Stories from a Bolton housing estate

Len Grant‘So you think what you do on this housing estate is a good example of best practice?’ I ask.

‘Yes, absolutely,’ they reply.

‘Could we speculate that your advice centre is possibly the best in the UK?’

They glance at each other. They hadn’t thought about it like that before, but why not? ‘We know we haven’t got everything right, we have to constantly adapt our approach, but there is a lot about what we do that works well.’

This is our first meeting. ‘They’ are one of the neighbourhood management teams from Bolton at Home, a housing trust with 18,000 homes in this Greater Manchester town.

I’m a freelance photographer and writer and we’re discussing how we might tell the story of one of their advice centres that supports a particularly challenging estate in east Bolton.

The result of our deliberations is a blog, As Rare as Rubies, which has just launched complete with the first few stories from the Breightmet UCAN Centre. As I point out on the website, UCAN stands for Urban Care and Neighbourhood and, although a bit of a mouthful, was no doubt originally chosen because ‘UCAN’ sounds suitably aspirational.

Bolton at Home has seven such centres scattered around the town serving not only their own residents but indeed anyone who walks through their doors. The one I’m documenting in Breightmet is sandwiched between a chippy and a well-used mini-mart on a parade of shops in the middle of the estate. It couldn’t get any more local.

So why, when it comes to delivering support to low income communities, does this neighbourhood management team think that its UCAN approach is ‘as rare as rubies’?

Without having to recount the whole blog here, it’s about a personal, compassionate, non-judgmental approach by just three members of staff. Sounds simple?

I put that to the centre’s manager, Vanessa Hamnett: ‘The UCAN model is very simple and yet also very sophisticated. Some other public services have become very compartmentalised. As a customer, you have to go to that enquiry desk to do one thing; ring that person to do another or go online to do a third. Some think it’s easier – more cost effective even – to manage customers from a distance. Everyone has a specific role to play, it’s almost like a department store.

‘We shouldn’t forget there are still a lot of people out there that need a specific level of meaningful support that can only come from personal, human contact.’

I’ve been ‘embedded’ at the UCAN – on and off – for a couple of months now and have already told the stories of some local residents that the staff have been supporting.

There’s Morag (pictured here outside her Jobcentre) who hasn’t worked for 27 years, forced off disability benefits onto Jobseeker’s Allowance. She’s worse off by £160 a month and is grappling with unfamiliar technology in order to apply for jobs she’s not qualified for. Already the JobCentre has raised the spectre of sanctions if her job search is inadequate.

Then there’s supermum-of-two, Kellyann. She’s won a place on a nursing degree course but even with an NHS bursery is still up at 4.30am on weekends to work as a cleaner at a not-so-local hospital.

Who’s to say whether this UCAN is the best advice centre in the country? It barely matters, no-one’s after prizes. But commissioning a blog and hearing the firsthand stories of desperation, resilience and achievement is a novel strategy of communicating the work at the sharp end of a large housing provider.


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