When social is a very dirty word in housing

When Iain Sims, the chief executive of Coast and Country housing association, says the term "social housing" is banned from his organisation, his sincerity is unquestionable.

When Iain Sims, the chief executive of Coast and Country housing association, says the term "social housing" is banned from his organisation, his sincerity is unquestionable.

"I'm very forceful on this issue," he said unapologetically.

"I will not hear of any member of staff using the term social housing as it's derogatory and implies that it's not of a good standard."

Instead, employees working for one of Teesside's biggest housing associations use the phrase rented accommodation when referring to its stock.

With a £35m turnover, and 585 employees, Coast and Country's (C&C) growth since its creation in 2002 is impressive.

Not only has it kept its promise to improve and refresh many of the 12,000 properties in the Redcar and Cleveland Council to housing association stock transfer (part of a £150m programme) - it is busy building new homes.

"We are increasingly looking to get into new developments," said Mr Sims. "Stock numbers are steadily reducing as tenants still have the right to buy, but some properties are simply beyond renewal due to their age and design.

"For example, we're demolishing 36 pre-fabricated bungalows in Marske in partnership with Yuill Homes, which will be replaced by 52 new homes, 25 of which will be available for rent and 27 for sale.

"They will form part of a mixed development scheme, which we feel is far more socially inclusive.

"We believe you shouldn't be able to tell rented stock from a privately owned home."

A number of homes in Grangetown are also under demolition order - a process which Mr Sims says has meant very close consultation with residents directly affected.

However, he feels strongly that the decision to rebuild rather than refurb is the right one.

The focus on new-build has also meant diversification into building for the association's large maintenance team.

And its horizons are not limited to development in Redcar and Cleveland.

"We're looking at potential sites across the region," Mr Sims revealed.

Coast & Country's rapid success may seem a little fat cat, but its not-for-profit status means that its tenants are the main benefactors of any monetary success.

Its financial backing is through a £175m loan facility (which can be likened to a giant mortgage) with the Nationwide.

Its main source of income is rent paid by its tenants, but any profit is piled back into the business.

"The more successful we are, the more can re-invested," declared Mr Sims.

That tenant as primary shareholder philosophy extends to C&C's 15-strong board, equally represented by tenants, council and industry nominees.

Its ethical business approach also extends to its workforce.

"We base our approach on the four themes," explained the Scottish-born chief executive.

"Good performance, recognition of the work-life balance, retention of good quality employees, and realisation of better health in the workplace."

The association runs a number of community-based initiatives, too, through the Wise Group - specifically chosen to help benefit the very communities which it serves.

This includes the taking on of local apprentices for its building and maintenance division, as well as working on a number of schemes designed to improve employability such as Open Door.

But the housing association isn't without a tougher side.

Anti-social behaviour is rigorously dealt with and includes the use of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), court injunctions and evictions.

But Mr Sims feels it's as much about regeneration than direct action.

"We have to think about how we design estates. It's also about facilities such as health centres, shops and community centres."

However, he is keen to talk about yet another area of commercial development for the firm - assistive technologies.

The association already has around 6,000 24/7 emergency call pendants (the majority of which are customers from its own tenancy), but is investing £280,000 in an advanced "early warning system".

"The system is all about being proactive rather than reactive," explained Mr Sims.

"With the use of pressure sensitive pads we can tell whether someone has got out of bed in the middle of the night and failed to return, which means something could be wrong.

"They can also detect drops or rises in temperature. With this technology we can better help elderly and vulnerable people to stay in their homes, or to get them out of hospital, following a stay, more quickly and so reduce bed blocking."

It's Mr Sims' entrepreneurial approach to business that has helped C&C surge ahead of the field.

Which is just as well. Competition for land may be tough, but so too is the battle for public funding, now that private firms are allowed to bid for Government housing grants.

But the former director of housing remains positive.

"We have a very strong business plan, and are happy with our progress," he said.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer