Interview: G15 housing associations chair Geeta Nanda on fire safety, residents’ recovery and London’s future

Interview: G15 housing associations chair Geeta Nanda on fire safety, residents’ recovery and London’s future

The hugeness of the G15 group of London housing associations should not be understated. Its members have lately built around a quarter of all the new homes in London and house about one in ten Londoners. As such, they form a huge part of the capital’s housing sector and a crucial one in terms of addressing its chronic unaffordability. And now they find themselves in the thick of two further crises: one, the still-emerging ramifications of Grenfell; two, the effects of the pandemic on, in particular, their poorer tenants. After becoming the G15’s new chair in June, Geeta Nanda put it mildly when she said she’d taken up the role at “a critical time”.

Nanda brings long and varied experience to the role. Born in Kent but a Londoner since the age of two, she graduated in psychology in far-away Plymouth in 1986, then secured a graduate trainee position with Wandsworth Council, which saw her work in the borough’s housing and finance directorates. She did a post-graduate diploma in housing at London South Bank university and a housing research project with legacy funds from the then just-extinguished Greater London Council. She got her first housing association job in the early 1990s, became chief executive of Thames Valley Housing Association in 2008, took up the same position with the Metropolitan housing association in 2017 and oversaw the merger of the two into Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing (MTVH) the following year.

She names fire safety concerns as the G15’s current “number one priority, because from that flows so much else.” The group announced in January that it expects to spend a collective £2.9 billion on the problems over the next ten years, and Geeta said last month the figure is bound to increase. MTVH has already spent £50 million, with £143 million earmarked for the next five years. It seems the G15’s experience of investigating buildings’ fire safety can be bluntly summarised: the closer they look, the worse they find.

“It is quite shocking,” Nanda says. “There are building regulations and loads of processes in place in order to ensure the quality of buildings, but they have failed.” The process of “opening up” buildings has routinely exposed “poor workmanship that is a risk to peoples’ lives. It is shocking when you see that.” And blame? “This is an industry-wide problem: developers and contractors are relying on sub-contractors and so the chain goes on.” The issue is especially acute for London’s larger housing associations, Nanda explains, because it is they who have developed many of the city’s newer and taller residential buildings.

From the pandora’s box of fire safety has sprung the external wall system assessment saga, in which many hundreds of G15 leaseholders are entangled. In the aftermath of Grenfell, mortgage lenders began seeking assurances about fire safety from flat owners wanting to sell or re-mortgage their properties or increase their stake in shared ownership dwellings. Increasing numbers of applications were rejected and many potential sales fell through.

In response, the industry introduced a standardised process for evaluating the safety of any combustible cladding or other material on buildings higher than 18 metres (six storeys). This involved getting a form – the now notorious EWS1 – completed by a qualified professional. That can take a long time and the process has since begun to affect smaller buildings too.

Despite new government guidance in April, this strand of the cladding scandal continues to leave people sometimes desperately stuck. “You have people’s lives on hold, because they’ve got children, they may have a disability, they may need to move for work, whatever reason it is,” Nanda says. “The situation for us is huge.”

Evaluating cladding safety is complex, detailed and slow with intrusive investigations of the inside of buildings as well as their outsides. It’s a job that can’t be rushed. “You can’t just open up thousands and thousands of buildings,” Nanda explains. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the appropriate consultants and organisations that can carry out the investigations and then do the work. There’s a big negotiation that goes on, you have to put quality assurance methods in place. Every project takes years to go through.”

MTVH had direct and shocking experience of the consequences of inadequate fire safety work in September 2019, two years after Grenfell, when a blaze destroyed a low-rise 23-home building of theirs in Worcester Park. There were no injuries or fatalities and in that case it was the work behind the cladding rather than the cladding itself, which was of a non-flammable wooden type, that enabled the fire to spread at frightening speed. The homes of all 200 MTVH residents on the development have since been investigated but remediation is only now underway: “That’s what I mean about the length of time it takes to agree what’s required, get on site and to carry out the works.”

