In spite of the date having been saved almost a year ago, months of planning and preparation, conversations with sponsors and speakers, I still feel a slight sense of disbelief that the 2014 NIFHA Conference is nearly upon us. But rest assured that the last minute details are being finalised and we are pretty much ready to go.
Last year was my first NIFHA conference as part of the team and it was an amazing experience. Excellent speakers, an energetic and engaged audience, a bustling exhibition and films showcasing schemes and projects all came together and captured a sense of optimism and momentum about the work of housing associations in Northern Ireland and the opportunities to build on the sector’s success.
It is really important for us at NIFHA that the conference is not only a great event, but one which resonates long after the two days have passed. Our theme last year was Making the Case for housing associations in Northern Ireland and a comment just last week from our 2014 Conference guest speaker gave me a real sense that the message has been heard loud and clear. The former Lord Mayor of Belfast, councillor and Managing Director of Belfast Media Group, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, spoke to NIFHA about the “marvellous, life-saving and transformational” work that housing associations do in Belfast and further afield. He commended the sector as an asset to Belfast in responding “admirably” to the demand for housing.
No-one working in housing does so to get credit or praise; housing associations, from housing officers through to Board members, just want to keep building high quality homes, delivering the best services they can and supporting tenants and communities. However, recognition is important in positioning the sector to do more. When you are acknowledged and valued by tenants, communities and political leaders as making a significant contribution and doing everything you can to meet need, in whatever form it presents itself, that opens doors to new partnerships, projects and potential.
This year the conference is looking at what makes Great Homes, Thriving Communities. Are we delivering the homes Northern Ireland needs? If not, what more can we do? Do we have the right relationships with tenants and communities? Are there different and better ways to engage? Can new partnerships and approaches help address some of the fundamental problems in communities that are preventing them from flourishing? Housing associations are ideally positioned to lead change, through regeneration, through development, through a diverse and dynamic service offer – are we ready to make it happen?
As well as continuing to showcase the many positive things that are already happening, at #nifha14 we will be challenging ourselves as a sector and asking, is there more we can do? My hope is that at some point before next year’s conference I get another sign, that these questions are being answered with a resounding yes across the housing association sector. Housing associations have had a considerable impact over the past 40 years; with the right support from government, the right political, civic and organisational leadership and with ambition and drive they can continue to build great homes, create thriving communities and ultimately, to change lives.