As we start 2018, Radius Housing is nearing the end of its first year post-merger and John McLean says it has been an “interesting journey”. The housing association was formed when Fold Housing merged with Helm Housing and McLean says: “Right from the beginning both the boards of Helm and Fold were keen to do something different, that would be for the benefit of our tenants and for a wider and diverse range of service users.”
The new organisation set out its vision based on three pillars: firstly, growth, leveraging the larger and stronger balance sheet and financial capacity of the new entity; secondly, investing in its communities in terms of services, which had been piloted and are now mainstream; and thirdly, investing in technology for increased productivity for the whole organisation and for better accessibility for its diverse customer base. The new entity employs 1,100 staff and McLean highlights the role of the technology pillar enabling them to work in the community, rather than be fully office-based.
The merger came at a time of great change for the social housing sector: “We recognised that a strong head wind lay ahead in the form of welfare reform. This will first and foremost affect our tenants putting additional calls on our ability to support them and secondly, on our business due to the impact on our income. We need to future proof the combined organisation from such a strong head wind and to proactively assist people so that they avoid getting into debt difficulties.”
Since the announcement of the welfare reform measures, the landscape has become even more uncertain with the prospect of Brexit: “Whether it is a hard or a soft Brexit, there will still be implications for our business in terms of cost of materials and labour and the availability of labour, either directly in our support services or indirectly with our contracting partners. Even with a soft Brexit the landscape will be more challenging than before the decision to leave the EU.
“We also have the uncertainty at Stormont and the hung parliament at Westminster having an impact on decision-making here in Northern Ireland, particularly with regard to funding. The Programme for Government (PfG) is signalling more austerity. There will be less money in the years ahead, at a time when demand for our services will significantly rise,” he explains.
McLean is particularly worried about the level of funding that will be available to the social housing sector. He believes that with the health service being under pressure and with its funding ring fenced, that it suggests “our share of the budget will become smaller”. There is also the challenge of reclassification of the social housing sector (the debts of housing associations were treated as private until the Office for National Statistics reclassified them as public bodies in 2015).
“We hope common sense will prevail and that we will be reclassified as independent bodies. Associations through autonomy and under the leadership of independent board members have a proven track record in delivery and innovation as well as drawing in significant levels of private finance,” he adds.
The larger organisation will be better placed to weather what is almost a perfect storm for the sector. “The merger was the solution for Fold and Helm. It’s not necessarily the only solution for our sector. We felt that consolidation was the way forward for us and that the resulting organisation would be better placed to protect its customer base.” In relation to further challenges he expands: “In a post-Grenfell environment, we like every other responsible landlord must ensure we keep the safety, security and relative comfort of all our customers as priorities as we go about our business.”
Radius Housing has 12,500 homes across Northern Ireland. It has a very diverse customer base, with a mixture of sheltered housing, general needs family housing and supported housing for people with complex needs. It also has a range of services unique to its business; a telecare business that supports 22,000 homes in Ireland; a special floating support service assisting 600 families in the community; a ‘staying-put’ scheme that helps up to 400 families each year carry out adaptations to their homes under the NIHE’s disability facilities grant scheme; and other niche offerings. Their vision is that whether you live in a private home or in one of its properties, Radius offers you the choice of support to help you to live independently, regardless of your circumstances. This offering is being extended to private-pay customers.
In the summer of 2017 the issue of shared communities once again hit the headlines. “We have a vision of shared communities, where people regardless of their ethnicity or religious background can live together in mutual respect and importantly, contribute to the communities in which they live.
“Our vision is to build more and more of these schemes. We currently have plans to have a total of five such schemes by the end of 2019, right across Northern Ireland and 10 by 2022. In addition, we are keen to develop mixed tenure schemes with social, private, shared equity tenures and also mixed use with play parks, open leisure spaces and community facilities and employment space, where economies of scale allow us.
“A good example of that is the Visteon project, which we hope work will commence on site at the end of this financial year. Projects such as this have several aspects to them: housing, community facilities, employment space and a commitment to apprenticeships as part of the employment scheme. Visteon encompasses 240 private, affordable and social homes, a community centre, a play park, open leisure space and 60,000 sqft of employment space. This will provide a sustainable community, where people can live, work and engage in leisure and social activity. In west Belfast, as in most areas requiring regeneration, there is not just a need for housing but also for jobs and a quality of life,” explains McLean.
“In a post-Grenfell environment, we like every other responsible landlord must ensure we keep the safety, security and relative comfort of all our customers as priorities as we go about our business.”
Radius has developed a community investment strategy that will entail forming partnerships with further education colleges, to help support hundreds of people through apprenticeships and vocational programmes that offer the opportunity to get back into work.
McLean says: “Housing associations have a position of unique trust with tenants and we can leverage that relationship to help them access education and employment in a way that other bodies cannot. We can be a conduit to get people into work, including some from families that may not have worked for generations.”
