When we connect with Richard Hill, it’s the day before England’s semi-final against Denmark at Euro 2020. We break the ice by asking how he’s feeling about the prospects of Gareth Southgate’s team. “Bizarrely optimistic, which I think is very dangerous!” he smiles in reply. Given the tournament’s crushingly familiar outcome, he proves to be right.
Such astuteness distinguishes Hill, chief executive of London housing provider One Housing since 2017. He has just been appointed vice-chair of the G15, the group of London’s largest housing associations.
One Housing may be a small fish in a big pond – it owns “just” 17,000 homes – but it forms part of one of the biggest groups in England’s housing sector, representing London’s largest providers of affordable homes. Collectively, the G15’s members own or manage over 600,000 homes, providing homes for one in 10 Londoners and building a quarter of all of London’s new homes.
Given the G15’s gargantuan size, then, it’s good that the group is under strong leadership. Hill previously served as deputy chief executive and also director of programmes at the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the precursor of Homes England. He will support the G15’s new chair Geeta Nanda, chief executive of Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing who was awarded an OBE for her services in social housing in 2013.
“When I was at the Housing Corporation and Homes England, HCA as it was then… we used to do quite a lot of work with the G15,” Hill explains. “I’ve seen that work from the other side, I suppose – from the government funding end – so I’ve always known how the G15 works.
“One thing that has been really positive for me is the G15 works on a collaborative basis; it really is by discussion and consensus. You have the discussion, then you put your points to government or Homes England or the GLA [Greater London Authority] or whatever. We’re the smallest association in the G15 by size, but the way it works is that we get a say in those discussions then you talk to government about what’s possible. I think that’s really valuable.”
Hill says the G15 are “very conscious” about the difficult operating environment they find themselves in, with the group keen to work with the National Housing Federation and other organisations to provide a strong voice for the sector over the next few years. While collaborating over decarbonisation is important – “It’s not a London issue; it’s a whole country issue,” Hill stresses – top of Nanda and Hill’s agenda, as it has been for the last few years, is building safety, with London being one of the cities hardest hit by the cladding scandal.
We speak the day after the government’s formal publication of the Building Safety Bill, the landmark piece of legislation trailed extensively over the last year which is set to transform building safety. Hill is unsurprised by the latest announcements about the Bill, saying they are largely “as expected”. A bigger issue for One Housing and the G15 is funding current building safety works, with funding for high-rise remediation not yet flowing through the Building Safety Fund and uncertainty around how the loan scheme for leaseholders in shorter buildings, announced earlier this year, will operate.
Subsequently, Hill admits the G15’s members are somewhat “caught between” leaseholders and the government, unable to answer residents’ questions about funding until they have the answers themselves. While he says he has “no issues” with the previous day’s announcements, he is keen for the G15 to get on the front foot with building safety and for ministers to move things forward more quickly.
“One thing that’s just super clear is it’s our responsibility because they’re our buildings,” Hill explains. “There’s no getting away from that fundamental truth, really: it’s our responsibility to make them fire safe. I don’t think we shirk at all from that responsibility.
“I think government has taken a while to recognise that it has a responsibility post-Grenfell to fund some of the changes that need to happen, particularly for leaseholders, but for social tenants as well.
“We are in a slightly difficult situation in that we’ve been making the case to government on behalf of our leaseholders really strongly, but our leaseholders, some of them are stuck… They want to move their lives on, they want to do different things, and that is a difficult situation. I’m not sure I’d say we’re caught in the middle, but it’s taking a little bit too long to resolve some of this.”
Customer service is also high up the G15’s priorities. While there is new consumer regulation on the horizon in the form of the new Social Housing White Paper, Hill is more concerned about care and support. Nanda has asked him to focus on this agenda especially, and he is helping to lead a group within the G15 on the topic.
One Housing is a large care and support provider, serving over 8,000 customers, and Hill is keen that the lessons of the last 18 months aren’t lost as society opens back up. He wants the G15 to make a strong case to government about action on care and support in this autumn’s Spending Review, “particularly on the revenue side”. If that doesn’t happen, he’s concerned about it continuing to be “the Cinderella service”, making it difficult for housing providers to operate in that space.
“I’m really interested in what the 18 months of COVID have shown us about care and support,” hill says. “It’s shown us that there’s tremendous resilience in the workforce and there’s a real commitment to doing the right thing on care and support.
