Affordable housing, shaping Scotland

By Calum Macaulay

A Highland-based registered social landlord, Albyn Housing Society has served the region for over 45 years. Our origins are deeply rooted in the period of social and economic change that hit the area in the 70s and 80s, and ever since, this experience has informed our growth, as well as the wider development of the communities we serve.

At that time, ‘housing’ was about volume, and the need to provide homes in concentrated communities in order to serve the workforce needs of emerging industries – Dounreay in Caithness, the Nigg fabrication yard and the aluminium smelter in Invergordon for example. The population was growing, and it needed homes, fast.

Today, most of these industries and the associated jobs are gone, but the people and families remain, providing a workforce for both surviving and newly established industries, sustaining local schools and services and supporting local enterprise. As a result, the region, and Inverness in particular, is thriving. In fact, it was recently named one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

This period of growth has transformed the Highlands, and the local housing sector along with it. Increasing numbers of people are now choosing to stay and build lives in the area – both native and newcomer – creating new challenges and opportunities across the region’s rural and urban communities. Consequently, housing providers like Albyn have had to redefine their purpose to ensure they meet the needs and aspirations of modern Highland residents.

Today, our purpose extends far beyond delivering social housing at scale. It is about supporting successful tenancies, helping communities to thrive and developing solutions to challenges, old and new. Ultimately, it is about ensuring our homes enable their residents to live the lives they aspire to lead.

To achieve this, we have set out an ambitious, long-term build programme, restructured our business to enhance our focus on customer service, and developed new services and partnerships underpinned by innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

Firstly, our aim is to develop 750 quality new homes for social and mid-market rent and low-cost home ownership in the next five years. This will bring our total estate to around 4000 properties in an area spanning Bettyhill to Kingussie, and Applecross to Dyke. However, gone are the monolithic estates of previous decades; our vision is to deliver high quality, mixed-tenure developments within established communities and with direct access to local services, transport connectivity and support networks. This, we believe, creates a fairer society by supporting cohesion, equality of opportunity and a shared sense of community.

This plan has, so far, been supported by around £50m in Scottish Government funding and over £40m in private finance secured through BAE Pension Fund, RBS and  Triodos Bank, which only funds projects that create positive social, cultural or environmental value. Recent examples of the projects this approach has delivered includes a development of 23 homes in Nairn, and a small settlement of 10 homes in Dornoch. We have also recently signed an agreement with national housebuilder, Barratt Homes, to take handover of 44 homes for affordable rent and low cost home ownership at its major new masterplan development in Stratton, Inverness.

Secondly, organisational change has allowed us to make the transition from the old way – landlord services – to the new way – customer services – giving tenants a stronger voice and greater influence in shaping of the service we deliver. This has given us a fresh insight into the processes that underpin allocations, managing voids and working with support agencies. For example, we have trialled different ways of working, such as ‘choice based letting’, which could potentially make our allocations process more efficient and less competitive by reducing the pool of applicants to only those directly interested in a specific property, rather than the entire housing list for a specific area.

We have also gained a greater understanding of the challenges facing tenants, and taken a leading role in shaping the region’s response to welfare reform, specifically the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and Universal Credit. We now actively lobby for improvement on behalf of tenants, while also investing in money advice and other services for tenants, with support from the likes of the Big Lottery Fund and local Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Finally, our organisation wouldn’t be where it is today without innovation and collaboration. Albyn has a designated innovation team, whose role is to develop new revenue generating opportunities for the society, while tackling some of the sector’s biggest challenges. One of these is the region’s aging demographic.

Today, the lack of suitable care facilities, combined with the fact that people are living longer, means bed blocking is costing public health services millions of pounds every year. Working in partnership with NHS Highland, Albyn Housing Society has developed the FitHome, which uses the principals of artificial intelligence and IoT to allow people to live safe and well in their homes for as long as they want.

Health and housing go hand in hand, so it is our aim to develop this innovation further to enable other housing providers, and even private homeowners, to utilise this technology, allowing health and care services to support patients from the comfort of their own home, for as long as they can do so safely.

These illustrations are just a snapshot of Albyn Housing Society’s recent activity, which I believe demonstrates how the role of housing has transitioned – and us along with it. Housing, given its unbreakable links with themes such as the built environment, sustainability, health, wellbeing and the economy, has a critical role to play in shaping our present, and future. But, it is up to the industry to take up this challenge, set the right example and demonstrate leadership, innovation and best practice. The Highlands, I believe, are a shining example that others can follow.

Calum Macaulay is chief executive of the Albyn Housing Society.