A privilege to be NHC Chair

Geraldine Howley, former chair of the Northern Housing Consortium

Geraldine Howley was chair of the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) for six years between 2008 and 2014 and was part of the Commission for Housing in the North.

Geraldine has over 30 years’ experience of working in housing and was Chief Executive of Incommunities for 18 years. She is currently a Director of the GEM programme which offers a wide range of jobs and intensive learning experiences in the housing sector across the country. 

 

Can you share some highlights from your time as chair of Northern Housing Consortium?

It was an absolute privilege to be chair of the Northern housing Consortium and to work with likeminded people who have the will, enthusiasm and energy to make a difference in the north.

One of the highlights during my time with the organisation was our influencing role and the way we were able to develop relationships with politicians locally, regionally and nationally.

We visited Downing Street to make a case for rebalancing funding for housing in the north, collaborating with organisations like the CBI to meet MPs together and the events we held, like our conferences and round tables, gave us a great platform to talk directly to senior politicians.

I think that success was partly due to the fact that NHC is seen as a welcoming and fair organisation that wants to listen, learn and engage.

The introduction of procurement frameworks which, over the years, have also been extremely beneficial providing members with great value and helping them drive efficiency across the north by providing access to a wide range of quality services and suppliers. All of this has meant housing organisations can be more efficient and make savings which ultimately benefit tenants.

At the end of 2016, after 18 months of consultation and research, the NHC published the report of the Commission for Housing in the North. Its aim was to understand issues for housing in the north and identify practical solutions to enable growth and regeneration in the north.

Do you think the findings are still relevant today?

I think there’s been a step change in that there’s now a recognition that northern housing markets are different from the south and one size doesn’t fit all. The importance of regeneration is on the agenda and people are now talking about place making.  We have a lot to offer in the north such as affordable land and great rural areas. Whilst house values differ from other geographical areas, what remains is the potential the north has as a fantastic contribution to growth.

The levelling up white paper and devolution have certainly been catalysts for change but that said there’s still a way to go.

We made the case for the fact that housing is instrumental for economic growth and the whole of the economy, and that the north has a huge amount to offer. Now we need a holistic, national housing strategy with regional strategies that link into it – and devolution will make a difference here, with decision-making being brought to a regional level.

If there’s a change of government coming, let’s hope housing will be a priority.

 

What do you think should be key priorities for housing in the north over the next five years and the next 50 years?

Issues which will be a challenge for the north both in the short and long term include carbon reduction but it’s something we’ve got to tackle, and we must start now.  Part of this will be linked to retrofitting and ensuring we have the right resources and that we are implementing that effectively. We also need to continue listening to the customer and adapting and changing our services in line with their needs.

In addition, we should be constantly looking at how we can increase housing supply within the restraints of affordability and availability of skilled labour.  Things like the rising cost of materials will also have an impact.

We need to continually work to be smarter and more efficient in how we build and of course we have to listen to customers and adapt what we do to meet their needs.

Fuel poverty is a big issue now and I hope it won’t still be the case in 50 years’ time.

Whatever the timeframe, the focus should always be about housing supply.  Having sufficient and affordable homes for people in the right places and making sure that the homes we already have are decent and fit for purpose.

 

What do you feel the role of NHC is and what enables them to drive the changes that are needed?

I don’t think there is any other organisation in the north that represents the whole housing sector in the same way, spanning housing associations, local authorities, collaboration with the private sector and the voices of tenants. The Northern Housing Consortium are a strong voice for the north and their impact I feel can be broken into three key areas:

  • Influencing role – a voice for the north with government and key parties
  • Helping organisations become more efficient – through their procurement framework offering.
  • Events – Their events and roundtables are fantastic, bringing people together to discuss relevant issues as well as providing an opportunity to listen and learn from members and subsequently feed that back into the services and support they provide.

In essence, the culture of the organisation is all about having a can-do approach and it’s a way for people to come together, learn from each other and drive change.  It’s a body that can be a strong voice for housing across the north and which has a real influence with government.

 

And what gives you the most pride when you look back at your time in the housing sector?

Do you know what it’s a simple one. Essentially, it’s about seeing our work change communities for the better. Because what we do is about so much more than bricks and mortar!