Paul Spencer from New Charter in front of the BBC cameras
The documentary series about the work of housing officers in Greater Manchester is back on BBC One. David Rigby, communications consultant and series adviser, explains how it gets made and why exposure on national television can be a good thing for the housing sector.
I’ve worked on all three series of ‘Neighbourhood Watched’. The viewer response to series two, shown in March last year, quickly persuaded the BBC to commission another.
Just as quickly, I secured agreement from landlord New Charter Homes to take part again. Executive director of neighbourhoods Tony Powell was upbeat: “Previous programmes raised the profile of social housing, and showed the diversity of the job. I like that it doesn’t concentrate on the difficult or negative stuff. Even the most engaged of our tenants see a different side to us.”
It’s not only the housing sector that focuses on value for money; the BBC sought a longer series but for a similar production cost. This meant we had to look for other landlords to take part from the same region. They needed to be of a size sufficient to generate plenty of possible storylines.
Seeking the stars
Initially, there were different ideas about finding landlords to participate. I went down a democratic route and appealed for interest from members of the National Housing Federation’s northern network of communications professionals. Production company Raw Television picked some individual associations to talk with. Although we had some interest, we were rebuffed far more. Changing tack, I targeted a couple of large transfer associations who I believed to be high performers. Both were interested; for logistical reasons, City West Housing Trust in Salford became the choice.
“I was the most apprehensive of our management team,” recalls David Cummins, director of communities and neighbourhoods at City West. “It would be my staff who would be filmed. I was confident their ‘can-do’ attitude would come through, but concerned about vulnerable tenants being taken advantage of, perhaps a sensational approach to the programmes.” He feels differently now. “The series isn’t rose-tinted, but it does remind you why you work in housing.”
The reluctance of social landlords to take part interests me. Most are happy to push press releases extolling their successes at a diminishing print media (particularly local newspapers). Many flee at the thought of television, especially without editorial control. Tony Powell told me most of his peers still think he is ‘brave’ to invite the cameras in. Yet most people get their news and information from television, the web and radio. Opinions are shaped here too, so our absence won’t help the housing cause.
Others are wary that only the outrageous will be portrayed. It is sadly true that housing is a business that gets to know all its bad customers and spends a disproportionate amount of time with them. And where there are warm stories, staff are strangely slow to spot them, shrugging off interest from the film makers as “it’s just part of my job”. So yes, it is always
harder to film the good news stories, but we need to be better at finding and telling these.
Although the editorial control is elsewhere, landlords can in influence the programme content. The film directors don’t know the business (although they learn pretty quickly), so they rely on getting leads. It’s a pity that the timing of tenancy changes and welfare reform didn’t allow us to show new housing at affordable rents or the effects on households of the bedroom tax. But I did have some themes which were absent from previous series. One issue which I was keen to find was hoarding, mainly because I thought this might uncover interesting joined-up work with other agencies. Ironically and unknown to us, other channels were making programmes on the subject which aired while we were filming.
The programmes are pitched to show life as it is lived, but the audience would be considerably less if there wasn’t entertainment value. Critical to getting the right stories is getting in at the beginning. A lot of good tales slip through our hands because they’ve already started. You’re not going to understand or enjoy a book if the first three chapters are missing...
Some of the staff at New Charter provide a continuity bridge from past series, but the programmes are self-contained and don’t require character recognition to maintain viewing figures. Neighbourhood management officer at New Charter Sarah Chilton appeared in the first series, and was happy with how she was shown. “I was pleasantly surprised when I saw my stories in a previous series. But when you are enforcing tenancy expectations, it’s odd seeing tenants thanking you for effectively telling them off.” And one customer was particularly grateful. “Every time we visited to lm, he insisted on giving us a small gift, a sweet – but I made the crew eat them.”
For City West Housing Trust’s staff, this was a new experience. “When the frontline staff were told, my first reaction was: Wow!” says neighbourhood manager Catherine Towl. “Lots of us volunteered, and although initially it was strange being in front of the cameras, I soon forgot they were there.” The documentary nature of the series means there’s no
rehearsal opportunities either. “Perhaps the most difficult thing I dealt with in the series was getting a call about the death of a tenant, something I had no experience of. But I trust Raw to have honestly captured my reactions.”
Both organisations were clear from the outset that participation was voluntary. The main staff featured are key to the success of the series, and their consent to be filmed usually encourages tenants and applicants to take part also.
How tenants are shown remains the key concern of housing professionals. I’ve worked on three series with different personnel from Raw Television. They are professional storytellers, but hold no agenda to show extremes. In fact, the length of time stories take to film can mean the crews get to know and empathise with their subjects.
When the cameras leave, the pressures move to the editing suite. Series producer Zoe Callan says all the 800 hours of footage is viewed. “Lots of stories are discarded as they fizzle out or aren’t strong enough to sustain a third of an episode. We make rough cuts and decide then which are the strongest televisually. I’m looking for the right mix for each episode, but also that ingredient which tells the viewer something fresh about social housing.”
Checks in the final weeks before broadcast ensure the stories are up to date. As I write, there’s still doubt about whether the last of the six episodes can be transmitted as planned. Forthcoming court cases may affect individuals shown in the programme despite giving their consent to appear.
So will the series show why housing matters? The current demonisation of benefit recipients isn’t a helpful backdrop, but changes to welfare, affordability, market rents and the overall shortage of homes mean the lines between tenures may not be as clear for this generation as previous ones. Seeing how good housing management can make a difference to peoples’ lives is a story always worth telling. And as Zoe Callan says, “There are more stories to tell...”
‘Neighbourhood Watched’ is broadcast every Thursday evening on BBC One at 10.35pm.