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Midland Heart chief shares all on housing

16 April 2019

Midland Heart chief executive Glenn Harris pulls no punches when he discusses the national housing market and the demand for accommodation, writes Jon Griffin.

“Shelter thinks there is a shortfall of three million homes nationally. The average price of a house is in the region of eight times the national earnings average. The average private rent is £600 a month.

“Home ownership for some people is further away than it has ever been – you have people on low incomes who cannot access the housing market.

“You can be on a waiting list indefinitely. There is a shortfall of affordable housing, and a shortage of accommodation at the very acute end, where people are most vulnerable.

“At any one time, there are 30,000 people registered on the Homes Direct platform, people registering looking for a home.”

Glenn knows better than most the accommodation difficulties facing tens of thousands of individuals and families across the UK, as head of Birmingham-based Midland Heart, an organisation he describes as a “traditional housing association”.

Midland Heart began life in Birmingham in 1925 as founding organisation Copec in an era of slum housing and back-to-back terraces with the most basic facilities. Nearly a century later, the aims of the organisation in post-industrial Britain and the Internet age remain broadly comparable.

“We have been around, catering for the same people, for nearly 100 years. Our emphasis is on becoming a really good landlord, providing a professional service for people who live in our properties.

“We have a wide range of people in our properties, the elderly, people who are homeless, those with addictions and mental health issues – our mission is to get people to live as independent a life as possible.

“Three-quarters of our income is from people who are on full or partial housing benefit. We provide housing for people who cannot afford to buy a property or rent one privately.”

That income was severely hit by the 2015 Budget under the Cameron/Osborne Coalition Government, when social housing rents were reduced by one per cent over a four-year period, a move described by Glenn as a “big shock to the system”.

But Midland Heart fought back with a new Fit for the Future corporate strategy which cemented its status as a leading player in the UK social housing sector – with its eyes on providing 3,000 more homes in the next five years to add to its current 33,000 strong network.

“The cumulative impact of that was that our income was reduced by £41 million over four years – it was a real eye-opener for social housing.”

Midland Heart, a major Birmingham employer with around 1,600 staff from plumbers to IT, and accountants to plasterers, offset the rent cuts to achieve savings of an impressive £13 million a year.

“We have delivered Fit for the Future a year early. We exited loss-making contracts – we are now more simplified, streamlined and efficient.

“Those (£13m a year) savings are directly correlated to providing more homes, with an aim of 3,000 over the next five years.

“You go through surges and lulls in development but we will have completed 450 new homes by the end of this month over the course of a year. Our aim is to get to 600 homes a year and to maintain that figure – it is an ambitious total but we are well on the way to that.”

While Glenn is justifiably proud of the steps taken by Midland Heart in recent years to bolster its status as a provider of affordable accommodation at a time of considerable - and varied - pressures on the housing market, he is also keen to stress that the Bath Row-headquartered enterprise is run on business lines.

“We are one of the largest organisations of our type in the Midlands and we have a very clear social purpose but we are also here to run Midland Heart as a business.

“In the last 12 months, we have invested nearly £100 million through a combination of building new homes – we have started 700 new homes this year alone – plus investing in our stock, replacing windows, mending boilers, roofs etc.

“You have to be able to provide homes for the most vulnerable in society as well as a balanced and more sustainable community.  We have to increase the rate at which we develop, and we also have to run as efficient an organisation as we can.”

Midland Heart is primarily a provider of urban accommodation, with 12,000 properties in Birmingham alone, with other West Midlands developments in Coventry, Wolverhampton, Stoke, Sandwell and Dudley. It also stretches to the East Midlands, with accommodation in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.

The group also prides itself as a business with considerable career opportunities, says Chesterfield-born Glenn, now 49, who joined Midland Heart in 2012 after previous executive roles with the East Midlands Development Agency and NHS Logistics.

“One of the challenges for us is to try to promote Midland Heart as an employer, and to attract and retain the best staff we can. Midland Heart is a great place to come and develop your career. Why not consider a career in housing?”

Pictured: Glenn Harris (left) with tenant Peter Davies talking about the installation of new kitchen in his Sandwell flat.

This story was originally published in the April 2019 edition of Chamberlink.

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