What opportunities are available with housing associations?

Written from an interview with Steven Cranston,
Foundational Economy Lead at United Welsh Housing Association

As a housing association, we require a wide range of services, but not everyone knows what’s available.

We own a lot of housing stock, so the primary areas are planned and reactive maintenance services: planned is any work we know needs doing in the next five years; and reactive is any new work that needs dealing with immediately. 

But people might now know that we also have a lot of smaller contracts available, including communications, stationary, clothing, design services and filmmaking. These are all important to the work of United Welsh.

Working with companies that share our values

One of our biggest contracts is for food services. We recently opened two developments, each which needed a restaurant providing up to 100 meals a day for seven days a week, 365 days a year. 

When researching what kind of business we wanted to partner with, we visited some schemes in England and we weren’t impressed by what we found. Although some of the restaurants looked good, it was either frozen microwave meals or poor quality, old fashioned food. Some residents were actually malnourished – the food was there, but they didn’t want to eat it. 

So we asked how we could do this differently. Who did we know that provides food services and shares our values?

We found a partner in Vision 21, a Cardiff-based social enterprise who provide a range of services around learning disabilities. We visited their Chief Executive Barry Shires at Sbectrwm, and he showed us around their kitchen. He explained how they approached food, the community feel of the venue, and we were impressed by what we saw.

Vision 21 are now the restaurant provider for both schemes, and it’s been a great opportunity to work with a social enterprise.

Creating a sustainable future

All housing associations in Wales are being set tough targets to de-carbonise our homes within a ten-year cycle. This means changing the insulation and potentially turning to renewable energy.

We have a partnership with all four housing associations in Blaenau Gwent (TaiCalon, United Welsh, Melin Homes and Link Cymru), so we’ve decided to run a pilot to retrofit our homes ready for the de-carbonisation deadline.

This is an exciting opportunity to build relationships with local businesses that either are already retrofitting homes, or interested in moving into this area in the future. We’re starting conversations now, and supporting businesses so they’re ready when contracts become available.

Piloting is absolute common sense, but we believe it doesn’t happen anywhere near enough. We’re identifying around 50 properties each, so about 200 across Blaenau Gwent, with a mixture of properties and locations. For example, we may choose homes built after 1990 with a cavity insulation, while others may choose flats built in the 60s, or pre-war terraced houses.

By working together with the different housing associations, local authority, and local businesses, we’re saving ourselves so much time and money! Usually, you’d just get stuck in and make expensive mistakes. This way, we can share our learning and all benefit.

And it’s not just the housing associations that will benefit. In ten years’ time, there will probably be more incentives for owner-occupiers and private landlords to de-carbonise their homes too. By working with local businesses now, we’re ensuring those companies and skills are here in Blaenau Gwent for the future.

To find out more about how United Welsh are making a difference in their community, you can read Steve’s first blog

How housing associations in Blaenau Gwent make a difference in their community

Written from an interview with Steve Cranston
Foundational Economy Lead at United Welsh Housing Association

In 2017, all four housing associations in Blaenau Gwent (Tai Calon, United Welsh, Melin Homes and Link Cymru) formed a partnership to strengthen our local economy. Between us, we own around 20% of all homes in the county. This is a large physical footprint, but we also employ a lot of people, have large supply chains, and provide many services beyond housing. Together, we can play a significant role in the prosperity and wellbeing of our community.

The Problem

It all began back in June 2017; the Welsh Government had just announced it would not financially back Circuit of Wales, the proposed race track in Blaenau Gwent that would seemingly change the fortunes of the area.

This bad news came the same day that foundationaleconomy.com and CREW (Centre for Regeneration Excellence in Wales) launched the What Wales Can Do report. By studying the local economy in Swansea Bay, they found that multi-million-pound investments (like Circuit of Wales) create no more than 5% of jobs in the area – and you can be pretty sure that very few housing association tenants would be in that 5%.

These investments were compared to Swansea Bay’s foundational economy, which is all the stuff you need to live a good life: health, education, wellbeing, housing, social care, food, retail, infrastructure and so on. Here, they found that over 40% of jobs in the area were directly connected to the foundational economy. 

So, this got us in Blaenau Gwent thinking – Circuit of Wales isn’t happening, and even if it did, it wouldn’t have delivered the regeneration it promised. What next? How can we, as housing associations, make a real difference to our local economy?

The Solution

We came together to discuss what areas were important to us, and identified strong, local supply chains as a key point for collaboration. We want to be procuring more services from local businesses. 

At the moment, there are companies in Blaenau Gwent making door frames and windows, and exporting them to the Midlands, while driving past companies from the Midlands coming to install windows in Blaenau Gwent. That’s clearly bonkers!

In the past, we’ve focused too much on value for money over locality and reliability. But this recent crisis has highlighted how long supply chains carry more risk and potentially higher costs. By having a supplier just around the corner, it’s easier for them to fulfil their services, and they have a greater investment in the community. If they’re on the other side of the world, we’re just another number to them.

We also believe we can’t be decent landlords if there’s poverty all around us. By supporting local businesses, we’re keeping the money in Blaenau Gwent. In-work poverty is one of the biggest challenges our tenants face; some people are holding down three jobs just to scrape an existence. That’s not right. By investing in local supply chains, we can provide decent, fair-paying work for our community.

The Measures of Success

The main measure of success for us is hard cash – how much more money are we putting into local businesses? This is important, because this money goes into the pockets of local employees, and most importantly, our tenants.

The second measure is the quality of our relationships with businesses. Are these healthy partnerships that enable both sides to develop and play to their strengths? We want to move away from transactional, one-off deals and towards long-term relationships.

We’re also committed in the notion of fair work. Unfortunately, some of the foundational economy sectors in Blaenau Gwent are characterised by insecurity and poor terms and conditions. We want to be raising a fair work agenda in Blaenau Gwent, and get companies signed up to a fair work charter.

Finally, looking forward, we want to get more local businesses in a position to tender for work. Traditionally, the turn around time for our tenders means many businesses aren’t ready to apply. We want to support local businesses by removing those barriers and nurturing our relationships so they’re able to take advantage of future opportunities.

The Future

We believe this collaboration between housing associations can make a real difference. We already have relationships with other public organisations such as the local authority, health board, police and more. By working together and using our existing resources, we can make significant changes to the community that we support.

To find out more about the opportunities available to local businesses, you can read Steve’s second blog