Guest Blog – PlaceShapers: Cath Purdy, CEO for South Lakes Housing and PlaceShapers Board Member

Cath Purdy CEO South Lakes Housing & Placeshapers Board Member

Guest Blog courtesy of PlaceShapers.

Cath Purdy CEO of SOuth Lakes Housing blogs about her experience at Placeshapers

Cath Purdy, PlaceShapers Board member and CEO of South Lakes Housing, blogs…

“If you were selective about the news you read over the past months and the information you had to hand, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the social housing providers did not care, and that front line staff did not have tenants’ best interests at heart.

Anyone with that generalist view should take a look at Byker Community Trust, part of the Karbon Homes family. This epitomised to me what a PlaceShaper housing association is about – a real sense of place, of a community working together with its landlord and other partners to find solutions or improvements to the not unsubstantial challenges it faces.

The team working on the Byker Estate, which was previously owned by Byker Community Trust and transferred to Karbon Homes in 2021, have always been values-based place shapers, and although structures may have changed they remain true to its original intent and purpose.

It’s no surprise then that the Placeshapers Board chose it as its location for our June meeting, the first meeting out of London. We decided earlier in the year to mix it up a bit – and some meetings will now be held within a different region, hosted by a member association. It was exactly the tonic that I needed, a reminder (not that one was needed to be honest) of the fantastic work that PlaceShaper members do – day in day out within their communities, with dedicated frontline teams, often our unseen heroes making a real difference to tenants and communities.

I worked in the North East for almost 30 years, so I thought I knew the history and challenges of Byker. But visiting it more recently, I could recognise the significant improvements which were done after the stock was transferred from Newcastle City Council to the newly formed Byker Community Trust in 2012 but also the mountain still to climb. The energy and passion remains – to find innovative ways to address the physical challenges that the site layout and design presents and the social inequalities hampering opportunities for residents.

The Byker estate, of around 1800 homes, is unique in its physical design, with the Byker Wall tracing its boundary. Designed by Ralph Erskine, in 1960s it replaced rows and rows of Victorian ‘slum’ terraces and was awarded Grade-II listed status in 2007. Designed to enable a strong cohesive community to thrive, it came about after years of resident engagement in the ‘60s. The brightly coloured roof tops, heat network, travel routes which encouraged interaction and hobby rooms dotted about the estate may have been novel at the time and full of good intent, but not always compatible with modern day living, including the use of cars. Solutions to some of the challenges faced by residents are now restricted by the Grade-II listing and even regular maintenance is more costly due to the non-standard design. Achieving net zero is a challenge for us all – but there are added challenges at Byker.

Despite the challenges, what impressed me the most about how the team looking after Byker, both now and in the past, engages the community fully in understanding the issues, looking at options, exploiting the art of the possible and engaging with partners to take action. It is long, laborious and must have resulted in many dead ends – but the passion and perseverance of Michelle Bell, Karbon’s Assistant Director of Byker and Lynsey Hall, Head of Housing for Byker, who we met on the day, is palpable. Built on a long tradition of the community really being at the heart of decisions – this continues to this day.

Another element which might surprise some is that the identity and specific ethos of Byker Community Trust was not only preserved but maybe emboldened when it became part of Karbon Homes. Giving it financial sustainability and more influence with stakeholder partners such as Newcastle City Council and English Heritage. Karbon has equally benefited, with Paul Fiddaman, Group Chief Exec explaining that the wider group has learnt from Byker Community Trust’s experience of community engagement and Place Shaping.

There is no doubt that some of the current criticism of housing associations service is justified – and we do need to raise our collective game and ensure quality homes and that tenants are listened to and treated with respect. But there is also some fantastic work being done by many PlaceShaper members – who are rooted in the neighbourhoods they manage. My visit to Byker as part of the PlaceShaper Board re-emphasised this and made me very proud to be part of the PlaceShaper family who are all making a positive difference in their own way.

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