From catwalks to communities – an accidental love story

Fashion was my future. At 18 years old, with an edgy hairstyle and an experimental (and slightly gothic) look, I headed to university to explore what the fashion world was all about. Thanks to a very sensible discussion with my dad about ‘finding a real job,’ I set off down the fashion marketing and business route and spent three years learning about styling, PR, product portfolios and trend prediction.  

With a significant student loan debt, a degree, a handful of lifelong friendships and countless memories made, I moved home and looked for a ‘proper job.’ Sadly, the fashion scene in Dudley (at the time!) wasn’t as vibrant as other towns and cities and feeling a tad homesick after three years away, I pursued marketing opportunities closer to home. 

I joined Accord Housing Association back in 2005 for what I was then calling the ‘one-year max’ job to allow me some work experience and money in the bank to afford my next adventure. I knew nothing about housing – but in a busy communications team, I was about to learn very quickly! 

My first year flew by, then the second, third and fourth – and funnily enough it took me until my five-year work anniversary to remind myself of the career path I thought I wanted. But something had changed. I’d accidentally fallen in love with the social housing sector.  

Thanks to the support of some excellent line managers, colleagues and chief execs, I had so many positive experiences to look back on, I stayed for another five years in a range of roles that allowed me to truly appreciate the work of the sector – seeing first hand the dedication from colleagues across care schemes, estates and neighbourhoods, as well as the care and attention of architects and development colleagues ensuring we built homes people wanted to live in – and could feel proud to call their home. 

Over the 10 years, I met several housing ministers (I know there have been a lot!) and watched how the policy landscape shifted, interviewed some of our wonderful customers – from our oldest resident in one of our sheltered schemes to a group of young people who were re-building their lives (and future dreams) from the stability of a place to call home, I organised the opening of new developments with ribbon cuttings, tree-plantings, plaque unveilings and I worked as part of a team to capture and share the stories of the sector. 

I learnt a lot and a lot of it I loved. 

It’s why when the 10 years was approaching and it was time to stretch my wings, I didn’t go too far.  

Moving to HouseMark around four years ago was the perfect opportunity to stay in the sector that had become more than a soft spot – it’s a sector I’m proud to work with – and now in an organisation that aims to help improve performance so that the housing organisations we work with can be at their best and do more for the customers and communities they serve. 

In this role I can see clearly that I wasn’t the only one to fall in love. Many of you come to the sector and stay. Working with over 75 per cent of UK housing organisations, I recognise faces and names I’ve worked with for years – new titles in new organisations – but the people are the same – and clearly here because this sector means something to them. 

This year has thrown up more challenges than I’ve known before. We started a new decade thinking that Brexit might be the biggest thing to worry about, but the pandemic hit and forced us to do things differently – with an even greater responsibility for keeping residents safe and secure. Now, returning  to ‘normal’ (whatever that means,) we are refocusing on the challenges ahead – the carbon zero targets, building safety changes, new consumer regulation – as well as figuring out how to embed and embrace the positives borne from the pandemic. 

And whilst I know it’s not all rosy in the sector – and not everyone sees it the way we do - it feels as though, now more than ever we need to come together to tell our story. But in a world of fake news, TikTok and insta-stories, we need to make sure our information gets heard…or should I say seen. 

We are all looking for real facts, evidence, and truth in what we see. We want it to be easy to understand, quick to digest, with often, the right to reply! Visualising data has been seen throughout the pandemic and its being used in the media to explain the forces impacting our world more than ever before. How well are we using these tools to talk to our residents and explain our decisions? How often do we provide real evidence of change in our success stories? We do some great work, we get better, we change and improve – how do we make sure we’re cutting through to make a real impact? 

I know we think about data and evidence in conversations with the regulator, but I know more Boards, more residents and more colleagues want easy-to-digest information they can trust. 

Today, is Housing Day. A day that highlights the importance of having a safe, secure and truly affordable place to call home. It’s also our third event in the 10 days of data series – and quite neatly (although I wished we’d have planned it this way!) we will be bringing together colleagues from across the sector to explore the power of statistics in storytelling and how to extract and communicate the insight from data analysis to help shape success stories.  

So, it might not be London Fashion Week for me, but y’know what, I’m ok with that. 

HouseMark’s 10 Days of Data is a series of bitesize events that showcase the value and potential that data can bring to your business. Find out more here

By Elaine Middleton

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