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Southern Housing: nurturing communities by supporting residents into work

For thousands of social housing residents, accessing the world of work can be a difficult process. In recognition of its active work to combat this issue, Southern Housing (formerly Optivo) took home the Community Impact Award at last year’s Franco-British Business Awards.

Increase Valorisation Sociale 

Since 2017, Southern Housing has been a lead partner on the £10.8m Increase Valorisation Sociale project, a programme providing training, peer support and specialist advice helping residents of deprived areas to set up their own businesses. 

Southern Housing is the lead partner of the project, which brings together ten partners on both sides of the Channel. It focuses on 38 regions where unemployment tends to be higher and tourism has declined. The programme is funded by Interreg, an EU fund designed to promote regional development. 

Situated away from economic centres, these neighbourhoods are characterised by higher levels of deprivation, lower rates of economic activity, and limited or fragmented support for residents. 

Finding a typical 9-to-5 job in such areas can be difficult, so this project focused on a different strategy: helping residents to set up their own businesses. 

“There's a work and income gap challenge for many social housing residents,” comments Tom Arkle, Southern Housing’s Head of Programme. 

“Over 35% of social housing residents in France were living in poverty in 2016, while unemployment among UK social housing residents is twice the national average. But the stability of a home and training opportunities are platforms from which people can address and remove barriers to entering the job market.” 

The role of a modern housing association 

The project’s success sets a clear example: housing associations are not just about maintaining buildings, but nurturing communities where residents can thrive. 

Going into 2023, Southern Housing intends to create new partnerships to continue supporting residents furthest away from the job market into work or starting their own business. 

"Whether through employment or self-employment, our support is key to improving inclusion, well-being, and household incomes,” says Arkle. 

Helping residents into work 

“The idea of the project,” explains Senior Programme Coordinator Clémentine Flack, “is to get housing associations involved in either training residents or building up relationships with training providers.” 

This involves providing dedicated specialist advice to residents of the areas identified. After identifying residents’ particular skills and interests, Increase VS helps them to develop their ideas into business plans. 

Once training is complete, residents can continue to access support and even get the chance to test out their ideas at markets and fairs. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a fresh set of challenges for the project – but Southern Housing responded quickly, introducing training in online sales, health and safety, and resilience. 

By next month, more than 4,500 people will have received training, with up to 1,020 new businesses created and 1,600 people helped into work. It is the first large-scale micro-enterprise training programme targeted specifically towards social housing residents. 

Southern Housing (formerly Optivo) is one of the largest housing associations in the UK, with around 77,000 homes. 

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