4102; looking back on the year

No it’s not Usher’s latest album, this is my reflection on the achievements and challenges that 2014 brought (apologies in advance, it’s quite long, but hopefully quite interesting also :) ).

Starting with the day job, I’m really pleased with how far the Private Sector Leasing (PSL) scheme has progressed in 2014 compared to 2013 and 2012, particularly the part of the scheme that helps owners of empty properties to bring them back into use as affordable housing. We started the year with the renovation of the first homes in Erewash (St Mary Street, Ilkeston) and by the end of the year we’d hit 31 renovated homes, including two old office buildings, an empty pub and an old school swimming pool building. Many of the properties had been empty for 4 or 5 years; now they provide affordable housing (see one tenant’s story of how he feels like he’s won the lottery), Council Tax and New Homes Bonus revenue and more business for local builders and shops.

Whilst we’ve hugely exceeded our own expectations in bringing a total of around 90 empty properties back into use since 2012 (back in 2012 we expected to do 30!), it has been far from plain sailing. A lot of people argue that tackling the hundreds of thousands of empty properties in the country is an easy way to solve the housing crisis, but let me tell you (as I recently told Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris! (click day 22 here)) it takes a vast amount of time, money, perseverance and sometimes ultimatums (see my Guardian article on the subject of empty homes here). Whilst we secured additional funding from the HCA beyond our initial allocation for 30 units as we realised we could do more, we’ve also had to return some of our allocation just before Christmas as some owners just couldn’t meet the HCA March deadline, despite a £20,000 incentive in some cases (although we did manage to find last minute replacements for 4 units that pulled out, thanks to an owner that could get major renovation works done at all four in just 6 weeks!). One such property is a family home in a desirable rural area that has been empty for 20 years and which is a great annoyance to local residents; despite the very regular efforts of myself and the local authority empty homes officer, a threat of enforcement action and a significant grant offer, I am gutted that the owner couldn’t be persuaded in time. Nonetheless, our hard work with other owners was recognised early this year by the Empty Homes Network with an award for Local Authority/Housing Association Partnership of the Year. Sadly, the future of this part of the PSL scheme is unknown as we weren’t successful in securing any HCA grant in the 2015-18 bid. Despite facing significant challenges such as two difficult HCA audits, the scheme not taking off in Northamptonshire as we’d hoped and some tough Governance lessons, I’m still keen to do more (although I might be the only one in the team who is!) and I’ll be pursuing any and every option in 2015 including EDMOs, a project in Rutland, internal funding opportunities and other external funding opportunities. My first job on January 5th is to make sure the works are on schedule at the remaining 15 flats and houses, all due to complete by the end of January, eek!

March saw the completion of a scheme that I had been working on since the very beginning of the PSL scheme in 2012, a new development of 18 two-bedroom apartments, on the site of an old Royal Mail sorting office. This was the first scheme we’d leased to let at market rent (although, in Amber Valley market rent, social rent and LHA rent levels don’t vary greatly) and as such this was the first time we’d asked for tenants to pay a month’s rent in advance and a deposit. Overall, I’m pleased with how things are going at the scheme, although I did learn the lesson that taking handover of 18 units in one go is a lot to deal with! We’ve also had a couple of difficult rent arrears cases to deal with but we’re making sure we learn from the experience to improve our performance in this area. I’m hoping 2015 will see more new build developments like this one join the leasing scheme.

This scheme was closely followed by another first; in April the PSL team took handover of Futures Housing Group’s first new build market rent acquisition. We used our experiences gained only a month earlier to let these two and three bedroom market rent homes and we’ve had wonderful feedback from the tenants so far, as well as a challenging out of hours incident involving a leaking boiler.

It’s easy to overlook all our achievements in the last 12 months so it’s great to have some time to reflect on the work of the PSL team, however, challenges such as a short but intensely painful period of poor rent arrears performance, being audited three times in a year, team members who still dislike or don’t understand the scheme and getting to grips with health and safety requirements (far from my area of expertise!) can sadly overshadow the fact that we re-let properties in around 7 days, the scheme is regularly and positively discussed at management, executive and board meetings, our Halloween themed staff briefing received amazing feedback and above all that we are increasing the amount of quality, affordable housing in our communities.

