Mike Hughes looks at what could become one of the most influential organisations in the region – the new North East Housing Partnership - with its chairman, Paul Fiddaman.

This region is in a brighter spotlight than ever before, as innovative projects become the building blocks of a new economy and a brighter future takes shape for the next generation of North East businesses and their leaders.

Every time we have a new headline or a fresh direction, behind the scenes the keyword has been collaboration. As our own Level Up campaign shows time and again, the region knows how to work together and pool resources to make the biggest impact and leave the longest legacy.

So the first steps of the infant North East Mayoral Combined Authority will be the perfect opportunity to show how partnerships and working across boundaries are the way forward.

One of the most persuasive voices around the table as deals are agreed and plans are laid out will be the North East Housing Partnership, a new group bringing together housing associations and local authorities in the seven local authority areas to provide a collective forum for the new Mayor and Combined Authority to engage with.

There are 17 members – 13 housing associations and arms-length management organisations (ALMOs) and four stock-owning local authorities tackling four key areas of work – regeneration, development and placemaking; housing, health and homelessness; employability; Net Zero.

The NEHP has chosen as its chair Paul Fiddaman, group chief executive of partnership member Karbon Homes, who will help unite the needs of all members and take one voice to the table when discussions begin.

The Northern Echo: Join us at Ramside HallJoin us at Ramside Hall (Image: Newsquest)

His background certainly shows no fear of rapid progress.

Paul trained as an accountant with Price Waterhouse and qualified in 1990, then joined Sunderland Football Club in 1992, initially as Financial Controller, before progressing to General Manager and Club Secretary.

His first full-time job in housing was with Enterprise 5 in 1996, and he has been group director of finance and corporate services at Fabrick Housing Group (now part of the Thirteen Group), group chief executive of the Isos Group and chief executive of Cestria Housing.

He says the approach the NEHP partners have always taken – based on principles deep in their DNA – was a big plus.

“The affordable housing sector in the North East has a good track record of collaboration, so we got our heads together to talk about the emerging mayoral combined authority and decided we wanted to continue in a genuinely collaborative way to support the authority to deliver its objectives,” he tells me.

“It was all born from that relatively simple premise.

“We know there will be new funding and new powers available and this will bring an opportunity to do something which has a lasting impact on quality of life in the region.

“So the housing sector needed to create a formal partnership, to be clear about what our offer would be and to start working with the new combined authority to prioritise some of that and make sure that they are able to hit the ground running, knowing they’ve got some key delivery partners behind them.”

Looking across many sectors in the region, the challenge of such a move seems clear – looking after the interests of your own business at the same time as playing a full and meaningful role in a partnership with others.

The Northern Echo: Having a safe and secure home can transform livesHaving a safe and secure home can transform lives (Image: Press release)

But Paul has no concerns over how well it will work.

“That track record of working collaboratively together on other things is powerful,” he tells me.

“That includes a procurement consortium that we’ve been running for 15 years and an employability partnership which has been successful in bidding for grants to deliver some of our work. But there is also a range of other things that we’ve worked on together which means there is undoubtedly an awareness and willingness among key partners.

“What’s probably different about the North East Housing Partnership is that we recognised very early in the conversation that it couldn’t just be a housing association project, it had to be with the whole of the affordable housing sector, including the local authorities in their role as housing providers.

“For me, this is going to be a forum where we develop plans that each individual organisation will contribute to, develop an overarching plan together and then monitor the delivery of that plan.

“It’s an important opportunity to collaborate, but we will build on the work that member organisations are already doing, rather than trying to duplicate it.”

It is no easy task to get a large number of organisations working together towards shared goals, but there is something about the quality of the leadership at each partner organisation that could make it all work – alongside the desperate shared need to make huge progress in issues like homelessness and employability.

This may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and it relies on the depth and honesty of that collaboration.

The partnership is politically agnostic. No matter what parties are in control in what areas, they are purely focussed on what they can do together, so all candidates for mayor can expect the same tough questions leading up to the May election.

Paul explains that these will be driven by the four key themes: Regeneration, development and placemaking; Net Zero; employability; housing, health and homelessness.

He says: “Certainly, if we can get decarbonisation right in our affordable housing portfolios, and if we go early on that, by the time you and I as homeowners might come to have to change the way we heat and power our homes, there should be a mature market that will benefit everybody.

“In a perfect world if, in 2035, we’re no longer allowed to install a gas boiler, then the cost of installing an air source heat pump or whatever the replacement might be, will be comparable with the cost of replacing your boiler. At that point, the economic barrier to homeowners and private renters to invest in their homes will have been eroded.

