Magazine article Public Finance

Home and Away

Magazine article Public Finance

Home and Away

Article excerpt

Just above a picture of his three children on the wall of his airconditioned London office, David Orr has a photograph that reminds him why he would be foolish to

spend too long away from his native Scotland.

Gullane Beach, with its sweeping waves and apparently endless sand, is a mere 20-minute drive from Orr's Edinburgh home. Yet, since becoming chief executive of the National Housing Federation earlier this month, he is resigned to living there only at weekends.

During his first week in post at the start of July, as London lurched from Olympic triumph to the despair of terrorist bombs, Orr could have been forgiven for wanting to be back home again. In August, he is determined to spend at least a week in Scotland so that he can visit the Edinburgh Festival with his wife.

But once summer comes to an end, he knows that it will be strictly down to business as the federation gears up for potentially bruising battles over the governments plans to extend home ownership and divert development grants away from housing associations.

Prior to the end of June, the federation had been led by Jim Coulter for 16 years. During the past eight, since Labour came to power, it has enjoyed a generally cordial relationship with ministers and the Housing Corporation.

The extra money that Labour has diverted towards social housing, both to improve existing homes and to build new properties, was naturally welcomed. At the same time, the sector grew significantly as councils transferred stock to registered social landlords.

But suddenly the going seems to be getting tougher. The NHF has criticised the Homebuy scheme, which will allow tenants to buy shares in their homes, and is fiercely opposing the right of private developers to bid for public funds in direct competition with registered social landlords.

Orr is angry that, by allowing non-RSLs to take grants, the government is refusing to show housing associations the trust and respect they deserve. Although he insists that he is not arguing for inefficiency, he believes RSLs' proud track record in creating successful communities is being largely ignored in the desperate search for further savings.

But he also knows that many associations are keen to form consortiums with developers and increase their chances of gaining grants. So will this make it harder for the NHF to represent large RSLs, which already receive the lion's share of public money, along with the remainder of its 1,400 members?

'I think it's manageable. Our focus is not on how big an organisation is, but how good they are,' he says, diplomatically. 'Housing associations have always adapted. What's happening now is that they are adapting to social housing grant for developers.'

In spite of being willing to 'ruffle a few feathers' where necessary, Orr insists that he is an effective communicator or go-between and will ensure that the voice of social landlords is heard clearly in government.

He also believes the sector needs to be better understood. 'In many areas, the work done by housing associations has transformed communities, but we are still regarded with a degree of suspicion,' he says. 'Social housing is seen as a second-rate thing.'

By taking the NHF job, Orr is effectively relocating to London for the second time in 30 years. In 1977, he moved south to work with homeless young people at Centrepoint before, in 1986, becoming chief executive of Newlon Housing Group in east London.

It was a rational step, he says, after spending nine years of 'dealing with the consequences of housing failure', to want to lead an organisation that could directly tackle housing and other social issues. …

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