The Big Interview: ‘Our work to try and alleviate injustice and hardship by social housing is very rewarding’
This Week: John McLean
It's been one year since Northern Ireland's two biggest social housing names joined forces to create Radius. But John McLean, who led the merger of the Helm and Fold housing associations, is no stranger to overseeing acquisitions.
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They formed a major part of many of his former roles in the manufacturing, oil and gas industries - many of which took him all over the world - including positions at Power NI parent company Viridian plc and NIE.
And the fruits of the merger are now coming to the fore with one of Northern Ireland's biggest social and private housing projects about to start in west Belfast.
John, the chief executive of Radius, describes the past year of the merger of the Helm and Fold housing associations as a challenge and a period of "settling in" but also 12 months during which he had to "make sure we didn't drop the ball".
And now after significant investment, including a £2m spend in new technologies and bringing together the ownership of 13,000 homes, and the employment of 1,100 people, the amalgamation is "moving in the right direction", according to John.
"We looked at the Helm and the Fold ways and adapted them," says John, who had been chief executive at the Fold Housing Association.
"We did things differently so there was this unravelling and getting the new Radius and that took time. Overhauling the IT systems and creating a new one was extensive and there were different cultures.
"Although both associations were value driven, we had different ways of doing things," he says.
The father-of-three, who lives in Holywood, Co Down where he also grew up, studied engineering at Queen's University, graduating in 1991. He then studied marketing at BIFHE, now Belfast Met, and followed that with an MBA at Ulster University.
His career began in the oil industry which took him to far-flung destinations including South America and the Far East.
While he reflects fondly on those globetrotting opportunities, he says working in social housing is a privilege and a sector he's glad to be part of since he joined Fold in 2005. "I can't overemphasise the real commitment of the people that work in social housing. It's one of the best-kept secrets in terms of the social enterprise model," he says.
"We have very strong entrepreneurial people who are mixing private money and extending the reach of public money as far as it can and alleviating the social injustice and hardship across the country, so it's extremely rewarding and a privilege."
And those 1,100 people he has brought together, as well as the residents of some 13,000 homes, are finding the transition "positive", according to a Radius stakeholder review.
"We got a sense check of customers, business partners and staff and it's all very positive, but there's still work to be done; however, we are going in the right direction," he says.
And the increased muscle has allowed Radius to borrow more private money to invest in bigger and better housing schemes. One of the firm's most prominent will be the project on the former Visteon site in west Belfast.
It's been in the planning process since 2015 and will include 250 mixed tenure homes.
"It will be a community project and provide a hub with leisure spaces," says John.
While he couldn't confirm who won the building contract, he said the site should be completed within the next 30 months.
John says: "The important thing now is getting the planning and sustainability right. It takes time but you end up with a sustainable long-term project and we are in it for the long haul. We build the houses and then we transfer them to our operations and live with the consequences."
Radius is also in the latter stages of the Rathgill project in Bangor, where 210 properties have been built. It's home to the organisation's first private-for-sale builds and was made possible through a new partnership with Barclays Bank. It will also work on schemes at St Patrick's Barracks in Ballymena and Hope Street, off Sandy Row in Belfast.
"We have a niche and we're good at engaging with communities. Unfortunately not everyone wants it (social housing) on their doorstep, but we are good at speaking to those communities," says John.
"We also have a record for meeting our targets and delivering on time and our target is to be a developer of 400 to 500 houses per annum."
In its first year Radius had a £4m turnover. "Following the amalgamation we have a £1bn asset business and that's key," says John. "A bigger balance sheet gives us the ability to access private money. We feel that the critical mass allowed us to establish services that we couldn't do as a smaller organisation."
The new elements afforded by the merger include a 24-hour customer service. And he says that a £2m technology investment has also allowed Radius "to become more responsive to its tenants".
John says tenant engagement is at the core of Radius' operations. It would need to be as the sector prepares for a shake-up in welfare reform.
Radius, given its "unique position of trust", now acts as a conduit into employment for many of its tenants after it established an employment scheme with colleges and other partners. This includes getting tenants onto apprenticeship programmes to "overcome the problems that will come with welfare reform".
"When we came together, we generally foresaw a toughening environment for tenants and there's a need to help those people manage their finances to try and get more and more people into employment. We will focus on minimising debt among tenants and be there for their wellbeing and stress when the Universal Credit scheme kicks in."
Beyond the benefits system, the social enterprise is also dealing with a more challenging bigger picture that is composed of a lack of Executive, unsecured capital funding, Brexit and the entity's reclassification as an Arm's Length Body (ALB), which could have major implications for the Northern Ireland economy.
"There is uncertainty in the future in terms of capital funding and decisions we might need to take in developing our target 400 new homes. We have to line up sites and borrow private money and that all depends on a programme from the minister. We need to know if the money is there," says John.
Radius is also set to lose European Investment Bank money after Brexit and, while a new £50m facility with Barclays will safeguard the organisation's house building interests for the next two years, beyond that is unclear.
Perhaps one of the most worrying blows to the social housing sector, and one that will be felt wider than the sector, is its reclassification as an arm's-length body by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
"We need to make changes to get back to being a private body," says John.
"Although the legislation was made in the absence of a local government we need someone here to challenge it. All the private money we borrow will now be seen as government debt for NI Inc, which has major implications for borrowing for other vital projects."
However, these challenges won't tempt John away from the sector. He says it's the reward of creating homes for an ever-pressurised housing list that has kept him where he is.
"Working in social housing is incredibly rewarding," he says.
"On one hand you have the opportunity of working with very dedicated professionals to deliver housing, care and support and on the other hand you are delivering multi-million pound regenerative projects encompassing homes, employment and community facilities.
"In my experience it's hard to better the sense of achievement from seeing a family take possession of a new home for the first time.
"We also very much appreciate the work of our voluntary board who are champions of the public and charity sector and give their time. So it's extremely enjoyable."