Braintree: Tenants at the heart of community housing organisation Greenfields

GREENFIELDS Community Housing, a not-for-profit community gateway housing association, took over Braintree District Council’s homes in 2007, following a tenant and leaseholder ballot in 2006. At its head is chief executive Phil Adams, who presides over a �36million business which manages 8,000 homes spread across Braintree, Witham and Halstead, as well as 445 leasehold properties, and employs 228 staff. He spoke to SARAH CHAMBERS about the challenges he faces

PHIL Adams has spent 30 years in public housing, many of those working for local authorities.

Nowadays his “boss” is not the council, but a board – and his tenants. His tenants are able to have a greater say than is usual within his sector, as the organisation he belongs to is a “community gateway” association, the third of its kind to be set up in the UK.

Phil has worked for a number of local authorities, including Leeds City Council, Richmondshire District Council and Ipswich Borough Council, but ask him whether he would like to go back to the old council homes set-up and he is unequivocal.

“I’m not denigrating local authority provision,” he says, “but this is by far and away the best way because I feel as though we have all here made a bigger difference more quickly than I have been able to do with other ways of doing business.

“We are a community gateway association and one of the biggest things is the involvement of residents. Here, I have been working with residents much more closely than anywhere else I have worked and more of them, and that’s so much better.”

In his past life, he was almost trying to second-guess their priorities, he explains.

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“Here I know very clearly what our residents want from us. And if it’s not going very well, they tell us very quickly. We don’t take umbrage.”

It’s this feeling that he is not so constrained, that there are not layers of bureaucracy to fight through to get things done, which has convinced Phil of the benefits of this new system compared to the old one. In addition, the housing association has a “very supportive” board, chaired by Alan Wyatt, which “give us clear direction”, he says.

Greenfields, one of about 1,400 housing associations now in existence across England and Wales, took over Braintree District Council’s 8,100 homes in 2007, following a tenant and leaseholder ballot for transfer at the end of 2006. It was under a set-up known as “community gateway”, which is still a relatively new concept for the housing industry. A small number of homes have gone through disposals and tenant purchasing, and it currently has 8,001. Once it gets started on a planned homes building programme, that number will increase gradually.

Seven of the 15 board members at Greenfields are Greenfields residents. Greenfields has also formed a community gateway group made up of 18 tenants and one leaseholder. This group is able to make recommendations to the board, based on residents’ views from across the district. It also represents other tenants and leaseholders by making important decisions on their behalf about their homes and communities.

If that wasn’t enough tenant involvement, there are also three area forums, in Braintree, Witham and Halstead. These are made up of local residents who decide how to spend a budget of �100,000 a year on environmental improvements in their district, with Greenfields’ support.

The association, which looks after homes across Braintree Witham and Halstead, has been carrying out �98million worth of improvements to homes across the district, including new kitchens, bathrooms, central heating, rewiring, doors and windows.

There are other schemes too which are aimed at driving up the quality of life in the district. It has agreed an �11m joint partnership fund with Braintree District Council for major regeneration schemes, building new homes and supporting local projects in the district, as well as an annual �50,000 Community Fund that Greenfields’ residents and the general public can bid on for funding smaller community schemes.

Greenfields has also notched up some prestigious accolades, including an Investors in People gold accreditation.

Phil, who joined Colchester Borough Council in 1999, and went on to become the first chief executive of Colchester Borough Homes in 2003, left to join Greenfields Community Housing when Braintree District Council’s homes were transferred to them in 2007.

That meant he was in nearly from the start, and helped negotiate the terms of the transfer with the council. Now, while the organisation does have a relationship with Braintree Borough Council, its funders are Santander.

“We have got a facility of up to around �120million to bring everything up to standard,” he says.

“It’s a very big district and it’s very rural and that brings challenges in itself. We are now considered to be in the top 100 housing authorities in the country and that’s measured by the number of homes. We come in at something like 82nd. You can also measure us by turnover which is probably around �35m a year so it’s really big business.”

