Collaboration: more than a buzzword

Calls for ‘collaboration’ across the housing sector are hitting high levels. I have attended conferences recently at which panelists have insisted that collaboration is key to our future. At one event covering areas ranging from the performance of office buildings to the future of cities, speakers used the phrase six times in an hour.

Articles and blog posts stressing its importance are abundant. Google ‘collaboration and housing’ to see for yourself. And local and national government call for a collaborative approach from employees and partners. This can sometimes feel like a call for inspiration.

Meaning of collaboration

In an era of networks, for an industry that has thrived on partnership working, this makes sense. The challenges facing the sector are too big for any organisation to face alone. Those that work together stand a better chance of success.

It is difficult for anyone who works in the sector to argue against this sentiment. But defining good practice in this area – let along making it work – is more challenging. Statements like ‘collaboration is key’ are often used without any sign of how this could happen.

Collaboration between organisations frequently misses the input of the communities or people affected by what they are trying to achieve. And conflict seems built into the system, with some groups feeling their views are ignored. When this happens, positions become entrenched and delivery can grind to a halt.

If we are to benefit from a collaborative approach, there needs to be wide understanding of what good collaboration looks like. And organisations must prepare to change mindsets and structures to embrace it.

Opportunities and challenges

In the West of England, which covers four local authority areas in the old county of Avon around Bristol, I have seen good examples of collaboration and areas which test these principles. The West of England is revisiting a consultation with more than 1 million local people on its revised Joint Spatial Plan and Transport Study. This will set out housing and infrastructure ambitions for the next 20 years.

The councils were keen to reach out beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in its consultation last year. They used digital engagement and worked with online influencers to have conversations with people about housing and transport in their areas. The result was impressive with more than 1,300 responses* to the consultation in just three months. Young people, local residents and people who work and travel in the sub-region played a big role in providing feedback that has shaped an emerging framework for delivery.

It is true that not everyone will be happy with what is proposed. But the local authorities can be confident that they have given local people a chance to engage in the process. Many people commented positively on the way the councils responded to their feedback.


Meanwhile, a sticking point over a £1 billion devolution deal for the West of England could have derailed the agreement before it gets off the blocks. The deal promises to give local authorities more power over important issues such as housing, transport, planning and skills.

But the government wants to see a ‘metro mayor’ to chair a combined authority and oversee a joinedup response to delivering the deal. As a result, North Somerset councillors withdrew support for the deal, which their leader had signed months before. Now three remaining authorities are to go it alone.

Despite North Somerset’s decision, we believe there is public support for devolution. We recently carried out a survey and found an overwhelming number of respondents liked the idea of the devolution deal and supported a metro mayor. Business bodies expressed similar views and played a significant role in supporting the process.

With other regions collaborating around concepts such as the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse, it will be interesting to see how the government will view the West of England’s response to devolution when future opportunities around locally-led growth arise.

New approach, new mindset

The sector faces a crucial period, which will test its capacity to adapt and collaborate. It is impossible to predict exactly what the future holds. Business plans and horizon scanning provide indications, but not certainty.

I predict one thing with confidence though: the collaborators will prevail. Old partnership approaches can no longer be expected to address every issue; they are ready for disruption. Digital networks have given a voice to community groups and a new breed of influencers, who must be engaged as part of a genuinely collaborative approach.

Collaboration is not coming to an area near you. It is happening around you. Are you ready to embrace it?

This post was first published in Housebuilder magazine in November 2016.

* Since this post was published, an event in Bristol which relaunched the Joint Spatial Plan heard that 900 responses were recorded in response to the consultation.