This approach will help mitigate the impact of welfare reform, which will see the introduction of Universal Credit and, in time, the likely introduction of the bedroom tax. These reforms will lead to a shortfall in household income for many. He adds: “Our intention is to work with people to help access apprenticeships and full-time employment in order to be able to fund that gap in benefits.”
Radius is also investing in other measures to help address the shortfalls in household income and fuel poverty such as the recent investment in solar PV panels that will help reduce household energy bills and help offset the impact of welfare reform. Other investments include community hubs. This involves turning some houses into community facilities, where local people can meet and facilitate community groups assisting with after school clubs, breakfast clubs and act as a venue for a range of services for the community.
Reflecting on what has been a very busy first nine months, McLean says: “It was a significant undertaking to combine Helm and Fold. Each had over 40 years of tradition and very proud workforces who had achieved so much. A lot of work was done up front by the respective boards and senior management teams in planning for the integration of the two organisations. The prime focus for the first two years has to be on integrating and embedding the new organisation.”
This has entailed moving 70 staff between the two main offices in Holywood and Belfast. It also involved completely rebranding the new organisation. He adds: “It was important to unite the staff under one identity with a new set of values, so that everybody was on a level playing field. It also gave us the opportunity to revisit our priorities in these challenging times.”
The new organisation has invested over £1 million in new IT systems supporting the work of front-facing teams in HR, finance, housing and asset management. “Within the first nine months we have launched all these new systems and we have been largely pleased with the progress made. We also took the opportunity to develop new processes and work practices. We took the best from Helm and Fold and also from elsewhere and through a Lean Six Sigma process, redesigned many of our core processes. This initiative involved staff from both legacy organisations.”
McLean has been involved in mergers before in his career and says that there is always an “initial euphoria” when two organisations come together and then that gives way to a “period of uncertainty”. He explains: “There is much to be done integrating systems and processes, while at the same time delivering services to residents and tenants.”
Radius undertook a stakeholder review at the end of 2017 which gave positive feedback, particularly from tenants. “That has been as a result of the leadership of the board and the hard work of the staff and the management team of the new organisation. We are acutely aware there is still much to be done in regard to fully integrating the new organisation and defining our new Radius culture.” This is reflected in Radius’ new corporate plan, one of the key objectives of which is to achieve harmonisation and buy-in to the values of the new organisation.
Looking forward, McLean says that Radius is looking to grow and diversify its offering beyond social housing development to private-for-sale and shared-equity in its various projects. Last year, Radius became the first housing association in Northern Ireland, with its Rathgill project in Bangor, to include 20 private houses for sale (with a show house) in the 200-house development.
“It was a new venture for us and we want to make that feature of future larger developments.”
Radius Housing’s excellence was recognised in late 2017 when the housing association won a competition for two projects: the redevelopment of St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena and the Hope Street housing redevelopment, on the edge of Translink’s Belfast Transport Hub project. “That was a significant achievement for Radius in its early days and it was because of our vision for the projects around how we would relate to people living in the local area how we would consult with them and involve them in the new developments.”
With 12,500 homes, Radius has a significant maintenance commitment. “Some of the properties are of the age they require substantial investment programme over the next five years. This will be a big undertaking for our Assets team, not to mention their Housing colleagues who must support tenants impacted by the future works.
“Radius’s core objective is to offer the best possible homes and services to all our customers. Our Communities team has ambitious plans that includes maximising our performance in housing management. That’s about minimising our voids, managing our rent accounts and helping people by anticipating their need for services alongside traditional housing support and management services. This includes addressing their employment needs, their wellbeing and educational needs,” says McLean.
On technology, Radius sees itself as a ‘digital-by-demand’ provider. There is still a significant portion of its customer base that prefers to use the telephone to contact the association and that channel will continue to be supported in the future. There are plans for a specialist customer contact centre building on the core competencies and capabilities of its existing telecare business. It will be available 24/7 and will aim to answer all queries at the first point of contact. Customers will be able to use all channels to contact Radius: telephone, email, online, social media etc. It is also creating a mobile support platform for all its staff as the new organisation has a geographical spread right across Northern Ireland.
Finally, McLean pays tribute to the board of the new entity: “We are fortunate we have a real blend of public and private sector experts. They have shown great leadership at a time when we are rethinking how we do things. Their insight and experience has been invaluable in this. Their capacity for dealing with the complexity of the merger has been very beneficial and will be needed as we develop as an organisation. For example, Radius has the intention of seeking credit rating and then going to the debt markets to seek a bond placement within the next two to three years. We are able to call on the expertise of our board members, that includes ‘captains of industry’, to help us advance this.”
McLean concludes by acknowledging the contribution of Radius chairperson Diana Fitzsimons: “Diana brings a unique combination of people skills, that have been vital for leading the new organisation and a technical understanding of the planning process which is invaluable, as we embark on an ambitious growth phase.”