Built of stronger stuff

Built of stronger stuff

In the social housing sector turning soaring demand into supplier boom isn't easy. But, says Doug Ross, times may not be as tough as we think.

Figures last week revealed a 41% plunge in public sector housing registrations in the rolling quarter March to May, with just 7,000 new homes registered in the period – compared to 12,000 the year before.

The results came despite the Government’s attempts to plug the housing shortage while also getting tough – verbally at least – on housing benefit abusers.

Behind the figures are the social landlords whose sector is suffering something of an identity crisis. Traditionally the industry, which came to the fore in the aftermath of World War Two, was intrinsically linked to improving the lives and welfare of its tenants.

Today, however, accusations of what one MP calls ‘perpetuating disadvantage’ have grown in volume while the generalised reputation of tenants in the sector has also taken a hit, coming to a head when social housing was uttered among the reasons for the unfathomable London riots.

Doug Ross INSETIndustry veterans like Doug Ross, though, have no doubt heard it all before. And public perception is nowhere near the top of his agenda as he manoeuvres a future for his affordable housing empire that straddles Yorkshire and the North East of England.

Times have changed rapidly at Tees Valley Housing since the financial crisis began. Like its industry peers, the group has been operating in an area hit harder than any other in terms of spending cuts.

But progress remains the priority.

“We are trying to ensure that we are hitting local authority and the Government’s highest priorities,” he says.

“We’ve had to look at different ways of dealing with issues in the housing market. We used to just find a site, develop new housing, get grants from the Homes and Communities Agency and then rent them out.

“We’re actually in a different ball game now. Because of the credit crunch and subsequent issues for first time buyers we’ve grown into different types of tenure. We have shared equity products and ‘rent to buy’ schemes. We’re also moving into the market place for people who simply can’t get onto the property ladder.”

At one time, says Ross, the group was able to claim around £50,000 in Government support on property developments valued at around £100,000, for example. The current conditions have conspired to reduce this to around 20% of the property’s value.

“In the future the likelihood of getting grants for social housing looks increasingly slim,” he says.

Tees Valley has adapted quicker than others to the changing climate, though, and the firm continues to develop around 140 new properties per year as well as maintaining its existing 4,500-strong property stock.

Like the many social housing entities that believe in strength in numbers, the group is extremely collaborative and is plugged into a shared pool of resources.

As a subsidiary of Fabrick Housing Group, it operates alongside sister company Erimus Housing, based in Middlesbrough, which owns 10,500 properties.

This week Fabrick expanded its reach further by entering into a partnership with Norcare, the Newcastle-based charity that supports vulnerable people in the region.

“In Tees Valley it’s always been like this and there is a lot of collaboration in the sector. You might have three or four housing providers working on one estate.

“If you can join together and ensure you have some kind of policy which links with the police and policy makers and all the rest of it – and all the residents in the area – that’s a lot more efficient than trying to do it yourself.

“We are now working a lot more closely with contractors and developers, which can help to drive down costs in light of the significant reduction in money we now get from central government.”

With an annual turnover of just over £20m, Tees Valley is the smallest entity in the Fabrick Group, although it remains the biggest developer in terms of property numbers.

The firm is currently involved in the biggest residential redevelopment programme in the North East of England in Scotswood, Newcastle.

The site was cleared of hundreds of dilapidated houses several years ago but numerous false starts have seen it remain devoid of any sign of development work until recently.

Tees Valley is the affordable housing partner for the first phase of the £265m, 1,800-homes programme. The group will own and manage up to 90 of the 350 new homes to be built on the North bank of the Tyne in the initial stage of the long-term plan.

In York, the firm is also involved in the development of 196 new homes as part of a £20m joint project between a number of partners including City of York Council, York Housing Association and Southdale Homes.

The Discus project is made up of 60 new bungalows, 95 houses and apartments and 41-apartments which are supported by extra care services.

“Extra care is a move on from sheltered schemes. We want to get rid of the idea of elderly people living with other people but being lonely. With the old sheltered schemes you would have a communal room, a laundry room and not much else. We’ve introduced bistros, hairdressers, meeting rooms – it’s real modern living.”

Tees Valley’s social conscience also extends to two projects for Chinese elders on Tyneside and Teesside which are supported by Chinese speaking wardens. At a time when every publicly backed entity must more than justify its existence, it would appear social housing firms are as relevant today as they were in the wake of World War Two.