The Big Interview: GHA chief executive Neil Clapperton

A home is 'more than just a roof over your head', says Neil Clapperton, chief executive of Grampian Housing Association (GHA).
High on Neil Clappertons list of priorities is making the organisation he heads increasingly digital as it looks to be a 21st century housing association. Picture: Mark LemanHigh on Neil Clappertons list of priorities is making the organisation he heads increasingly digital as it looks to be a 21st century housing association. Picture: Mark Leman
High on Neil Clappertons list of priorities is making the organisation he heads increasingly digital as it looks to be a 21st century housing association. Picture: Mark Leman

Having spent his career in the housing sector, he believes that where people live plays a key role regarding their health, education, and overall quality of life.

GHA can trace its roots back to 1973, rebranding to its current name in 1975, and now has about 3,600 properties, roughly 100 staff based across the region and a turnover of £18 million.

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A charity, social enterprise and landlord, it provides housing and related services across the three local authority areas in the northeast of Scotland, and aims to develop sustainable communities.

Tenure types include social housing, mid-market (affordable) and market rent plus low-cost home-ownership, with homes suitable for single people, couples, families, the elderly and people with special needs.

But most of its tenants are working families, says Clapperton, who joined in 2005 from Angus Council, where he led a section covering private-sector and local housing strategies, private and public investment programmes, service development and policy.

He previously managed the Angus Community Care Charitable Trust, which he describes as a one-off opportunity “to create an arm’s-length, quasi-housing association that was specifically targeted at special needs. That role was preceded by seven years with Dunbritton Housing Association in Dumbarton in various development, housing, maintenance and service-management roles, while his housing career started in Edinburgh District Council’s area improvement teams in 1989.

He obtained a degree in construction management as he looked to broaden his skillset and joined GHA as director of housing and property services, before becoming a “fully fledged” chief executive in 2013 after holding the role on an interim basis.

The promotion changed his day-to-day role, he says, but laughs that he’s told he still interferes too much on the operational side. The chief executive role is “far more strategic, obviously, and far more about the positioning of the company and leading staff, so again it’s a step in different direction”.

Clapperton, a corporate member of the Chartered Institute of Housing, explains that over the last six months he has been on several day trips to London and elsewhere in the south-east of England in an attempt to “pick up on good practice”. This is not only from other housing associations but also the private sector, and he recently visited Virgin Airlines “to find out how they deal with change, how they deal with a modern, very demanding market, so that’s been a big eye-opener for me.

“I now need to sit in the office and work out what implications that has for GHA. It’s amazing how much is transferable from what you’d think is a completely different environment, market and industry in terms of people’s expectations and the importance of service quality.”

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He also highlights work he has been doing with employers to boost the profile of GHA, “because a lot of people think it’s just a safety net, and just about welfare, but it’s not – it’s also about key workers, it’s about supporting the economy”.

It comes after the region for many years was what he calls “an overheated market”.In 2013, letting website Citylets reported that average monthly private rents in Aberdeen had soared past £1,000 for the first time, up by 11.5 per cent on the previous year’s figure.

However, the fall in the oil price prompted a reversal of fortunes, and Citylets said that in the first quarter of this year the average rent in the city had hit £768 a month.

Additionally, a home and its occupier’s finances are inextricably linked, and GHA has also moved into providing money advice and debt counselling.

“We’ve had it for over ten years now, and it started out as a good thing to do, but with the introduction of Universal Credit and all of the problems that is currently bringing, particularly around increasing debt levels, it’s actually become an essential,” says Clapperton.

Adding to GHA’s task list is the Scottish Government’s plan to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes by 2021, with 35,000 of these to be for social rent.

Is the 50,000 amount achievable? It is a “stretched target”, he believes, saying he admires the government’s dedication to social housing. “I know that other political parties had also supported this target, or something like it… but it’s still a stretched target and I think housing associations locally here and across the nation are stretching every sinew to try and make their contribution towards it.

“There are some barriers. I think [Brexit] will have an impact on the construction side, it will have an impact on the housing association internally,” with many of its cleaning and maintenance staff from the EU. “It does worry me, absolutely, but I think more fundamentally there are other issues that impact on our capacity to meet the 50,000 and this will be shared throughout Scotland – and it’s down to the efficiency of the housing association itself.”

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He points to the launch last month of GHA subsidiary TLC Housing Maintenance – “an attempt for us to cut out waste to make us as efficient as possible so we have spare cash to invest in new housing”.

GHA is also “working though” its asset portfolio, with Clapperton believing housing associations like GHA need to make best use of their assets.

“There’s been a bit of an old-fashioned habit of just holding on to everything on the assumption that it’ll be used… but the fact is that some of our housing is less efficient than others.”

The organisation is therefore examining those at the less economical end of the scale, and with the proceeds “we’ll actually be able to build at least as many again that are efficient, effective and fit for purpose in the future, so we started with shared ownership”.

GHA estimates that about a third of its shared-ownership property doesn’t tie in with the organisation’s aims, although Clapperton stresses that while it is perfectly habitable, it needs to be replaced with something “more modern and easier to maintain”.

GHA has also doubled its target regarding the development of affordable homes to 400 from 200 by 2020, because “we found the financial capacity to do so. Again, it comes back to that piece about being more efficient, making sure that we make the very best use of whatever resources and assets we have”.

Overall, he is determined to see the number of homes GHA covers increase in coming years, but cites access to land as a key barrier, and calls on local authorities and other organisations in the public sector to live up to their stated intention of selling at less than market value for the greater good.

They understandably sell at market value to top up their coffers when budgets are stretched, Clapperton says, “but it does mean that when those bodies start complaining that they don’t have affordable housing for their staff, that they’re really missing a trick there”.

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However, he notes that NHS Grampian did sell land to GHA at less than market value in exchange for it targeting nursing and auxiliary staff, helping the health board meet its targets

Also high on Clapperton’s list of priorities is making the organisation increasingly digital as it looks to be a “21st century” housing association. “We’ve got a long way to go but the ambition is to make sure there’s a 24/7 service available online across what we provide.”

It comes as tenants’ expectations change in tandem with technology, and meeting their expectations “is one of the things we’re mandated to do”, Clapperton adds. Being increasingly digital will also save the association money, he continues, which can be “spent on the things that really matter”.

He also wants to see staff move away from bureaucracy to focus on solving problems for people, “whether that be internally or a tenant or other customer”, providing a service that a computer can’t. “It’s that human interaction stuff, it’s the empathy – it’s dealing with people’s issues and making sure there’s a decent solution that matters.”