“If you remember, 18 months ago now, there was an awful lot of public support with people clapping on their doorsteps for carers and key workers, and people saw care as part of that NHS key worker narrative. There were some great things done at the start of COVID in terms of dealing with [homelessness] and taking people off the streets, and I’m just concerned that that’s not lost.”
Hill would like to see a long-term national strategy when it comes to homelessness, one that simplifies the complicated relationships between providers and commissioners in a space where, presently, there is “very little consistency”. This is particularly an issue in regions like London which has seen different approaches in London boroughs: “In a crisis,” he says, “you can certainly see the cracks”. He’d also like more from government on the care and support workforce, rather than just assuming post-Brexit people will still be willing to do “really hard jobs [for] not brilliant rates of pay”.
Hill believes that now is a good time to act on these issues, with care and support still being so high on the public’s agenda. With this autumn’s Spending Review set to be the first since England’s unlocking, potentially giving ministers room to do more than just firefight, he feels that making the case for care as part of this next fiscal event is crucial.
“There [are] lots of things in that care and support space where if we just turn away from it and leave it to get on, I don’t think things will get better – they’ll definitely get worse – so it really needs government to engage with this,” Hill says.
“Because the Spending Review is likely to be a revenue Spending Review rather than more focused on the capital side, I think it’s quite a good area for us as the G15 but also the sector to start raising what are really important long-term issues.”
One Housing’s voice in these national issues might soon get louder. This June, the housing association announced it had entered talks to merge with the 58,000-home landlord Riverside. While consultation is ongoing, the pair’s current target is for One Housing to join Riverside by the end of this year.
For Hill, the partnership is about building One Housing’s risk resilience, given its need to spend on building safety, care and support and decarbonisation. There are three main reasons One Housing is looking to merge with Riverside, he says: shared values, a joint commitment to care and support, and the “complimentary geography”; because it is based in the North West, Riverside does not have the same building safety challenges and is not concentrated as solely in the London market.
It’s impossible to ignore the financial backdrop of this deal, given One Housing’s troubles in recent times. The housing association recorded a £8.6 million loss for 2019/20 this January, with these pressures set to continue this financial year. Hill doesn’t shy away from this, admitting that the partnership will help One Housing become more solid financially.
“We’re having to spend more on building and fire safety and wanting to carry on delivering really good quality care and support through the pandemic; that’s why our numbers didn’t look great last year and won’t look great this year,” Hill admits.
“Those choices are fine because I think we should absolutely focus on stuff that’s really important to our customers, whether it’s care and support or others, but it does mean that we’ll have a lower operating margin than lots of others in the sector. The partnership does help with that.”
If the merger does go ahead, it would create the UK’s fifth largest housing association, managing over 75,000 homes. While he insists he is not “fixated on the numbers,” Hill admits that the housing associations do want to be “better and stronger together”, able to have national influence on issues like care and support while remaining focused on strong local service delivery.
“Our big message on day one to our colleagues, to our residents and to our local authority partners, is… As we move into [Riverside] as a subsidiary there’ll be very little change,” Hill says.
Mergers in social housing are becoming increasingly common as landlords look to deliver new, safe, carbon-neutral homes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the G15. Since our conversation with Hill, G15 members Catalyst and Peabody have also announced their plans to merge, a move which would make Peabody the UK’s second largest housing association.
Hill is experienced in managing such deals, having led Spectrum Housing during its merger with Sovereign Housing in 2016. While he thinks that providers should make their own choices about whether seeking partnerships is right for them, he stresses that no organisation is so unique that it should believe that it can’t benefit from learning from or working with others. That’s certainly an approach that the G15 looks to be embodying as the sector looks to tackle the challenges it faces.
“I think what the Regulator says on this is right, actually, which is that no organisation shouldn’t think about a merger or partnership if they think that would provide a better service to their residents and allow them to do more than they’d be able to do otherwise,” Hill concludes.
“Our view of the Riverside partnership is that it does enable us to do more than we would be able to do otherwise on zero carbon, building safety, all of those agendas, and we genuinely think it will improve the service to our residents. That’s why we want to do it.”
Featured image: Richard Hill, chief executive of One Housing and the G15’s new vice chair. Credit: One Housing.
This article is the cover story of Issue 3 of Housing Executive, due out 31 August.