NIFHA Study Visit to the North East

On 29th and 30th March, 31 colleagues from housing associations in Northern Ireland visited the North East to exchange perspectives and best practice around net zero, development, place making and procurement.

Coordinated by the NHC and the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), delegates visited sites across the region with involvement from Karbon Homes, Your Homes Newcastle and Thirteen.

The visit began with the NHC’s Brian Robson, Executive Director of Policy and Public Affairs, outlining the operating context, challenges and opportunities facing the North of England. Delegates then discussed procurement with Consortium Procurement’s Commercial Director, James Ealey, with discussion focused around the digital switchover, retrofit measures, and skills shortages. Colleagues in Northern Ireland face similar challenges to members here in England in recruiting development professionals, specialist roles like surveyors, and staff in supported housing.

The afternoon of the first day began with a presentation from Paul Fiddaman, Chief Executive and Scott Martin, Director of Finance, from Karbon Homes, outlining their impact in the areas Karbon operates, funding models, and their role as a Homes England strategic partner. Paul and Scott discussed Karbon’s pathway to achieving EPC C in all of their homes by 2030 and the challenges faced around procurement and supply chains, customer experience and data.

Site visits

College Grange, Sunderland

Delegates then visited College Grange, a £20m development from Karbon Homes, delivering 105 new affordable homes to the site at North Hylton, Sunderland. The site was a former secondary school which had been unoccupied for several years and will be completing in July 2023.

Karbon set out to provide a 100% affordable ‘homes for all ages’ development and is categorised by a design concept that creates a sense of community with green corridors and a playpark. Working with main contractor Esh Construction, the site is a mixed tenure development comprising of 10 bungalows for affordable rent and 95 houses for Rent to Buy, a tenure which enables people to rent at less than the market rate so that they can opt to save for a deposit to buy the property outright or through shared ownership.

Karbon has worked with Sunderland City Council and Homes England to bring the site to fruition, aiming to develop homes to meet the housing needs of the local community.

The homes have been built using both traditional construction and modern methods, including light gauge steel on 30 homes which has offered valuable learning on the benefits and challenges that developing homes using modern methods can bring.

Of the 95 rent to buy plots, 68 are occupied or reserved. Feedback has been positive around the house types, plot and garden sizes, property spec and the overall feel of the development. The amount of  open space has been highly welcomed.


The Byker Estate

Delegates then moved on to a visit to the Byker Estate, designed and built between 1969 and 1983 to a master-plan by the architect Ralph Erskine. The Estate was one of the most influential and pioneering European social housing schemes of the 20th Century.

The iconic Grade II listed Byker Estate is one of the UK’s most important housing schemes. The Byker Wall, which forms the centrepiece of the Byker Estate, provides a 1.3-mile barrier to North winds, creating a microclimate within the Estate while protecting it from the noise of major roads outside.

In July 2012, Byker Community Trust (BCT) was formed following a stock transfer of 1,800 homes from Newcastle City Council. Between 2012 & 2021, BCT invested over £41m into the estate and was awarded ‘The Great Neighbourhood’ at the Academy of Urbanism Awards in 2018. In April 2021, BCT became part of Karbon Homes through a transfer of engagements to help accelerate investment into the estate, delivering value for money and helping achieve the priorities that customers said were important to them.

When BCT joined Karbon, a Community Pledge was created to deliver the priorities customers asked for. This includes accelerated and new funding of £36m to 2029. The works include:

  • Modernisation works to all homes. Since April 2021, 159 new kitchens have been installed, 645 homes have benefitted from new bathrooms with showers and 707 homes have received new internal doors.
  • Works will commence on an £11m external environmental improvement programme, which looks to redesign the external and public spaces across the estate. Customers told us their priorities for their neighbourhood, this included health & safety works, waste management, tree management, secure car parking, CCTV and lighting, soft and hard landscaping, safe play spaces and garden fencing and gateways were a priority. The first neighbourhood to benefit from these improvements will be Dunn Terrace and consultation with customers begins in March 2023.
  • As part of the Community Pledge, Karbon promised to build 150 new homes on five sites to meet the needs of current and future customers. They have secured Strategic Partnership (SP) Funding from Homes England to deliver 2,200 new homes by March 2028 and all 150 within Byker are included in the SP programme.

