My own personal take on the challenge for any leader is that we need to make the maximum impact with the resources we have in a way that is aligned to our purpose. We define our purpose by saying At South Yorkshire Housing Association you can settle, live well at home and realise your potential. We are about the whole person and the whole place. We want to make an impact at four levels – for our customers, for the organisation, for the wider health, care and housing system and for the planet. Our 50-year history is a testament to the organisation doing just that.
One of our defining moments in recent years came about as a result of a challenge from one of our non-executive directors (NED), Andy Buck. He reflected that he felt we could be satisfied that we met the test in one of our “Big Questions” (displayed at every Board meeting) is the voice of our customer being heard in our Board meetings? However, he challenged us to consider whether this extended to personal empathy.
We responded by creating a Human Library at the following Board awayday. Our NEDs still talk about it 4 years later. Members heard directly from a wide variety of South Yorkshire Housing Association people including customers, staff and managers who were courageous enough to give their personal account of experiencing homelessness, growing up in poverty, struggling with addictions, and living with mental health conditions.
PlaceShapers champions the value of locally based, people-focussed housing associations – in 2010, I chaired the group for 5 years. We pushed back against the prevailing narrative that all associations would merge and that, in the words of the President of the Chartered Institute of Housing at the time, there would only be 10 associations left by the mid-2020s.
Whilst South Yorkshire Housing Association has only employed two Chief Executives, the number of Chairs of the Board has been greater – nine in all. They have come from a wide variety of backgrounds. They include two University Professors, a Director of Housing at a Local Authority, the Lead on Race and Customer Involvement at another Local Authority, an NHS Chief Executive, a Vicar (now a Bishop), a Methodist Minister, a Director of Planning and a Housing Consultant. Like our Non-Executive Directors throughout our history, they have come from a range of ethnic groups and there has been a gender balance. The continuing lack of diversity on the Boards of many housing associations is flabbergasting – we have never had this problem.
Our Race Action Plan has been widely recognised as best practice in the housing sector. The results one year on are astonishing. I have lost count of how many times I have been asked to send our plan out to others.
It is South Yorkshire Housing Association which has coordinated work on diversity and inclusion in Yorkshire and the Humber which includes the production of a baseline survey kindly facilitated by our friends at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
And, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, we co-curated with Voluntary Action Sheffield a Race and Governance seminar attended by over 200 people in the midst of the pandemic. Participants included leaders from across the City including the CEOs of the City Council and a local NHS Trust.