Empty Homes Doctors: Brokering social change
Social problems cannot be fixed by one agent, but need collective creativity at the local level. In Leeds, Social Business Brokers has been focusing the energy of the city on the issue of empty homes
You don’t have to look very far to find a complex social problem that we could do with solving. Loneliness among older people. Obesity among the young. Dangerous levels of air pollution. Sky-high housing costs. Climate change. Floods. Gridlock.
Leeds is a great place, and has plenty going for it. But like anywhere it has its problems. What interests me is how we can get better at tackling some of these problems – together. And, maybe stop some other problems happening in the first place.
You might call that resilience.
At Social Business Brokers we’re interested in working out how to solve social problems. Our starting point is that social problems are complex – and that we need to find creative, collaborative ways to solve them. We won’t have the solution on our own, but working with others, we’re hopeful that we’ll find one.
Our story goes back to 2011. We’d previously mainly provided start-up support to social enterprises. But we decided to change how we worked – partly because the money for that kind of work dried up, and also because we were a bit restless. We did good work – but it was a bit scattergun – two days with a start-up over here, a marketing workshop over there. We fancied getting stuck in to a problem – to see if we could really make a difference, over time.
All we needed was a problem that needed solving. Fortunately you don’t have to look very far for one of those. To try out our new approach we settled on one of the big issues that Leeds – like any city – faces. Housing. And in particular, empty homes.
Solving the empty homes crisis
Empty homes were big news at the time. The architect George Clarke was on TV with The Great British Property Scandal – highlighting how many homes were empty in the country, at a time when millions of people were struggling to find a decent place to rent or buy. And in one programme he focused on Leeds. People – including us – were shocked at the scale of problem.
This felt like the complex social problem we were looking for, in order to try out our new approach. So we decided to hold a call to action – a day where we’d try to get 100 people together to explore what we could do to tackle the empty homes issue in Leeds.
We wondered if people would come. We needn’t have worried. We were soon at capacity – no doubt helped by the fact George Clarke asked to come along. In May 2012 we were stood at the front a room packed with estate agents, architects, social entrepreneurs, council officers, local citizens, painters and decorators – all sorts of people who wanted to see how they could help to bring more empty homes back into use.
Now we just had to work out how to harness the desire that people had to help. Following the Call To Action, we continued to chat with people, and delved deeper to understand the empty homes problem in Leeds. We eventually came up with the idea of an Empty Homes Doctor service – an idea that we tested further during a six-month pilot.
Our hunch was proven right – there were plenty of people out there who had an empty home, but didn’t know how to bring it back into use. People who’d inherited homes. People who’d moved away from Leeds for work. People who’d previously rented out a house but had had a bad experience with tenants. While some situations required enforcement action by the council, there were plenty of people who just needed a helping hand.
The key to the Empty Homes Doctor’s success is our ability to involve a wide range of people in helping to bring a home back into use. In a typical week we may work with solicitors, estate agents, roofers, decorators, the council tax department, adult social care, the police, a furniture re-use charity, a locksmith and, of course, the council’s own empty homes team. It’s this ability to focus on the problem at hand – a long-term empty home – and then work with whoever can help, to help bring the home back into use – that makes our service work.
This approach brings lots of knock-on benefits too – for example our social impact report highlighted how we generated close to £350,000 of trade for local businesses through bringing 59 empty homes back into use.
So can we adopt that creative, collaborative approach with other social problems? We’d like to think so. Learning from our experience with the Empty Homes Doctor, we’ve summarised our approach as follows:
1) Look for clues – we work hard to understand the social issue we want to tackle.
2) Create a buzz – we generate interest in the issue and encourage people to get involved.
3) Bring people together – we host a Call To Action where a wide range of people can explore a range of ideas.
4) Build momentum – we work with people to develop ideas explored at the Call To Action.
5) Make things happen – we do all we can to turn good ideas into sustainable social businesses.
We’re currently involved with a new social enterprise called Leeds Community Homes – where we’re working with a number of other Leeds organisations to explore how we can develop more community-led housing projects. It’ll be very different to Empty Homes Doctor, but some of the underlying principles will be the same – in particular the belief that solutions will come from involving a wide range of people who can help to make things happen – in particular the people of Leeds who want decent, affordable places to live.
Of course, it’s worth noting that this kind of approach isn’t without its problems. Building strong, trusting working relationships takes lots of time and effort. And sometimes people don’t want to acknowledge that there’s a problem that needs tackling – or may think it’s exclusively their problem to solve. And, although in the case of the Empty Homes Doctor service we’ve been very fortunate to have a contract with Leeds Council, it has at other times been hard to convince people that our role as a ‘broker’ – co-ordinating things, engaging people, making sure good things happen, does actually need paying for.
Not every solution with start with a Call To Action. And there won’t be a social business in every social problem. But there’s enough in our experience over the last five years which convinces us of the value of continuing to find better ways to collaborate with others to solve complex social problems. With Leeds facing all sorts of challenges over the coming years, I think we’ll need plenty more of that collective creativity.