Star Interview: ‘We look after communities, it’s not just a case of renting a property’: Housing association boss retires after 21 years

Brian Summerson, CEO of Arches Housing. Picture: Chris Etchells
Brian Summerson, CEO of Arches Housing. Picture: Chris Etchells

People can only achieve safety and stability through having a proper place to live, Brian Summerson believes.

It is a basic philosophy, but one that has guided him through his 21 years at the Arches Housing association in Sheffield.

For almost half of that time he has been the organisation’s chief executive, leading an expansion that means its staff now oversee more than 1,150 properties, with a policy of acquiring and building more each year to address Britain’s acute housing shortage.

But, at the end of March, Brian is moving on – just don’t call it retirement. He’s a little conflicted about the word.

“It’s not retiring in the sense of ‘Thank God for that’,” he says, smartly-suited and enviably trim at 73.

“I think there comes a time when you have to move on. I’ve done that on a number of occasions. I used to work in the steel industry and to be frank I got bored of it. I’ll be looking for non-executive positions, probably, in housing and that sort of thing. It’s more freedom to do what I want.”

Arches Housing was founded in 1975 by a group of local people concerned with the physical decay of housing in the north and east of Sheffield. Slum clearances and the break-up of communities had gone too far, it was thought; providing affordable, decent homes for rent was the alternative that also offered a route to revival and regeneration.

Arches is still based in Burngreave, owning and managing homes in Sheffield – in neighbourhoods like Pitsmoor, Darnall, Fir Vale and Page Hall – and Rotherham. Tenants are largely from ethnic minority backgrounds.

“I’ve always wanted to improve people’s ability to have a firm base, a house, so they can progress to better things,” he says thoughtfully.

Brian grew up in Stannington, then moved to Norton Lees, where he more or less remains, just off Blackstock Road.

“I haven’t moved around a lot. I think a lot of us in Sheffield are very ‘local’, if you like.”

His face creases up as he smiles, adding: “My partner has gone all over the country, her parents were in the forces. She’s got a worldwide perspective.”

Money was tight at home, giving him an early insight into the reality of hardship. Brian’s father died when he was 13, and as the oldest of four children he felt a sense of duty.

“I had to more or less take up the father’s role, if you like. It was always quite a struggle financially so that’s why I’ve got some feeling for how tenants have to manage these days, and the issues of poorer people. There’s a massive shortage of housing the UK and we’ve just drifted into it.”

Brian left Jordanthorpe School at 15 and went straight to work at steel company Aurora as an apprentice, finding himself drawn to accountancy. He eventually became finance director of one of Aurora’s subsidiaries, and together with its MD decided to branch out by buying a toolmaking firm in Dronfield.

But there were complications.

“You could buy stuff in from China cheaper than we could actually buy the raw materials, so we decided to pack that in.”

The path to his present job then emerged. Brian was asked to do the books at Arches, then called North Sheffield Housing, and became ‘interested in the strategy and all that sort of thing.’

Many housing associations formed in the era of Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s 1966 film about a family that falls into poverty and homelessness. The Housing Act followed in 1974, giving associations significant state funding for developments.

By 1987 Arches had bought and revamped around 300 homes over 10 years; the following year it completed its biggest new-build scheme of 39 homes in Wincobank.

Brian joined in 1997 and became chief executive in 2007.

“I think we’ve always done a good job,” he contends. “In the last few years we’ve increased our number of homes by about four per cent every year. It’s not tremendous, but I think we’ve always done better than average.”

When he started, everyone at Arches was paid £21,678, from architects to reception staff – an egalitarian code that the regulator didn’t like. In 2004 the co-operative model was abandoned and a traditional hierarchy was adopted, with salaries to match.

Today Arches employs just over 20 staff, and is a member of BME National, a collective of associations that cater for black and minority ethnic tenants. It has also signed a pledge on asylum seekers and migrants.

“Our ethnic mix is still more than 50 per cent. We want to maintain that. We need to look after our customers.”

