Alan Smith reflects on his first 12 months as Chief Executive of one of the North East’s largest housing associations, believe housing, as it celebrates its fifth anniversary.

‘As soon as I was offered the job, I knew I had overarching responsibility for more than 600 staff and 22,000-plus customers.

“It is a responsibility I take seriously,” he says.

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“Moving from a very senior position to chief executive, a switch flicked. With every decision I carefully consider how it will improve or impact on the wellbeing of our staff and our customers.”
Alan has been with believe housing since its earliest days.

He helped to establish the County Durham Housing Group (CDHG) which, in 2015, took over the ownership and management of 18,000 homes from Durham County Council.

In 2019 CDHG evolved and became believe housing, where he was the executive director of investment, growth and performance prior to taking the helm last April.

As part of the founding team, and with almost 40 years working for organisations that provide social housing, there can be few people who know believe housing and the social housing sector as well as Alan.

But a year ago, when he became Chief Executive, he decided to go “back to the floor” to spend time with teams right across believe housing, to experience first-hand the role they play in delivering healthy homes and communities.

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“Having worked in finance and corporate services, I needed to meet people, to learn more about what they do, to understand their roles and hear their views. Every “back to the floor” session was followed up with a coffee and catch-up so colleagues could ask me questions.

“The greatest thing I learned is there is passion everywhere I go at believe housing. A genuine drive to do the right thing for our people, our customers, our business – which is a good thing as these are our company values!

“From customer-facing to back-office services, everyone wanted to showcase their work because they are proud of the part that they play in providing homes and services to our customers. 

“We spoke honestly about the challenges and opportunities of improving our offer to customers and being the kind of workplace that we want to be.”

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Among the most impactful “back to the floor” sessions were those with the Tenancy Sustainment and Urgent Support Teams.   

“The level of consideration and wraparound care I saw go into a decision about a tenancy application, where a number of issues made us question if it was the best outcome for that person, was incredible.

“Our urgent support and safeguarding work is growing in volume and complexity. Colleagues are having very challenging conversations with people in times of crisis, finding them a safe place to go at a minimum.

“These are tough roles, but everyone is inspired by what they do. If they can be sparked up about what we do, everyone can be,” says Alan.

“Great relationships and collaboration with external partners are vital for this, but it is getting harder to signpost customers to other agencies. 

“We are increasingly stepping into the gaps where other agencies are having to withdraw. Demand for our homes and services is growing.

“With all the life and cost-of-living pressures people are facing, it is testament to the support we provide that our tenancy failure rate is very low.”

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That support includes advice on money, bills and benefits and help to access volunteering, work, training, or a more secure, better job.

As a snapshot, in the last financial year believe housing issued £16,850 of heat or eat vouchers to customers, helped 626 tenants to reduce their rent arrears, and supported 183 residents into work.

“Our employability support for customers can help businesses in the region too.

“We have engaged with people who are away from the job market for different reasons, people looking for opportunities to create independent or better lives but who might not know how to fill in an application form or have the means to travel. We can bridge that gap.

“I’d urge the business community to find out about us. We aren’t just there to provide homes. We are a people business, an anchor institution, supporting people and communities, some still suffering from the legacy of lost industries and transport challenges.”

Alan points out that if a single North East business had created 183 jobs in a year it would be big news – so the 183 customers that believe housing helped to secure work should not go unnoticed. Nor should the multiplier effect the housing association has on the region’s economy, as a large employer, with a £74m turnover, and as an important contributor to the supply chain. 

A huge part of believe housing’s spending is invested in its 18,000-plus homes.  Alan says: “It was great to go “back to the floor” with colleagues who help maintain and update our homes.

“I saw empty homes being prepared for new customers, including a bungalow overhauled with a new kitchen, replastered walls, and disabled adaptations and a house which needed significant improvements after the previous tenant opted out of investment works.

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“I saw colleagues use specialist equipment and expertise to remedy damp and make our homes safe and warm.

“And I discovered I was better at carrying a ladder than screwing door handles on.”

Hand in hand with repairs, goes the work of believe housing’s assets and compliance teams which oversee safety and plan long term investment in homes and estates, such as new roofs with photovoltaic panels, kitchens, bathrooms, heating and rewires. A huge aspect of this work is making homes more energy efficient, which has been aided by millions of pounds from the Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund. 

“We have legal obligations to meet in this area, which we are doing, but more than that we think about our customers first and foremost,” he says.

“This isn’t just about reducing our carbon footprint, which we take seriously, we want our homes to be as efficient, healthy and comfortable as possible for people in them.”

During a packed day with the neighbourhood and estates teams (during which he clocked 10,000 steps) Alan got a small insight into the everyday tasks that go into helping customers at home and keeping estates tidy.

And the day he and executive director of investment, growth and performance Faye Gordon, donned hard hats and boots to go out on site with the development team highlighted the importance of placemaking and how believe housing’s investment in homes, existing and new, can make a real impact on communities.

He says: “We saw some fantastic homes taking shape, visited sites we might look to develop in future, and discussed our commitment to provide high-quality energy-efficient homes for the future, in response to housing need, and the challenges we face in doing so.”

Alan’s first year as chief executive has included some significant achievements for believe housing.
Following an in-depth assessment by the regulator of social housing, it retained its G1 / V2 governance and financial viability ratings, at a time other providers challenged by the severe economic climate were downgraded.

And believe housing was again recognised as an outstanding employer with a two-star accreditation from Best Companies, rising up the tables for the best housing associations, North East companies, and large UK companies to work for.

“Those two aspects – how we are as a business and a workplace – are closely linked,” believes Alan. “Motivated, supported colleagues inevitably improve what we do for customers. 

“In a year when the messages and mood outside haven’t always been positive, there’s always been something positive at believe housing and opportunities come from that.”

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As Alan reflects on his first year as chief executive, he also notes the scale of believe housing’s achievements in its first five years.

In that time, it has spent £93m improving homes, £11.4m on home energy improvements and is on track to have delivered more than 950 new homes. It has helped customers access £6.56m in unclaimed welfare benefits and supported 429 people into training or employment.

“We are really proud of our work and the impact we have had on individual lives and the region in that time. But we look forward, we want to continue to evolve and develop, to grow and reform our offer to customers,” he says.

“As a sector we are facing challenges, extra regulations, a lack of clear Government policy, the cost of maintaining homes, and challenges delivering new ones. As an industry we could feel run into the ground, but we keep working with our people and customers, to use every opportunity to move forward.

“We cannot do this alone, our partnership arrangements are paramount. We need to build on existing strong and valued relationships, like with our local authority partner Durham County Council with which we share residents, space in communities, and objectives around community investment and social value.

“As a delivery partner, on the ground, shoring up communities, with shared interests, our relationship is crucial for navigating the joint challenges we face together. Building strong relationships with our supply chain has proved invaluable in dealing with delivery and economic challenges.

“As part of the North East Housing Partnership, we need to build similar relationships with the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority and the incoming Mayor. And with a general election on the horizon, it has never been a more important time to work well with partners.

“I’ve always lived and spent my career in County Durham; it has given me opportunities in life, and I was helped along the way by good people and that’s what I want believe housing and the North East to keep doing for the people who live in our homes and region.”