As we enter Challenge Poverty Week, Martyn Hague, Director of Neighbourhoods at ForHousing asks what we really mean by building back ‘better’ after the pandemic?

Build Back Better has been the tagline of the COVID-19 response.

Across the country – and across the world – we’ve heard these three words repeated over and over again reassuring us that society will be different following the pandemic.

The words have almost lost their meaning – especially to those who’ve had it so tough over the past 18 months – but those words are a promise to make sure that lessons are learned, and that COVID-19 starts lasting change in how we live our lives and how the country and communities are run.

But what do we mean by ‘better’?

The sentiment at least is that the pandemic has highlighted the deep-rooted inequalities that affect so many people.

The communities hit hardest by COVID-19 have been those with the biggest health inequalities. Those in the deepest poverty.

Where people were already making tough choices to make ends meet.

They are the people we speak to every day, the families that we’ve been picking up the phone to during lockdown.

Whatever we’re building back to must be fairer for these people and their communities.

Cuts to welfare payments and rising fuel bills ahead of the winter certainly don’t feel “better”.

So, for those of us committed to improving lives and making more things possible for more people, we must really take time to understand what better looks like for tenants – and how we get there.

If we really want to know what better means for people, then we’ve got to learn lessons from the past.

Government after government has invested millions of pounds over decades in rebuilding and regenerating neighbourhoods. All had good intentions. All wanted to make things better.

The problem? Nobody ever stopped to ask tenants what they wanted. Nobody took the time to listen to what mattered to them.

They just assumed they knew what people wanted, what people needed, and inflicted change on people. That’s not how life works.

During the pandemic ForHousing has gone to great lengths to support tenants in tough times.

We formed partnerships which saw us help charities like Mustard Tree, which provides people across Greater Manchester with access to low-cost food, clothing and furniture.

In total, we referred around 90 people to the charity during the pandemic with tenants receiving advice around their finances, physical and mental health, and Mustard Tree gifting more than £11,000 worth of furniture.

We worked with Salford CVS and NHS Salford Clinical Commissioning Group to arrange a medicine delivery service for more than 600 people who were unable to leave their homes due to shielding, with staff and volunteers delivering prescriptions.

A total of 139 homes were made available to local authorities, including Salford City Council, as temporary accommodation for people facing homelessness or unable to live in shared accommodation because of social distancing. Of those to move in, 49 families have gone on to secure permanent tenancies with ForHousing.

Our Play Streets initiative is designed to address inequalities by supporting families and children in poverty during the school holidays. The project provides a range of free activities and free meals in Salford, Knowsley and Oldham to help hundreds of children gain new skills and confidence.

By working together with partners, we were able to reach families by taking the programme into the virtual world during the pandemic.

Elsewhere, we worked with Openreach to install gigabit-capable broadband to more than 12,000 homes in Salford and held a series of virtual Cash Chats workshops, which offer information for people wanting to feel more in control of finances.

We’re proud of the work we’ve done, but now we must move on to a new phase in the recovery from the pandemic and start to shape how communities will look in the long-term and address the issues that matter to them.

They will know the root-causes of the issues their neighbourhoods face better than we do.

Our approach must be co-designed with tenants.

Their voice must drive what ‘better’ looks like – and decide how we tackle poverty and inequalities.

As part of our new governance structure the ForHousing Board will work with a newly formed Customer Committee which will give tenants their say in improving ForHousing services and creating inclusive communities where people can thrive.

Recruitment to the committee is well underway with 600 applications received.

We’ve updated our process for handling complaints and continue to build on our tenant voice strategy which makes engagement a part of our culture and gives tenants the chance to advise, challenge, oversee, represent, and nurture new ideas and be as involved as little or as much as they want in shaping ForHousing.

All of this will mean that our version of ‘better’ will be determined by tenants, not us – and ensures that we are driven by people in their communities to tackle poverty and improve lives.

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