There are ‘difficult spots’. Ten years ago six trouble-prone flats on Melrose Road had to be turned into family homes following a shooting, while Brian is familiar with the tensions in Page Hall, where a large number of Roma people have settled, sparking allegations of antisocial behaviour. He admits that prospective residents from the lettings register are reluctant to live there.

“We end up with a high turnover. I think it’s really about trying to teach the population how they should conduct themselves. We can’t stop people having a bit of a party on the street – or maybe we can, who knows – but for people who don’t have that lifestyle they’re not happy about it.”

In addition, Arches has a unit for young people with autism and facilities for those with drug and alcohol problems. The day-to-day running of these premises is ‘farmed out’ to agencies.

These groups, Brian says, are most at risk of finding themselves homeless.

“People are soon on the streets. In the last three or four years there’s been a massive increase in rough sleeping. It all stems back to the problem of the high cost of housing. While we provide low-cost housing, the current new build stuff is at 80 per cent of market rent, which I think is still high. For some people even that’s unaffordable.”

He is concerned about the arrival of universal credit, expected to be rolled out locally later this year. Under the system, benefits will be paid directly as a single sum to those eligible, and organisations like Arches would have to chase them for the money.

“It’s going to be a big change. We’ve really got to be very smart at how we deal with it. We want to make it as easy as possible for our tenants to pay. We’ve almost got to say ‘When are you going to get your payment from DWP?’ and, at that point, take it.”

In areas where universal credit has already been introduced there have been ‘massive increases’ in arrears, he says.

When Brian started in 1997 there were around 100,000 social housing properties in Sheffield; now there are some 60,000, with right to buy purchases, stock transfers and demolitions all blamed for the decrease.

However, the council is building again through the Sheffield Housing Company, which offers homes for part-ownership, and some for market rent. Arches is now dealing in part-ownership too, together with ‘affordable rent’, which includes a lower ‘social’ rate.

“It’s always been a battle between the grants the Government can afford to fund for new homes and the amount of money we can put into the pot. With low rents, you obviously need a subsidy. The average three-bedroom house in Sheffield now costs about £100,00 to £120,000; if you borrow the whole of that money you can’t afford to charge rent at £70 a week. It is very divided in Sheffield. You might see a lot of land around in Burngreave, but none of the big national developers will build there. They’re only interested in making money, but we’re only interested in giving people a home as cheaply as possible. It’s sad.”

Arches’ future under new chief Paul Common involves spending £1.5 million on its existing houses, and increasing its stock by half in the next 10 years.

Brian, however, is looking forward to more golf – he plays at Beauchief and is president of the Sheffield Society of Golf Captains from the end of March for a year. He and partner Carol Fleming, a former solicitor, have no children, but their brothers and sisters have ‘plenty’, he says with a wry smile. “We’re not free of any responsibility.”

Overall he has ‘enjoyed the challenges’ of the past 20 years.

“We feel we look after the communities, it’s not just a case of renting a property. We want to see the place looking good and feeling safe. That’s the difference between us and a private landlord. You feel proud of it.”

‘Right to Buy is a crude measure’

The national Right to Buy policy ‘hasn’t worked’, says Brian Summerson, and hinders housing associations’ efforts to increase their stock.

The scheme was introduced in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, giving council tenants the power to buy their homes.

“I don’t particularly like the way it’s been done. I can understand the principle behind it, in that if capital money is paid into the council or whoever, and you can reinvest it, it looks as though it’s fine.

“But the problem we have is that we can’t necessarily reinvest one-for-one. If we get a property across the road and the market value is £88,000, we can’t build one for that. We’ve effectively lost an asset and not had sufficient money to replace it. If the Government was to say ‘We’ll let you replace the asset and subsidise it’, that would be fine.

“It’s a crude measure, right to buy. Councils haven’t been able to keep the money, it’s gone back to the Treasury. The way it’s been introduced and the way it’s been operated hasn’t worked, it’s not been a good idea.”