“Alongside that, all over the North East we’re looking at regeneration, development and placemaking.

“Between us we’ve built 7,000 new homes over the last four years and have plans to do something similar over the first four years of the mayoral authority’s life and again, that brings huge economic benefit.

The Northern Echo: Paul FiddamanPaul Fiddaman (Image: Press release)

“But organisations like the current North of Tyne Combined Authority have been doing a lot of work about different economic growth scenarios and they talk about closing or completely eradicating the gap between this region and other regions of the UK.

“So if you talk about some of the more optimistic economic growth scenarios, you’re going to need a compelling modern housing offer to make sure that the workers that you need to deliver that economic growth have got somewhere to live and they are going to demand modern, high quality homes in the right locations.”

Paul tells me the member organisations are united by a view that what they are doing is about much more than just housing – they are making sure that the places in which those houses are provided are good places that attract people and where families and confidence can grow.

That means a lot of investment to make the most of every opportunity to work collaboratively and ensure that they create great places to live where communities will thrive.

The third theme they will be driving together is around employability and social inclusion, where there has already been a lot of collaborative work, including the New Start programme which aims at connecting long term unemployed people over 25 with the world of work and providing them with skills and confidence to get out there and engage.

“We’ve had some real success with that as a sector,” says Paul.

“I particularly remember one person we worked with who had been unemployed since being made redundant from a manufacturer back in 1989. He found a dream job with a nursery growing plants and now his confidence and self-belief has been restored.

“This all links to the wider economic growth agenda of the combined authority. If the authority works with us collaboratively, we can support some of those hard to reach people and work with them to get them back into work and stimulate even more growth.”

Perhaps above all other sectors, it is social housing that has people and their wellbeing at the forefront of their work. There is plenty of research out there based on heartbreaking statistics that show how emotionally and physically damaging it can be to be in poor housing – or have no home at all.

So the final theme always needed to be health, care and homelessness – putting people’s lives at the heart of the discussions.

As Paul says: “Having a modern, energy-efficient and well-supported home means that people have better health outcomes in the long term and that can help to support the combined authority’s aim to close that health gap between the region and the rest of the UK.

“We have lots of different ways in which we can do that, including through social prescribing and making sure that we work with the health sector and GPs to help eradicate some of the causes of poor health. That in turn releases pressure on the health sector and means that they can focus on their waiting lists, so we clearly see it as an important part of what we’re doing.

“There are one and a half million people on waiting lists for affordable housing nationally and we’re building about 30,000 new affordable homes each year.

Having a modern, energy-efficient and well-supported home means that people have better health outcomes in the long term

“If you do the maths, you can see how long it’s going to take to eradicate that backlog.

“But this is also about kids living in temporary accommodation or boarding houses or whatever it may be. If they don’t have access to good quality homes, they don’t do as well at school. That means they don’t end up getting the sort of jobs that they would aspire to and that all spirals into a cycle of decline that can be with them for the whole of their adult lives.

“So getting that bit right is absolutely key.”

It is the voters who will decide who leads the new combined authority, but the wealth of work already done by NEHP and their ongoing discussions with the candidates will be a powerful factor and will draw out some impressive pledges and action plans.

“I think the emergence of the combined authority provides a potential platform for us to go on and have a relationship with them that evolves over time,” said Paul.

“For us to act as a delivery partner in that emerging conversation would be to everyone’s advantage.

“We all collectively feel the weight of responsibility, but it is also a tremendously exciting opportunity to work with a mayor that has the same passion, energy and vision as we do, so that the North East can punch its weight on the national scene, get its fair share of resources and use them wisely to the best advantage of the region.”

The Northern Echo: Alan SmithAlan Smith (Image: Newsquest)

Alan Smith, chief executive of County Durham-based believe housing, a member of the North East Housing Partnership told us: 

 “While the North East has much to be proud of, the economic and social challenges it faces are affecting the health and prosperity of the region and its people.”

“Devolution and the launch of the North East Housing Partnership are opportunities to build on our strengths and tackle those challenges together. 

“The members of this partnership not only provide safe, sustainable, and affordable homes many people need we also have a strong track record of supporting customers and communities so they can thrive. 

“Working together, with the new Mayoral Combined Authority, with other sectors, and the community, we have the expertise and passion to bring about lasting change for this region.  

“Together, we can and must set out to change our region for the better.”