The big conversation

CIH President and Incommunities chief executive Geraldine Howley reflects on an event especially designed for those who are new to housing.

In late 2015, in the depths of fulfilling my CIH Presidential duties, I was on my way to Manchester and listening to the radio in my car. The sounds playing in the background were a kind of M62 transcendental therapy, helping me smooth what I expected to be a slow frustrating journey.

That was until I realised one of my favourite best-selling writers, Jeanette Winterson, had begun narrating the first in a BBC series, Manchester, the Alchemical City. The title enthralled me, partially because I was struggling to remember just what ‘alchemical’ meant.

But typical of Jeanette’s thorough and engaging delivery, she reminded me that alchemy is the forerunner of chemistry but, also with a touch of added magic! She had cleverly hitched the alchemical description to Manchester to define a city that for hundreds and hundreds of years had constantly remade itself out of its own history to become a place of incredible transformations.

Now fast forward to Tuesday 22 March 2016 and back in the same city, it was the day which saw the culmination of a lot of hard work and creativity in bringing the big conversation to life in Manchester. The energy force that resulted was fantastic – an alchemy of talents from all the different parts of the United Kingdom.

My Presidential theme for 2015-16 is young people and the big conversation was the centrepiece for expressing and engaging the talents of housing’s new professionals. Working in partnership with CIH events staff, GEM programme graduates, Rising Stars and key players from our sponsors Wheatley Housing Group and Ongo, we produced an event which turned out to be the most remarkable day in my presidential year.

This was one of the first CIH events especially tailored for young people and those who are new to housing, which has been the focus for my presidential year. I hope that the big conversation showed them the real benefits of CIH membership, from networking and mentoring opportunities through to events such as TBC and qualifications designed to support each member’s career development.

The venue was absolutely perfect for what we were trying to achieve. It was the Studio, a modern, colourful, spacious and creative space which somehow defined the spirit of regeneration that 21st century Manchester demands you to notice. No dusty and dark hotel corridors and meeting rooms – which seem to lull us into conventional conference activity – were to be seen. Instead we had airy, vibrant spaces filled with animated conversations as our new housing professionals networked with each other and engaged with speaker after speaker and with senior housing practitioners telling us their stories of personal and professional growth.

It was a rich and varied learning diet and we have received some fantastic feedback. Our young professionals are so refreshing and a massive source of talent and innovative potential for our organisations. Housing’s next generation will not let us down and we must have the confidence to give them the opportunities to fly. I was so proud to see so many GEM Programme graduates join us and share their innovative and exciting vision for housing in the UK and globally.

So what about Manchester, the Alchemical City? Yes, it is a place of incredible transformations and the big conversation was one of those defining moments which marked a change in how we engage with housing’s new professionals. I am determined that we will return next year to continue The big conversation. We should perhaps remember that it was Manchester with its first charter in the 13th century that freed up women to trade. In the 20th century it was Octavia Hill who led the way with the housing management practices we celebrate 100 years later in 2016. My hope is that the big conversation can be the start of empowering the next generation of housing professionals and, like Manchester, become the place of incredible transformations.