The Bolam Street site has been prioritised as the first development. This will deliver 24 affordable homes for social rent including a mix of 1 and 2-bed bungalows, 2-bed houses and 2-bed flats. Work is expected to start on site in Autumn 2023 with target completion in Winter 2024.

Through their Thriving Byker Strategy, Karbon works collaboratively with customers, residents and key stakeholders to make positive changes. To ensure delivery of the objectives and priorities residents asked for, the strategy is underpinned by the following nine key themes:

  • Pride and ownership in the area
  • Health, wellbeing and mindfulness
  • Income maximisation
  • A cleaner and greener Byker
  • A safe place to live
  • Children and young people
  • Hard to reach groups
  • Community training and employment
  • Digital connectivity

As part of their refreshed approach to Placeshaping, outlined in the recently launched Fair Foundations report, Byker will be one of Karbon’s pilot Impact Areas working in partnership with local government, health, education, community organisations and major employers to understand how they can best support and embrace a place-shaped approach to this local community offering long-term growth and prosperity.

Day two began with NHC’s Satty Rai discussing the work and recommendations of the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury.

Satty discussed the Jury’s key recommendations, which can be categorised into four main themes:

  • Retrofit and Renewable heating technology​
  • The cost of retrofit and managing disruption​
  • Education and communication​
  • Tackling climate change at a neighbourhood level

Asked by delegates which of the themes came through as the single most important, Satty said this was undoubtedly communication. Work continues post-Jury: look out for our Self-Assessment checklist, cross-sector communications project, demonstrator tours and Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund case studies over the coming months.

We then welcomed Doug Bacon, Director of Asset Management at Thirteen, who outlined Thirteen’s SHDF position and other options for future schemes being considered, including carbon credits and alternative finance. Doug discussed the health impacts of cold homes and what Thirteen are doing to combat retrofit challenges, giving details of a c. £2m pilot in the Hartlepool area, using around £1m in SHDF. The project involves retrofitting 57 homes, including bungalows and flats, and is PAS 2035 compliant.

Delegates discussed the challenges of PAS 2035 compliance – a robust but challenging standard – and how this, combined with how SHDF is delivered, can extend the length of a project from the customer viewpoint. Doug also echoed other presenters, citing scaling as the key strategic challenge around skills, resources, and financing.

Site Visit

Treetop Village, Newcastle

Our final site visit was to Treetop Village in Walker, Newcastle. Treetop Village, developed and managed by Your Homes Newcastle (ALMO), is a Housing Plus scheme providing homes exclusively for people aged over 55 or with a medical need.

YHN’s regeneration team led the tour and explained the features of the building, and how the vision for the scheme was for it to become a hub in the Walker area. The building hosts a restaurant and hairdresser, regular social events, and has more recently been used as a warm hub for anyone in the community struggling to heat their home over the winter months.

The NHC has a diverse membership and we’re committed to building and strengthening relationships between our members – this was an informative, successful study visit with a huge amount of two-way learning.

Seamus Leheny, Chief Executive of NIFHA said: “It was brilliant to work with Consortium Procurement and the NHC to show representatives from the Northern Ireland social and affordable housing sector some of the great work that is taking place in the North East. It has strengthened our close ties and we are looking forward to building on the relationship further moving forward. Our members returned home to Northern Ireland with new knowledge, best practice and newly forged connections so it was very successful.”

Alistair Merchant, Head of Commercial at Consortium Procurement (CP) said: “This was an excellent opportunity for the Consortium to provide a rich policy context to the work we do, share insights gained from our Tenant Climate Jury, alongside having the ability to set-out the real savings and other gains that NHC members can achieve by working with us.

 Visits to members’ sites brought to the forefront how CP’s frameworks are helping to make a positive impact on what needs to be achieved, gain significant cost-savings and the real difference this ultimately brings to social housing residents”.