It’s a time of change for public housing, partly due to austerity and the way policies are evolving to deal with that.

“For the housing sector and the eastern region, in my view it’s one of the biggest periods of change in housing, with an awful lot of change in the way business is done and the way housing is financed and supported,” says Phil.

“Keeping pace with it all is a real challenge. What we were focused on, and what our residents wanted us to focus on, was keeping the promises that we made to them before the transfer.”

In its first four years, Greenfields devoted its energies to keeping those promises in bringing up the homes to standard through a major refurbishment programme, and the organisation has put its 10,000 tenants and 450 leaseholders “at the heart” of what it does, he says.

“We are a community association and we want to make a difference in communities. We are not going to limit our work just to residents. We have funds that benefit everyone in that community rather than just our residents,” he says.

Greenfields is one of five housing associations in the eastern region which have joined the e2 (e squared) Development Consortium led by Orwell Housing Association in Ipswich.

“We are all very different but just because we are different doesn’t mean we can’t work together for the greater good in the eastern region,” he says.

“Yes, we are nearly five years old and we have not built a Greenfields home yet, but we are on site in two locations and will provide 12 homes in the next 12 months.”

They will be developing two garage sites – one in Hatfield Peverel and one in Rayne. Admittedly, both are small, but there is another former sheltered scheme site, at Sible Hedingham, which will be knocked down to provide a further eight homes.

“We have not got huge swathes of land available. Another issue is the money, the finance. We have got in our business plan money that will help us build up to 100 homes by 2016.

“It’s modest, but there are reasons for that. There are other housing associations that will put hundreds of homes in place in other areas by 2016 but actually we have a more challenging environment.”

Through the consortium, Greenfields has committed to building 50 homes by 2015, and it has other funding from its own business plan.

It can borrow up to �120m from Santander, and it has not spent as much on its Decent Homes programme as it anticipated, so funds are also available from there.

“One hundred on its own will not meet the need that’s out there, but it will help significantly,” he says.

“I’ve worked in Yorkshire, Colchester, Ipswich and Braintree and I’ve always been operating in an environment where a significant number of people really need what we offer,”

There are around 3,000 people looking for homes in the district, he says, but there have “always been “ about 3/4,000 people.

Greenfields also makes available to the council up to 35 homes at any given time to use in the event of emergency, such as flooding or other disasters.

Through CHIP (Community Housing Investment Partnership), it is supporting regeneration projects in the district.

It has its own in-house customer services department, dealing with the needs of tenants, and the policy Phil promotes – treating them as though they are your own relative – is geared towards ensuring their problems are dealt with promptly and efficiently.

It has surveyed its tenants, and finds a very high proportion, around 90%, say they would recommend Greenfields as a landlord to family or friends, suggesting a high satisfaction rate.

In response to tenants’ desire for more “feet on the street”, it has taken on neighbourhood co-ordinators.

Its operations are spread across four sites spread across the district and it is continually looking at value for money, he says. It has taken on more staff (it had 185 at disposal) but has made savings on services it used to pay for and has now moved in-house, such as customer services.

The responsibilities, admits Phil, are “signficant”.

“It’s a challenging job, but I would not have it any other way. I have not gone into any job necessarily for an easy life. Actually, the rewards in the challenge are significant,” he says.

He enjoys being able to make a positive difference, simply by carrying out a repair well, he says. His motto is: ‘What difference does it make to Phil’s mum?’ - a reference he makes to try to engage staff in seeing things through the eyes of the tenants.

“If you are doing something that is not going to make a difference, you have to question whether you ought to be doing it,” he says.

Nearly five years on, and having experienced the public housing sector from both sides, Phil feels the Greenfields model is working well and is convinced it is a marked improvement on what it has replaced.

“It’s very, very different – it’s a breath of fresh air,” he says.

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