How £250m turned Preston's social housing crisis into a triumph
Twenty years after Preston first declared it had a dire social housing crisis, things have never looked so good.
Smart new family homes for rent are springing up across the city, with hundreds more planned.
And the pioneering housing association, which took over the council’s ageing stock of houses and flats in 2005, is predicting life can get even better for its thousands of residents.
More than £250m has now been spent by the tenant-led Community Gateway Association either renovating old council homes or building new ones.
A further £100m is being pledged as Preston’s biggest social landlord continues to build on its ground-breaking work.
And thousands of tenants who once paid their rent to the Town Hall are now playing a direct role in their own future and benefitting from a level of investment the local authority could never have afforded.
The revolutionary Gateway model means CGA is run jointly by it tenants who voted overwhelmingly 16 years ago to switch to the not-for-profit organisation.
One of those tenants, Dave Yates, is now chairman of the CGA Board and says: “As a tenant, I’m really proud of what’s been achieved since tenants voted ‘yes’ to the stock transfer in 2005.
“What tenants really voted for was the Gateway model, a model that ensures tenants like me could get involved, have their views listened to and have a real say in what their landlord did and how it did it. On this, CGA has a fantastic track record.”
The idea of a housing association being jointly-run by its customers was first floated in Preston in 2002 when the local authority was struggling to keep up with the cost of repairs and improvements to its dilapidated stock of council homes.
Even though some Labour councillors were unhappy with the principle of privatising council housing, they reluctantly agreed to put the matter to the vote by tenants. One councillor went as far as to say: “Our tenants are living in medieval conditions.”
The vote gave the idea 81 per cent approval and so 6,500 council properties were transferred to CGA, which promised between £80m and £100m in investment to bring them up to date.
One tenant said after the result was announced: “At last I might get a new bathroom out of it. I have waited four-and-a-half years. I think I have got the original one which was put in in 1957.
“I know they can’t do everything, but it must be better than the council - asking them for anything was like asking for a gold watch.”
Since that day CGA has ploughed in much more investment than its original pledge and today’s former council properties are a vast improvement on what the association took over.
Hundreds of brand new homes are as attractive and energy efficient as those on the open market.
“CGA really has had a huge impact since tenants voted for it to be set up over 15 years ago,” said chief executive Rob Wakefield.
“We’ve invested over £250 million into our tenants’ homes. We employ local people and use local businesses where we can – eight out of ten of our near 300-strong team live in Preston - so much of that investment has not only benefited our tenants through improved homes, but also benefited Preston as a city.
“True to our founding principles, we’ve worked in partnership with our tenants to look at how we do things and using their feedback we’ve changed the types of services we deliver and how we deliver them.
“Working with customers, we’ve developed a HomeCare programme for standard upgrades and maintenance, meaning we make fewer visits minimising any inconvenience to our tenants.
“We’ve also relied less on contractors, developing our own in-house services like Gateway PropertyCare and Gateway GreenCare to manage and maintain our homes and neighbourhoods – our customers trust the quality of our work and the efficiencies we make can then be re-invested in their local area.
“We’ve supported people to live in homes that best suit their needs and further helped tenants with advice around welfare benefits, budgeting, energy costs and training and employment opportunities.
“Last year I was really pleased to hear that we had secured a remarkable £4m-plus in extra benefits for customers who were struggling financially.
“The acid test for me is what our customers think. Not only are nine out of 10 satisfied with our overall services, but many of our tenants also tell us they would recommend Gateway as a landlord to their family and friends.
“The last couple of years have been a challenge. Covid has impacted heavily on everyone. The way that we responded to that challenge, and continue to respond, said everything to me about the team of people we have.
“Colleagues from across the business stepped up in so many ways to make sure that tenants could continue to live in safe, secure and warm homes and receive the support they needed, when they needed it.
“At the height of the pandemic, we continued to carry out repairs to people’s homes and quickly used any spare homes we had to provide accommodation for the homeless.
“We supported people with over 9,000 food parcels, made more than 30,000 welfare calls, donated thousands of pounds to community groups and local organisations to help them carry on with the essential work they do every day, delivered essential medication to those that couldn’t get out, set up a school uniform bank to help parents and even walked a few dogs when tenants couldn’t do it themselves!
“It really was some effort and I’m incredibly proud of how we responded and feedback from tenants shows how much they valued us being there when they needed us.
“The future will bring both challenges and opportunities. I think we’ll all need to continue to adjust to Covid for a while longer yet, but looking beyond that I’m excited about what we have planned.
“We’ve committed to spend around £100m over the next few years to build much-needed new homes across the city.
“We’ll make sure these homes are the type and size that today’s families need and are in the places people want to live, so as to further improve the choice people have to find a truly affordable rented home, at all stages of life.
“We’ll be investing in the look and feel of our estates, using feedback from our communities to shape our work so that it has a really positive impact for local people.”
Dave Yates added: “Soon after we transferred over, it was tenants who said what the priorities should be and how the £100 million should be spent to improve their homes.
“Tenants played a central role in setting up Gateway’s own repairs and maintenance service. Tenants led the decision to build the first and much needed extra-care facility in Preston, which is now providing a wonderful home for our tenants.
“It was feedback from tenants that led to Gateway taking a lead role in helping to support the homeless, and our brand-new homeless support facility, The Spires, is a really important step on this journey.
“Tenants’ views have led to many service improvements over the years, and with the recent development of a new set of service standards ‘Gateway Promises’, I am confident that the influence they have on the services that CGA delivers and how it delivers them will continue long into the future.”