Friday, 9 October 2020
NCHA chief executive Paul Moat on the importance of housing associations in communities
It’s been a long time since the issue of housing was so prominent on the political agenda, but it is increasingly thrust under the microscope for its role in a low-carbon and post-Covid world. As chief executive of Chamber strategic partner Nottingham Community Housing Association, Paul Moat is charged with a wide-ranging responsibility, as he tells Dan Robinson. But first, he wants to make sure people know what a housing association even is.
Whenever Paul Moat and his wife Jane attend a dinner party and are introduced to guests, the conversation inevitably comes around to what they both do for a living
Almost every time without fail, while interest peaks in Jane’s job as a solicitor, Paul is greeted by puzzled looks when he tells people he runs a housing association.
“It’s interesting to observe how people react because everyone understands a solicitor’s job and wants to find out more about their work, but it’s amazing how many get confused about what a housing association does.
“But I’m proud of working for a housing association, so I’m trying to do my small part in showing what we do because we’re great companies that carry out some really important work in our communities.”
Paul, who took up the top job at Nottingham Community Housing Association (NCHA) in September 2018, understands why people’s knowledge can be sketchy as he shared a misperception at the beginning of his career in the sector 21 years ago after joining from a brewery.
Many outsiders believe they are the modern-day organisation that manage council houses, but the near-10,000 homes managed by NCHA across six counties have no direct link to local authority housing – Nottingham City Council employs the arms-length management organisation Nottingham City Homes to run its 27,000 homes, for example – and instead offers social and affordable housing for the city.
While both affordable and social housing are rental products aimed at giving people on low incomes a chance of secure, long-term tenancy, there is a subtle difference in each definition.
Affordable housing rent is based on 80% of the local market rent, whereas social housing rent is set according to a national formula, and both are provided by either a housing association or council.
Alongside this, NCHA also provides shared ownership housing stock and is a developer in its own right for a relatively small amount of private housing – building up to 400 homes a year – which is sold for a profit to be reinvested in its other activities.
This last point perhaps takes some people by surprise but it is playing a key role in Nottingham’s Waterside regeneration scheme by building 73 homes – consisting of 53 for sale and 20 for shared ownership – at Pelham Waterside, next to the city’s flagship Trent Basin eco housing project, via its subsidiary Pelham Homes.Artist's impression of the Pelham Waterside development
Paul adds: “If talk to my friends about work, they’re surprised we build houses that compete with the private sector.
“But it allows us to do some more of our charitable work and we punch above our weight in terms of new development.
“We also have more than 150 almshouses and have some properties at a sub-market private for the private sector. We think of this as all part of the housing jigsaw.”
Nottingham Community Housing Association's operations go beyond just housing
While housing is the nuts and bolts of NCHA’s operation, its reach extends further.
For example, it provides more than a million hours of care services for some of its 20,000-plus tenants, ranging in everything from daily personal medication reminders to support with planning meals and getting shopping done.
The organisation also part-owns a training company, Access Training, alongside fellow Chamber strategic partner Futures Housing Group.
Paul says this is a “fantastic vehicle” for delivering apprentices – there are about 50 within the 1,100 workforce – and has taken on renewed significance since the introduction in 2017 of the apprenticeship levy, a tax on businesses with an annual payroll exceeding £3m that can be claimed back to fund apprenticeship training.
It is also one of 11 housing associations that founded Blue Skies Consortium in 2006 to build new homes that meet localised housing needs. The idea is to use their collective strength to secure grants from Homes England for new housing.
And then there’s Pitch, a development services company it jointly owns with Birmingham-based housing association Longhurst Group.
The limited liability partnership, set up in 2005, works with housing associations and local authorities to help deliver affordable housing. To date, it claims to have enabled the development of 1,400 homes across the Midlands, East of England, Yorkshire and Humber.
Paul explains: “There’s a whole load of people out there who want to build houses and it’s part of our corporate plan to build more homes – either for NCHA or other housing providers.
“We feel proud whether we build 400 homes that are then run by NCHA or 100 homes that are handed to other associations.
“It could be argued that who owns the homes is less important than the fact they exist because we need this tenure of housing.
“As a country, we haven’t built enough homes for a generation, so it’s about trying to be innovative to open up the potential to do the most we possibly can.”
Paul, who says interest in shared ownership schemes and full purchases has been strong despite issues in getting mortgages for many buyers, believes the Government’s target of delivering 300,000 new homes a year is a challenging one.
“Housing associations have a part to play in that,” he adds. “I’d say we’ve delivered consistently but we could probably up our game.
“That could mean more grants and investment though, so it doesn’t come without a price tag.”
Planning reforms could impact housing associations like NCHA
While the Government is attempting to address the perennial issue of land availability by reforming planning laws –the proposed changes involves streamlining the process to convert building usage into housing – Paul has some concerns over what impact it will have on Section 106 agreements.
Presently, private developers will agree with local authorities to make some infrastructure improvements in communities and for a proportion of its homes to be made affordable.
These properties will often be subsequently managed by housing associations but Paul is slightly anxious at the prospect of developers soon being able to make economic arguments that negate the affordable housing requirement.
“We aim to deliver 2,000 homes over the next five years but this would become more difficult,” he says.
“I’d like to think the aspiration of the sector would remain the same but we’d have to just work harder.”
The Government has pledged to invest £12.2bn in affordable housing until 2026 via its Affordable Housing Programme, and NCHA stands in a good position to get a slice of the funding as one of Homes England’s 23 strategic partners in a joint venture with Longhurst.
