I’m not from any kind of housing background at all. I retired back in 2016 from commercial work after having a brain haemorrhage, which was scary. It made me think about how to keep my mind active so I started looking around at nonexecutive opportunities.
My degree was in human geography, all about housing and regeneration, but I’d never used it. Coming back and being able to use that in this sector has been fascinating. It’s so important that people have a safe warm home; it’s the fundamental starting point to education, jobs, training and a good life.
I love working in the sector. I do feel that I’m doing something positive rather than just making money for shareholders. It’s a different perspective and thoroughly enjoyable.
My favourite part of it is what we call ‘out and about’ – we spend a day going round knocking on doors and speaking to tenants. It’s a great opportunity to check on the state of the properties and any repairs that might be outstanding, listen to their lives and what support they need. We hear it through papers and committees, the complaints process, but there’s no beating getting out and actually talking to tenants directly.
I think the biggest challenge facing most boards is regeneration and how to move housing stock forwards in terms of the decent homes standard. How can we not just meet that standard, but go beyond it to deliver for residents? When you consider zero carbon, and the repairs backlog from the pandemic; it’s a massive task. It’s easy to build new to that standard but going back and regenerating is difficult and costly. We need to try and avoid going back to do this piecemeal, one year a new boiler, the next some insulation. The disruption for our tenants is massive, so how do we minimise that? We get one go at this, for the next generation.
I’m really proud of how Freebridge have managed through the pandemic and now the cost of living. We made calls to every vulnerable tenant, delivered food parcels, mental health support, worked with schools to identify where we can target financial support. Also creative stuff like running cooking classes, tips on preparing low cost meals. We texted every single tenant to try and get to that silent portion who miss other communications or don’t know how to get help.
It’s important to hear the different voices in our communities – yes we have tenants on the board and we have a tenant panel but we’ve got so many different types of tenants. We now hear from a more diverse group and that makes a significant difference.
How do we juggle the different challenges and priorities? Strategic intent. That clear vision of what you want your organization to aspire to, 10, 15, 20 years into the future. If you haven't got that you can start wandering all over the place: the next crisis comes in and you change and the next one and you change again. You have to be flexible, absolutely. But that keeps you focused. Every decision we take, even in a crisis, we have to be looking into the future. That helps you make the right decisions.
The question that I would like to ask the next member is, how are you going to make your board more diverse?
One thing other members might not know about me that I’m most proud of is running a girls football team. They come from all different schools and backgrounds and communities and made a very powerful team. It’s the same with Freebridge: if you bring diversity into a board, it’s going to be a stronger board.