Housing Champion: Evie Copland
Jimmy Black meets the energetic Evie Copland, multi-award-winner and housing evangelist.
“The biggest problem is … how do I change the world with this?” Evie Copland is finishing her Master’s in Housing Studies, and she has been a distinguished student. In 2021 she won the Malcolm Smith Memorial Award for the best piece of work, with a focus on housing law and policy, during the previous academic year by a student in Scotland.
Now she is looking at damp, mould and the governance of social landlords, given the UK-wide concerns prompted by Kwajo Tweneboa’s campaign to highlight the failings of his own social landlord, and others where issues have come to light through tenant complaints and investigative journalism.
“There is nothing to stop a Kwajo equivalent popping up in Scotland. The sector is clear that we need to actively focus on this area of compliance; that we don’t leave it to the frontline and that organisations follow through on reports in full. Sometimes nothing happens because things get missed or not logged. The Ombudsman in England has a high number of maladministration cases due to really poor record keeping.”
Evie’s motivation to effect change is not just professional. It’s personal. As a youngster she grew up in a council house in Dumfries which was grievously unmodernised. “My mum withheld rent to get something done. We eventually got decanted to a wee terraced bungalow for six months while they put in double glazing and gas central heating. You know what it’s like when it’s happened to you.”
Keen to put her studies to practical use, Evie has the opportunity to do so in Berwickshire Housing Association where she is the customer experience lead. But her influence spreads much further. She sits on the UK board and the Scotland board of the Chartered Institute of Housing. And as one of the founders of the CIH Housing Futures programme, she has networks across the UK.
How did she get into housing? The original plan was journalism, after some schoolgirl work experience at West Sound Radio, the local radio station in Dumfries and Galloway. Evie caught the radio bug, chatting on air to the DJs, and applied to study journalism at the University of Cumbria. In these days, her head was full of house music, and at various times she has done PR for music festivals and clubs. But when she left University in 2011, she applied to train as a teacher of her favourite subject at school, which was modern studies.
“I’m a wean fae the scheme, I hadnae two pound to rub together.” Evie needed a job and saw a six-month part-time communications job at Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership. After a few months, she secured a full-time contract and eventually a permanent post. Clearly, someone saw her potential.
“I worked with Jayne Moore, who was the then director of housing and had been a housing officer in mining villages, worked for the council and come up through the ranks. She made it clear that doing a really good job for people was just part of how we should behave and be at the core of everything we did. That really resonated with me, I thought, ‘this is class’. I had the chance to work in my local area, which means so much to me… I’m a fiercely proud Doonhamer. I hold Jayne responsible for everything I now am, helping me be everything I wanted to be.”
Incidentally, Evie is a fluent speaker of Dumfries Scots, and was delighted to be asked if she spoke Scots on the Census form.
Evie’s comms job was flexible enough to include other “bits and pieces”, and she began developing her practical housing experience and started getting involved with housing management. Her work on creating the Homes4D&G common housing register for Dumfries and Galloway got her noticed and the result was a nomination, by her colleagues, for a very prestigious award. Evie was named the 2014 Bob Allan Young Achiever in Housing Excellence.
This was a significant moment. Among much else the late Bob Allan led the Glasgow Housing Association stock transfer, and also gets credit for saving Clackmannanshire (the “Wee County”) from abolition. When she found out how well-respected Bob Allan had been, she realised what the award really meant to her. “This is serious, this is about role modelling and setting an example, leaving the world better than you found it. It was my responsibility to live up to the award.”
Her mentor, Jayne Moore, encouraged her to enter the CIH Rising Stars competition, which involved writing an essay, then taking part in challenges and building up a social media presence in preparation for the final vote. She went to the awards ceremony in Manchester, assured by her new social media contacts that she had the competition in the bag… “and I didnae win. All I thought was I want tae gan hame.”
But former CIH President Alison Inman “picked me up off the ground and said there’s something else for you here, don’t worry about this”. That proved to be an opportunity to be a founder member of CIH Futures, destined to become, in Evie’s words, a “really powerful movement for young people in the UK housing sector”.
Working with other young people such as Elly Hoult and James Ballantyne, the group established strong values and principles, identifying issues around EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) and access to the housing profession. Evie eventually became chair before moving on to provide a link between the CIH Governing Board and Futures.
One of the issues they worked on was the relative lack of young people in the housing profession. “I spent the first ten years of my career being the youngest, and I’m 32 now, and I’m still nearly the youngest! Housing should be a compelling offer for young people.
“My good friend Jim Strang [a CIH stalwart] often says a housing professional can do more in a day for a family than many in other careers can do in a lifetime. But we have a lot to do to get this across to people who have the current media view of housing with headlines of work not being done, homes in really poor condition and being run by people who don’t care. I know from the people I work with now and in the past, that is simply not the case.”
Evie says working in housing offers a chance to tackle the big societal issues. “Everybody needs a home. Thinking about her own path from journalism to housing, she says, “I was absolutely adamant I was going to change the world with my words, but I’d far rather get stuck in, and make sure homes across Scotland are in a much better state for the people who need them.”
At DGHP, Evie’s role evolved. She led for customers and colleagues on a digital transformation programme, which included a review of the technology used by staff, allowing staff to do their roles from anywhere, introducing mobile devices and Teams and SharePoint as key systems within the business. They were ahead of the game. “When COVID happened, everyone was ready to rock and roll, walking out the door with laptops and phones to continue delivering services from home.”
As DGHP began the process to join the Wheatley Group, Evie became stakeholder relationship manager, and started work on introducing this huge central belt-based organisation to Dumfries and Galloway. The offer had to be meaningful; with investment to build new homes and improve existing homes, introduction of new services and a move to generic housing management with one housing officer managing a patch of 200 homes. Evie was involved in the big engagement exercise which was required, also reporting back to the board and keeping an eye on regulatory requirements.
After leading DGHP’s community response work during the pandemic, she joined the Dumfries housing team managing a patch in her beloved hometown. After a year she took a job as an analyst at the Scottish Housing Regulator. Although she learned a lot at the Regulator, “It wasn’t what I was thinking it might be. I really missed people and the customer-facing side of housing.” The new job at Berwickshire Housing Association beckoned, and a chance to work with, among others, Michelle Meldrum and Dan Blake.
So Evie is living up to her Bob Allan award by encouraging young people into the housing profession through CIH Futures, sitting on CIH Boards and looking out for young talent to bring into the Berwickshire team. What else is she doing?
In Dumfries, derelict buildings in the centre of the town are being transformed into enterprise spaces, flats and shop units by the Midsteeple Quarter community benefit society. Although no longer involved, Evie was a founding member, lending her professional skills and personal energies to her hometown and serving as chair of the board. There’s a picture somewhere of her welcoming First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to tour the development, both wearing masks, of course, during COVID.
Evie is still on the board of SOSCH (South of Scotland Community Housing), helping communities find ways of creating new homes and bringing old buildings back into use. She cites the empty police station at Langholm as a big success; it now provides four homes in the town centre. SOSCH is also working with Midsteeple Quarter.
But, Evie says “I don’t believe I’ve done what I was put on this earth to do yet”. Recently she heard Professor Gerry Hassan speak at a festival in Dumfries and Galloway on Scotland’s future. Evie’s attracted by independence. “I feel there’s a call for me in politics,” she says, “and I wonder if there’s space for a new party of sorts, for a world where humanity matters much more, an all-encompassing kindness sort of approach.”
So I suggest … “the All Encompassing Kindness Party?” Evie says that slogan’s a bit too long for the posters. “My mother always says, ‘Jist be geed!’ So it’s the Jist Be Geed Party! If other parties ask me to join, I’ll say… no you, but they can feel free to join the Jist Be Geed!”