Delivered alongside a new, more accessible model for shared ownership to help more people get on the property ladder, it is the highest single funding commitment to affordable housing since the Conservatives took office in 2020.
Paul believes this is because politicians now understand how a warm and secure home is the foundation for people to have a “successful” life.
“I do feel I hear more about housing now than I did 10 years ago,” he says.
“It’s a very aspirational and emotive aspect of politics. There’s a ladder that some people climb from social to privately rented housing, and then potentially buying their own home one day – perhaps via shared ownership.
“We call it staircasing and housing associations play a vital role in these transitions through the different stages of people’s lives.”
This all-encompassing role of housing associations is why Paul is keen to point out their social roots.
He adds: “What I’ve learned over the past 20 years is that it’s more of a housing association movement, rather than just being a sector.
“And when it comes to social and affordable housing, it’s a powerful movement.”
Future of sustainable housing
New environmental standards have been drawn up by NCHA as it responds to the greater emphasis on sustainability.
The housing association has made a pledge to make its existing homes more energy-efficient and explore the use of renewable energy technologies to develop new homes after its board signed off a new list of standards in February this year.
Replacing a previous design and environmental sustainability strategy that had been in place for two decades, it hopes this will bring the organisation in line with the Future Homes Standard – which will be introduced in 2025 and requires new-build homes to have low-carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency.NCHA has built new homes at Radford Mill
Paul says this reflects a change in the industry’s emphasis from social to environmental sustainability.
“We’ve tried to think about our environmental footprint in both our homes and offices in order to drive improvements,” he says.
“It’s now a feature of our business plan because this is going to be a bigger driver from a buyer’s perspective going forward.
“We’re looking at finding the best technologies to meet the standards, which might include ground and air source heat pumps, as well as solar panels and various insulation products.
“The biggest challenge is going to be financial, as research by Nottingham Trent University said it would cost on average £17,000 per property to retrofit homes to be carbon-neutral.”
The Government’s Clean Growth Strategy wants as many rented homes as possible to be upgraded to the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C by 2030.
While this may initially appear to be a modest target, Paul says many modern homes are rated below this and only three-quarters of its own stock are at this level.
So achieving this across the entire portfolio will involve a dedicated programme of improvements that requires capital grant funding.
Aligned to all this is Nottingham City Council’s stated target of being carbon-neutral by 2028 – the most ambitious scheme of its kind in the UK.
Paul says these various schemes and stated targets has focused minds at NCHA, which will also consider its footprint as a business through the supply chain and annual carbon reporting.
“Having our own standard and pulling everything together into something more coherent has to be the way to go,” he adds.
“When it comes to upgrading the EPC rating, I don’t want to use a house being Band D or below as disposal criteria.
“That would just put a house into the private rental market and become someone else’s problem.
“I’m proud enough of NCHA to think we’re in the best position to do this and I’m confident we now have a plan.”
Future of housing in town and city centres
Until now, people have been expected to travel to where their employers are based – but plans to move NCHA’s head office could signal a new era for the workplace.
The organisation, currently headquartered in Sherwood Rise, recently bought the former Nottingham College site in Farnborough Road, Clifton.
It is due to move in 2023 and create a mix of office and supported living residential development, while keeping some of the recreational facilities, including a 3G football pitch.
With some people predicting the end for the traditional commute to city centres en masse, Paul believes it would be a good idea for employers to instead move into cheaper suburban areas.
He says: “I could see more companies moving to residential locations so they go to where the employees are, rather than paying city centre prices and asking everyone to go to them.NCHA is planning to move out of its Sherwood House HQ in the coming years
“We do have tenants coming into our office, although that’s reduced over the years. We don’t need to be a city centre service, and building outside the city centre is more our natural environment.”
The deal for the site went through during the pandemic and Paul admits the rise of remote working has brought up interesting questions about the use of space.
“How many staff we cater for in a new office is one of them,” he says. “It’ll be different to how it is now.
“We were catering for what we have now with a proportion for growth, but now we’re wondering if we have the same amount of space as now, and agile working will create the space for growth.
“Or even, do we have a slightly smaller office with less fixed desk space and more agile spaces?
“We’ll have to take all these considerations into the account because we’re designing the office of the future – for the next 30 to 50 years.”
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) UK residential market survey in August found that 83 per cent of people in the East Midlands anticipate demand to grow for homes with gardens and outside space over the next two years, while 79 per cent predicted rising demand for properties located near green space.
Paul agrees, saying: “The housing types that people want are going to shift pre- and post-Covid, but whether they can be delivered at large scale I don’t know.
“People of working and school age who have had to work remotely have found that having an office space or a kitchen table is really important. If you don’t have those in your house, then Covid has been more difficult for you.
“They’ve also realised how important it is to have some sort of outdoor space during lockdown.
“So for us, we need to think more about the types of homes that people want and find easier to live in with what we know now.”
However, he still believes there is a place for city centre flats, pointing to how his children, aged 17 and 22, would prefer to live within the buzz of a city rather than suburbs or towns.
“It’s a generational bias,” he adds. “There’s something about having that proximity to where everything is going on.
“We still see city centre development going up for the private and student markets, but those who don’t have balconies or rooftop gardens have found life more difficult so we need to think about making them comfortable.”
Nottingham Community Housing Association by numbers
1973: When Nottingham Community Housing Association was founded
20,000: People living in its houses across the East Midlands
9,500: Homes it manages in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire
6,000: Homes built by NCHA since 1973
£87m: Annual turnover of NCHA
£500m: Total value of its properties
30: Local authorities it works with
1 million: Hours of care provided annually
This article features in the October edition of the Chamber's Business Network magazine, which is available to read here.Back