In addition to the day job, I’ve completed quite a few extra-curricular activities in 2014 (you might call it ambition, or being a glutton for punishment, all I know is that I don’t want to miss any opportunity to be the best I can be). 2014 was my first full year as a CIH East Midlands Board member and I’m excited to have played a role in providing valuable information and events to CIH members in the East Midlands, including creating and managing a Twitter account, co-chairing a very successful health and housing event and co-authoring the first regional newsletter. January will see our annual leaders’ round table event which I have helped to organise this year, including adding a young leaders element to the event and in February I will attend my second CIH Presidential Dinner with my fellow board members. The event last year was a wonderful opportunity to dine in a magnificent building next to Dippy the Dinosaur but also to get to know my board colleagues better and to make some new contacts too. I also hope to attend One CIH in 2015, the annual planning/away day for CIH all regional boards.

I spent a lot of time at De Montfort University (DMU) this year, primarily as I was a distance learning student completing the final year of a BSc (Hons) in Housing, which mainly involved a 15,000 word dissertation on the role of the UK Government in subsidising affordable housing, under the wonderful guidance of Dr Peter King and Professor Jo Richardson. I am pleased to say I will return to Leicester on the 22nd January to graduate from this course with a First Class honours degree and I will thereby become a Chartered Member of CIH. I have recently submitted an abstract of this dissertation to two academic journals and hope 2015 will see the publication of my research. Another reason I spent a lot of time at DMU was my involvement in the Department of Public Policy and Politics’ Policy Commission, the aim of which was for students to present 100 policy ideas to change Britain to policy makers at an event as Westminster Palace; I was the lead of 4 housing students working on 20 policy ideas regarding welfare reform and communities, which you can read here.

I think 2014 has been the peak in terms of award nominations, I am very lucky to have been in the running for two individual awards and two team awards. Both individual awards (CIH/Inside Housing Rising Star award and Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce Young Person in Business award) were very intense, challenging and rewarding. The highlights of these experiences were the opportunity to spend at day at Shelter HQ with the campaign team, spending 3 days and nights at CIH Manchester making new friends, Twitter conversations with the likes of Natalie Elphicke and David Cowans, getting much more involved with the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce, making important connections with local businesses, attending a Chamber event at Westminster Palace and all the personal development opportunities and lessons learned. It was a shame not to win either of these awards but ultimately I’m glad to have had the opportunities and the exposure but I’m happy not have the expectations many will put on the winners. I think perhaps 2015 will be the year to leave the award entries to others, perhaps…

Other things I’ve been doing include: a research project for the FHG Board of Directors which considered who our current and future customers are, what their needs and wants are, and if and what products and services we should provide to them; a project based on the NHF Homes for Britain campaign to raise the profile of housing in the run up to the election with FHG staff, customers, stakeholders and local policy makers, which has included giving a presentation at the board planning/away day and may involve a relay-style event in the run up to the Homes for Britain rally (watch this space!); a presentation at the NHF Hot House Future Leaders event, appearing in a video at the NHF conference played to the Housing and Planning Minister (my write up of this conference also featured on the Guardian website, to my amazement/embarrassment!); two briefings (one on PSL, one on developing through partnership working), a benchmarking study and my first consultancy project with HQN; an invitation to attend the Young Leaders Experience; speaking at a University of Sheffield careers event to promote housing as a career option and finally becoming a Board Director at the Gleadless Valley Community Forum which aims to grow the capacity of the local community so that local people are able to overcome barriers to social and economic inclusion.

I hoping to do even more in 2015, (although after writing this that could be quite a challenge!) and I’ve already mentioned a few of the things that I’ll be getting up to in the first few months of the year and 2015 will also see me take on some additional responsibilities for the management of two colleagues and so this will bring another dimension to my day job and probably also to the topics covered in this blog.

A very happy and prosperous new year to you all, see you on the other side :)

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