate people in an independent living home while their home is made suitable or another is identified.

These temporary homes form part of RBH’s Independent Living schemes located across the borough. They are ideal for people aged 60 or over who can manage in their own home but who may need a little help to stay independent. Most of our schemes have between 25 – 35 individual flats and bungalows, providing a real community feel but also guaranteeing privacy.

Delivering Results

Just over a year since the pilot launched, Step Down is now an established RBH service, successfully providing temporary accommodation for older people.

Success stories include an elderly person who was able to return home after repairs and adaptations were put in place, enabling them to continue to live independently.

One person was moved into specialist extra care after a long time spent in hospital. They were supported to live independently in Step Down accommodation while the application for extra care was progressed.

Another person was moved into a Step Down home while more suitable accommodation was identified and made ready. He is now living back in his new home in his local community and provided with care.

We launched the pilot with three homes, funded by RBH. Following its success, we’ve secured further funding via the Rochdale Housing Initiative so can now offer six homes as part of the Step Up / Step Down service.

Next steps

The Pennine Acute NHS Trust will focus on developing the Step Up service using its NHS community health teams to help identify people who may be at risk of needing to go to hospital because their home is unsuitable.

We hope to receive further funding in 2018 from the CCG social investment fund which will enable us to further grow the service next year, ensuring it is an integral part of the RBH Independent Living offer.

Regeneration isn’t just about buildings

Seeing positive changes in the lives of residents forms a vital part of regeneration. That’s why we’re working with a charity called the RSA to improve opportunities for residents in College Bank and Lower Falinge.  With input from the local community, we are exploring ways we can support people who are out of work to find jobs, and help those who are in work to progress their careers.

By improving employment and skills for local people, we can help to keep the community together, and deliver wider benefits locally as part of any future regeneration at College Bank and Lower Falinge.

This topic is explored by the RSA in a new blog. The article talks about the need for investment in local regeneration and more housing choice as well as the importance of working with residents to bring about change that not only benefits places but people too.

Read the article in full on the CityMetric website.