With levels of poverty in the North East increasing at an alarming rate, one social housing provider is thinking about new ways to help boost the prosperity of its residents living in left behind communities. CHRIS BARRON has been finding out how Karbon Homes has been making levelling-up work from the grassroots...
Listening to her talk about uplifting “left-behind places”, there’s little doubt that Victoria Keen lives up to her name. She speaks with passion and authority about the communities of Byker, in Newcastle, and Stanley, in Durham, where Karbon owns around 25 per cent of the homes in the former mining town.
Karbon owns more than 5,000 properties in these two areas, but, as Victoria says, the group is about homes, not houses, and it’s these areas that have been selected to pilot a revolutionary new approach to uplifting communities.
“These places have so much to offer,” insists Victoria, “and everyone living there deserves the chance to fulfil their potential.
“A person’s entire life can be massively influenced by where they live and where they grow up. Places like Stanley and Byker have been left behind due to things like limited social infrastructure, a lack of connectivity, and chronic underinvestment in key services.
“This means that people living there get fewer opportunities – not because they lack the same ability or talent as anybody else, but because their communities haven’t been supported effectively by successive top-down regional and national economic development policies.
“As a housing association and an anchor institution in these communities, I believe we’re well placed to address this. We’re used to thinking outside the box, and given our strong links with our customers, we thought we were ideally placed to lead on a brave, bold new approach. But we can’t do this alone, and we look to others to work with us to deliver on our new place-shaping mission.”
The result of this thinking was Karbon Homes’ Fair Foundations report in January 2023, which laid out a cohesive and radical plan to overhaul the association’s approach to supporting left-behind places, and led to Victoria joining the Karbon team as Place Partnership Lead to put its strategies into effect.
After completing her Masters Degree in Planning and Development, the former Geography teacher cut her teeth in regenerating left-behind places working with Liverpool Vision – an urban regeneration company tasked with transforming her hometown. Victoria then went on to work for over a decade at the government’s regeneration and housing agency, Homes England, based in the North East.
Since joining Karbon in January 2023, she’s helping to deliver the Fair Foundations programme, and the New Start initiative is one of its most life-changing interventions.
“New Start is an innovative employability programme that supports people to find career-starting jobs. It was designed to address that disparity we see in Byker and Stanley between ability and opportunity,” she says.
“It’s a fantastic example of a core tenet of Fair Foundations: that the best way to support communities is from the bottom-up, by increasing residual household income – the disposable income after tax and essentials such as utilities, transport and housing. The simplest way to do that is to help people overcome barriers to employment, and that’s what New Start is about.
“We have really good relationships with our customers. We understand the lives they live, the challenges they face and the barriers they have to overcome to get the same chances many other people take for granted. Things like anxiety and confidence issues, not having access to reliable childcare, or being out of work for a long period can be huge obstacles which must be overcome to stand a chance of finding a job, so we wanted to address this.”
By working closely with employers across the North East, through the New Start initiative, Karbon Homes is offering five-month, paid work placements in a variety of different industries and settings – including with Karbon Homes itself.
Employment advisors work with interested candidates on a one-to-one basis to help them get into new roles and begin successful careers. And Karbon Homes has made certain no-one is left behind this time – the initiative is open to every Karbon customer living in Stanley and Byker.
What’s more, predatory business practices, like zero-hour contracts, are strictly not allowed.
“It’s been fantastic,” Victoria grins. “What’s really taken me by surprise is how well the scheme has been received. We’re sharing this approach with other housing associations and local authorities, and they seem to be really getting behind it. It’s already making a massive difference in people’s lives, but if it takes off, there’s no telling the good we might see come from this.”
One person whose life has been transformed by New Start is young mum Catherine Smith, from Byker.
“My biggest barrier was childcare,” she says. “But the New Start team helped me overcome that. They were understanding of my situation, and they supported me from the very beginning to find a job. They got me to where I am today.”
Catherine is now working for NE14.TV, a Newcastle-based agency which recruits, represents, and casts actors for television and entertainment, both in the UK and internationally. Catherine is currently working on finding supporting artists for ITV’s drama, The Red King.
“I’ll tell anybody who will listen about New Start, because it’s just phenomenal,” she laughs. “Anybody would be lucky to start their career this way.”
Karbon Homes originally approached Bessie Williams, director and founder of NE14.TV, about being involved with New Start. She quickly jumped on board.
“New Start is great because it means I can give an opportunity to someone who might never have that opportunity,” she says. “It’s really brilliant because it gives you the time to see if they are the right fit – luckily, Catharine was the right fit for us!”
Karbon expects to be evaluating the impact of New Start in Byker and Stanley later this year, but Victoria is confident that it’s the first step in a longer journey.
“It’s a virtuous circle,” she says happily. “People in work have more money in their pocket, and instead of waiting for it to ‘trickle down’ from larger cities, it’s where it’s needed and it’s getting spent in the communities themselves and helping to boost those local economies. As the community thrives, it creates jobs, it creates more opportunities for the people who live there, and that’s what’s going to make the difference.
“Our Fair Foundations report is available online, and we’re always on the lookout for new partners to help deliver these life-changing projects, so if any of this has struck a chord, please do get in touch.”
The Fair Foundations report can be found by searching “Karbon Homes Fair Foundations”. Businesses interested in partnering with Karbon Homes to offer New Start employment opportunities are asked to contact Victoria.Keen@karbonhomes.co.u