Leader interview: Ian Munro, Group Chief Executive of New Charter Housing Group, winners of the Building Stronger Communities award.

January 7, 2015 Ann Kelly

Ian Munro, Group Chief Executive, New Charter Housing Group

Ian Munro, Group Chief Executive of New Charter Housing Trust Group took some time to talk to us about his company’s Inspire programme, for which it won our Building Stronger Communities Award.  Read what he had to say about the role of housing associations in community work, and why New Charter doesn’t have or need a CSR department.

CSR is what we are. It’s not a programme. I have 50 people getting the rent in, and you’d think they’re hardnosed folks. But look at what they do around financial inclusion, helping people get welfare benefits, helping people manage their budgets. We have an anti-poverty strategy which they develop and they initiate. All of what they do is CSR.

Could you tell me a little about the Inspire programme for which New Charter won the Building Stronger Communities Award?

Could your business be the next winner of the Experian Building Stronger Communities Award? The Responsible Business Awards are open for entries.

As a housing association I think that we are pretty unique in how we recognise that we’re more than just landlords.

For us, being a landlord is more than just getting the rent in. It’s working with and alongside the communities and the families that are our customers. 

The Inspire programmme was born out of work that we had been doing around antisocial behaviour, working with difficult families and individuals. In some of our households [we find] people living chaotic lifestyles, dysfunction within the family and within the wider neighbourhood.  How could we as a housing association intervene more effectively? How we can fix some of the more difficult situations that we find ourselves being involved in?

So Inspire is working collaboratively with other agencies to try and make some fundamental changes to what is potentially a recurrent problem.  As the work become more prominent, it had more traction, and [now] the local authority uses us as their contractor to deliver this work, primarily across the borough of Tameside.

As you get into this sort of work, you realise how complex the relationships that some families and some individuals might have with the state, and how so many different agencies act on and against each other and the family to no real satisfactory result.  Having something in place that gives people an opportunity to coordinate their efforts, change behaviour and build understanding of how behaviour affects other people has got to be a good thing.

But what's a housing association doing providing social services?

Someone’s got to do it.  And it’s very much in our business interest to do this stuff. 

We are a business that is really driven by the needs of the community.  What potentially affects that community are some very dysfunctional families and individuals, and it protects our turnover to make sure people don’t want to leave the area, it continues to be attractive to re-let properties, we reduce levels of repair and so on.  It’s in our direct financial business interest to have calm, quiet successful, aspiring communities. 

And there’s a clear corporate social responsibility agenda as well.  We are a values-driven organisation, very clear we are here to serve, and here’s a way of ensuring that people are provided with a different perspective.  The vast majority of the people that we deal with want to be in a different place, and perhaps they just don’t quite know how to get there.

What are the business benefits of this approach, rather than just, say, evicting nuisance tenants?

If we evict someone, they’ve probably got rent arrears.  So we lose that.  It costs me about £4,500-5,000 per property to re-let it.  It probably costs the same amount in court fees.  So we’re already into about £15,000-£20,000, in terms of just the simple costs of moving somebody on. 

In social terms, that family ends up somewhere else, and the danger is, that they end up in the next door house that’s been a right-to-buy, that’s now a private let. They stay in the same place and they create the same problems in the same neighbourhood. 

We solve nothing by doing that.  But [by] working with people, there’s a direct financial benefit to us, there’s a direct social benefit to our tenants as a consequence of getting things calm.  And then there’s the much wider, massive savings to the exchequer.

Steve and Tyler - New Charter Housing Trust Group tenants, at a Breakfast ClubYou realise how badly some families are served by the state.  The example that I would quote is a family where there’s a grandmother, a mother, a father, who we think is in prison, of a couple of children.  The grandmother is in depression.  The mother is an alcoholic.  One of the children is causing mayhem at school.

You look at the relationship that they have had with the state over a long period of time, and they’ve probably dealt with about 15-20 different aspects. Probation, social services, child care, education welfare, antisocial behaviour team, the police.  All of these have come into that family and dealt with not the family but the individuals. 

Our Inspire workers manage the situation that family is in in a holistic way.  Getting the best out of the agencies, coordinating what they do, and bringing in resources as they’re required.  It’s simple stuff like walking the children to school.  In some cases they’re even helping by reading the bedtime story. 

What was the effect of winning the Award?

This work is difficult, it’s pretty stressful, with very challenging behaviour and very difficult situations sometimes.  For somebody to say you’re doing the right thing, that this is recognised by others as being a good thing, gives our people who do the work a sense of achievement.

I’m quite keen on going for awards, provided that they’re representative of what we’re about as an organisation and what we actually do.  And that’s exactly what this is.  Folks really value recognition, and here’s a good source.

How does responsible business fit into the way New Charter operates?

One of the struggles that a lot of housing associations have is that CSR is what we are. It’s not a programme.

I have 50 people getting the rent in, and you’d think they’re hardnosed folks.  But look at what they do around financial inclusion, helping people get welfare benefits, helping people manage their budgets. We have an anti-poverty strategy which they develop and they initiate.  All of what they do is CSR. 

I’ve got a building contractor in the organisation, with 250 blokes working there.  Its CSR aspects are around getting young people into employment, apprenticeships, skills development and so forth.  We’re working with a local Chinese women’s self-help cooperative, developing contracting and building skills. 

You can look at almost any part of the organisation doing its day to day business, and it’s doing CSR.

What do you see as the main emerging issues in your sector?

The changes that the government are making to the way in which people on limited incomes are supported by the state.  That will impact on some very poor people in very difficult circumstances. 
The government’s avowed intention to reduce its welfare expenditure bill bears potentially disproportionately on a quite a small group of families and individuals.  The ability of those people to sustain budgets and sustain households and in simple terms, rent accounts, is going to be problematical, and it is a big risk for all of us. 

What changes do you want to see in your sector?

We’d like to see greater help and support and access to government owned land.  The government owns a huge amount of land, it could be put to much greater use for the building of new social housing.  
A second change would be to give housing associations much greater freedom and flexibility.  Things like our rent levels are constrained by the government, and we need freedom.

Some tower blocks, because of the effect of service charge, [have higher rents] for a two bedroom eleventh storey flat than for a three bedroom semi-detached in [a better area].  Because of the government formula, [we have] to charge that rent in that flat, and can’t charge more in the house.  Having freedom around that would give us the ability to let in a more imaginative way, and in a more appropriate way in relation to where our stock is situated.

What are the key characteristics of responsible leaders?

Truthfulness, honesty, integrity, visibility, consistency.

What’s the next challenge for New Charter?

Our next challenge is to generate a big chunk of additional finance to build some new homes.  We have 7,000 people wanting one of our products, and we have about 1,000 vacancies a year, so there’s a clear mismatch between demand and supply. 

If we can build more properties, build more homes, not only do we create more places where people want to live, warm comfortable affordable homes, but also we generate activity in the local economy. 
 

Ian Munro, Group Chief Executive, New Charter Housing Group

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