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David Montague's February 2011 round-up

Mar 14 2011

Continuing the search for localism

David Montague Dec 2010

In February my search for localism continued – what does it look like, and how can we deliver it in an age of austerity?

I started with a visit to Poplar Harca, a housing association operating in the poorest part of London but a stone's throw from the Olympic Stadium and the tremendous wealth of Canary Wharf.

Poplar Harca showed me with enormous pride how their local presence, local connections and close relationship with residents were helping them to transform the neighbourhood.  A huge job which will take years, but where people once saw a problem they are now seeing potential.

Whenever I visit another housing association I am always struck by the huge amount we have as a sector to be proud of, and by how much we have to learn from each other.  It wasn't that long ago that people referred to us as 'the housing movement.'  Maybe it's time for a return to that spirit of passion and collaboration.

My search continued with a trip to Grainger, a large and very successful private sector landlord which claims to be as close to a housing association as you can get without being registered. 

What impressed me about Grainger was the understanding they have of their business, delivering a sensitive and high quality service to residents whilst growing through the efficient management of their housing assets.

I concluded from this experience that tomorrow's L&Q should be Grainger in the middle and Poplar Harca on the outside. 

Sharing this eureka moment back at the office I was advised by L&Q's Steve Yianni to pay a visit to L&Q's Green Horizons (our office in Edmonton) and to our team on the Haggerston Estate in Hackney, so I did.  And these visits reminded me that L&Q might be large, but we are connected, responsive, passionate, determined to make London and the South East a better place, and most of all, local. 

So our future is Poplar Harca, but it is also Green Horizons, and Haggerston, and Lewisham, and Horsham, and every other local L&Q office, except moreso, combined with all the strengths which come from being large, financially strong and able to take measured risks.

Staying ahead of the curve

In February I shared with L&Q people a number of principles approved by our Board which will shape our service over the coming years:

  • L&Q must get closer to its residents and local authorities.  For this reason we will be creating more neighbourhood offices.
  • Our challenge will be to do this whilst delivering a consistent, high quality service regardless of tenure or geography, at no extra cost. 
  • In a new era of co-regulation, L&Q must be answerable to residents for our service.  We will create a new Operations Board which will be held to account by residents.
  • To manage the significant additional risk which the new Affordable Rent model presents. We will create a new Development Board, which will be held to account by our Major Ventures Committee.
  • And we will prepare for the future by creating new opportunities for succession and diversity.

L&Q's success comes from a preparedness to embrace change and stay ahead of the curve.  This is what we are doing now.

The old rule book has gone - what now?

Staying with the theme of localism, February saw the continuation of our dialogue with local authorities about the new affordable rent model, which gives us flexibility to charge up to 80% of market rent in order to compensate for a very significant reduction in capital grant.

I met with colleagues in Barking.  Like many local authorities they have some legitimate concerns about the combination of higher rents and welfare benefit caps.  We are doing our best to keep rents as affordable as possible, but we are keen to use the flexibility offered by the new model where it makes sense. 

I met with colleagues in Ealing, who share similar concerns.  They are currently doing the rounds, speaking to housing association partners and trying to understand the new world.  Not an easy task when the old rule book has gone.  But a picture is beginning to emerge.  Here's how I think it will look:

  • The provision of new affordable housing is in the housing association sector's DNA.  There is a desperate need for it, and it is our job to provide it.
  • The new flexibilities we have been offered are welcome, but we want to use them in a way that doesn't cause us to lose sight of our social mission, that doesn't present an unmanageable risk, and that will create effective long term partnerships with local authorities.
  • We are likely to see a reduction in supply in the short term, as the sector will tread cautiously whilst we learn to navigate this new world.   We will do our utmost to put a roof over the heads of people in need, but we won't break the bank.

My diary in February

In February I was invited to join the Ealing Housing Commission.  Following our selection to regenerate South Acton, Ealing is an important Borough to L&Q.  My participation in their Commission is a sign of our commitment, but also a chance to learn and develop a sustainable future for affordable housing.  

And I met with London Councils, the collective body for all London Boroughs, to discuss the new model.  We are all finding our way at the moment, and continued open dialogue will be essential for our long term success.

On the strategic front:

  • I attended the Mayor's Housing Investment Taskforce, now nearing completion of its assessment London's housing need.  Watch this space.
  • I was invited by Grant Shapps to attend his First Time Buyers Summit – an opportunity for L&Q to share our experience and learn from others.  In partnership with MHP, L&Q manages London's Housing Options database.  This tells us that there are 80,000 people in London who are keen to buy an affordable home ownership product such as shared ownership.  The list grows by around 3,000 every month.  Trouble is, the vast majority of people on the list don't have anything like the level of savings required for a deposit,  so innovations like L&Q's UpToYou are desperately needed.
  • I met Bob Neill, Communities Minister.  We discussed the role of large housing associations in a new era of localism, and he made it clear that we need to be just as responsive as the local association.  This is a challenge we take seriously, so I have invited Bob to visit one of our local offices and see for himself what we are capable of.
  • And I spoke to a group of housing professionals and government officers from Northern Ireland about our efforts to maintain supply with less grant and greater economic uncertainty.  Clearly the housing crisis goes beyond England, we have a lot in common with other countries, but we can be proud of our achievements.

Closer to home:

  • I attended our annual Residents/Group Board Conference to plan for our future.  Co-regulation in action.
  • I paid a visit to Cray House, our new office in Bexley.  A great working environment in one of our core London Boroughs.  

The month ahead

So another month passes, the tenth since the coalition government was formed, the fourth since the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the first, I believe, when things started coming together into a clearer picture. 

Next month we will launch our new five year plan, embrace a new business model, a new financial strategy and a new operating structure.  Plenty of change, but just as much will remain the same – our social mission to create places where people want to live, our commitment to resident satisfaction and responsible growth, our financial strength, and our understanding that nothing happens unless you have the best people in the business.

See you in March


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