Housing: Rochdale’s co-op model brings strength during the pandemic

'The underlying idea of our model – tenants and employees as co owners – has seen people co-operate to respond to the crisis'

The co-operative housing model offers much potential in helping communities deal with crises like Covid-19, by embedding the values and principles in homes and neighbourhoods. But how has this worked out in practice?

At Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) – a tenant and employee co-owned mutual housing society with more than 12,000 homes – a number of measures were taken to support tenants through the pandemic and the lessons of the crisis are being taken forward into the organisation’s forthcoming corporate strategy.

Chief executive Gareth Swarbrick said: “Our experience of the last 12 months is that the underlying idea of our model – tenants and employees as co-owners, giving people a sense of responsibility and working together – has seen people co-operate to respond to the crisis.”

He gave the example of local pantry schemes – food clubs which take donations from sources such as FareShare. “As of March 2020 these projects were serving 80 households a week. We scaled it up in April last year, working with tenant volunteers to increase provision and create Covid-safe working practices. By May, 200 tenants households were benefiting from deliveries.”

Figures from RBH show this generated £3,400 of weekly savings for members from the 800kg+ of surplus food.

Related: Rochdale Boroughwide Housing secures funding to build new homes

“There was also a big response from our employees volunteering to do different duties,” says Mr Swarbrick. “Our repair service had to move to emergency and urgent only, which left other team members switching to delivery of food from pantries to people who were shielding. We didn’t have to ask them, people came forward with ideas and did things instinctively.”

The society also mobilised its members community fund, with £90,000 made available since the start of the pandemic to support more than 20 projects and organisations across the borough.

Veteran’s Food Co, a social enterprise run by veterans who have become chefs, partnered with RBH to provide meals to people who are shielding, and at Christmas ran a major project to provide Christmas meals to 980 tenants in independent living schemes. Meals also went to homeless people and those in hostels.

“We’ve worked to develop and support these community-led projects,” says Mr Swarbrick. “There’s a culture of working with other agencies and local social enterprises and charities which goes with our whole approach of Rochdale people and place.” 

Another example is HMR Circle, a membership organisation for older people, set up in 2012 after RBH provided seed core funding. It works to keep people connected and prevent social isolation. “During the pandemic it has provided a range of online activities such as lunch clubs and quiz nights to keep people connected. Before Covid it was about being physically connected, but now it’s about connecting people online.”

 Other projects distributed craft materials to hundreds of tenants, and afternoon teas for the VE Day anniversary celebrations. RBH also provided 3,000 Keeping Well at Home booklets in partnership with Rochdale Borough Council, offering information and advice to older people who may be isolated at home.

“We worked closely with local authorities, social care and public health teams to identify people who need additional support,” adds Mr Swarbrick. RBH used calls, texts and visits to make contact with vulnerable tenants – which meant 500 calls a week at the start of the first lockdown.

“We’ve got people on ground providing services and used our intelligence and links with local community to identify people who need help,” says Mr Swarbrick. “We’re checking up on people and triaging them if they need referral to services.”

RBH supported the mobilised Community Response Hubs that provided emergency food, medicine, fuel payments and other services, and has been running a work and skills service throughout the pandemic. For younger residents, RBH has created 5 Kickstart places, recruited four new apprentices since the start of the pandemic, and is working with Hopwood Hall College to identify suitable placements for students undertaking the new T-Levels.

The society also supports Upturn, a local social enterprise which connects those struggling for work because of the pandemic with the Workers’ Educational Association, to help them access funding support. So far Upturn has worked with 20 tenants and supported a third on the route back to work. Online courses have helped 52 tenants acquire the skills they need to find work or deliver safer services through the co-op, and the New Pioneers Programme run with the council helps people find work through Rochdale’s town centre regeneration work.

Tenants are also helped with financial and digital skills. “People being connected digitally is more important than ever before,” says Mr Swarbrick, adding that digital inclusion is crucial after the experience of the last 12 months. RBH already has a Digital Equipment Bursary in place for tenants who are actively seeking work, and the society has supported the Digit-Tech Library – an initiative set up by a consortium of voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations that provides a loan service for tablets.

This summer, RBH draws up a new corporate plan to work out what needs to be done to recover from Covid and deal with the economic impact as it unfolds over the next few years.

“We’ll be working with our tenant representative on our strategy going forward,” says Mr Swarbrick. “It’s about retraining people, working well with others, and thinking of creative new ways of working, Often the best ideas come from the bottom up – people from the lived experience of our homes and working on the frontline – to help us know what to do in the changed world we operate in.”

The co-op model helps drive this spirit through a sense of belonging and ownership, says Mr Swarbrick. “I think our lesson is that our approach makes people think differently about us – tenants use the word ‘us’ to describe RBH because they feel ownership. It’s about finding a range of ways for tenants and employees to collaborate and share ideas.

“It’s been a way of dealing with problems since George Osborne’s emergency budget in 2010. We have involved tenants and employees; the choices were hard but people understood them, and we stayed true to our principles all the time. When things get tough that’s when our approach comes to the fore.”

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