This saga has no end in sight. Meanwhile, wider questions about future building safety appear to Nanda to, as yet, be unanswered. She has welcomed aspects of the Building Safety Bill, such as “very careful quality controls and systems for tall buildings”, but fears “it doesn’t solve today’s problem, which is this huge crisis that’s affecting so many people.” She wants “some sort of guarantee to release people from this nightmare” including being asked to fill in a form Nanda regards as very far from simple. Instead, she wants, “focus on what the top risk buildings are, how we deal with them methodically over a period of time.”

A parallel challenge for G15 is the recovery from the pandemic of people who live in their housing. “Everybody knows that it was people who worked on the trains, who drove the buses and worked in the supermarkets and the hospitals who kept working and kept London moving,” Nanda says. “Those people are our residents. And they are not the ones who’ve managed to save £10,000 during lockdown.”

She describes situations that have become familiar to several types of organisation in London and elsewhere, including schools, local authorities and an array of charities: the struggles of households without work, perhaps with young children at home and without the space to spread out and adapt. Nanda says MTVH quickly set up a support hub to provide quick and practical support: “The biggest issues were food and fuel poverty.” The potential silver lining, as schoolteachers too have remarked, is that the pandemic has provided “a time to stop and actually contact people, go out and talk to them about the real issues that are impacting on them and how we can support them through the crisis.”

Having the capacity to do such work is offered by Nanda as a defence against familiar complaints that housing associations have become too big and consequently untethered from their historic mission. “With scale comes strength and resilience,” she argues. “It means we can provide services that some smaller organisations can’t”.

She underlines the value of working with local partners. For example, MTVH has over 6,000 properties in Lambeth and an office in the borough. The size of their presence there means “we can do a lot with health authorities around wellbeing and health”. Nanda stresses the value of linking up with local specialist organisations to help people with training and finding work, “because they can do it better, they’ve got feelers on the ground”. She picks out for praise Tutors United, which connects graduates with school children who need extra help with schooling: “I just went to their little graduation ceremony of 58 kids.”

Meanwhile, London’s urgent need for much more new housing at prices those on low and middle incomes can afford continues. As well as its London homes, MTVH has around 10,000 in Nottingham and Derby. Comparisons are instructive: the difference between social rents and market rents in those two English cities is far, far smaller and in very cheap areas, non-existent; people there move much more frequently because, as Nanda puts it, “in London, if you’ve got somewhere you can afford, you tend to stay put.”

As G15 chair, she has followed her predecessor, Helen Evans of Network Homes, on to Sadiq Khan’s Homes for Londoners board. Nanda is positive about the G15’s relationship with the Mayor, expressing gratitude for the higher priority he has given to funding social rent level homes through his affordable homes programme – London Affordable Rent is the term he coined to distinguish from Affordable Rent as whole, which in the capital had mostly been pitched midway between social and market levels. Nanda says that simply “wasn’t working for a lot of people”.

Residents’ support through ballots as a precondition for mayoral funding of regeneration schemes is endorsed by the G15, though some members expressed reservations when Khan adopted the idea. Nanda says the ballot process encourages productive engagement. MTVH conducted the very first one.

Nanda also sees a continuing large role for shared ownership, describing it as “very popular” despite the reservations still expressed about it. It’s hardly helped that the tenure has become caught up in the cladding mess, but “it works for many people whose income is too low and maybe deposit is too low to be able to get a good mortgage and on the housing ladder. So I’m an advocate of it and I see the benefit it brings to a lot of people.”

For all the uncertainties about post-Covid London, Nanda sees an ongoing big role for G15 and housing associations. MTVH founded and has a continuing interest in a fully-commercial market rent subsidiary called Fizzy Living, the first of its kind in the UK. She’s seen many of its younger tenants head out of town under Covid to work from parent’s homes, “but they’re all coming back.” Permanent out-migrants have tended to be “people in their 30s who wanted to start a family and could afford it.”

Speculation that the price of buying in the capital would collapse has yet to be borne out. “Maybe at the top end there’s a stalling of prices,” Nanda says, “but at the lower end there’s huge competition still. There is a huge demand for shared ownership homes or low cost homes for sale, because it’s the only way people can stay in London and be in London.” She needs no convincing of the city’s attractions: “I’m a Londoner, always will be, and I love it!”

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Categories: Analysis

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