video Podcast Episode 14

Nigel Wilson from Gentoo Group

This week, we're talking with Nigel Wilson, the Chief Executive Officer of Gentoo Group. We talk about improving resident engagement to deliver better outcomes, successful retrofit projects that the sector can learn from and funding all these requirements.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
Hello and welcome to another Switchee podcast. I’m Alastair Thorpe and I’m welcoming Nigel Wilson today, who's CEO at Gentoo. They have 29,000 properties in and around Sunderland and surrounding areas. And I’m really excited to have Nigel on today. We talk about opinions and ideas, perspectives within the housing industry on the podcast. But I’m quite interested to find out from Gentoo's perspective where you have an in-depth relationship with energy efficiency and sustainability and that's been over quite an extended period of time and so be great to understand your current plans and perhaps any learnings that you've had from those previous experiences. But before we get into those topics, I’d be really interested to find out Nigel how you actually got involved in the housing sector in the first place.

Nigel:
Yeah, I mean, mine's been through different bits of housing. I began very simply as a housing co-op tenant. I was moving from my home in Lancaster to Birmingham and my brother lived in one of the two piers housing co-ops in Brighton. And so we'd spoken and I’d been down to visit him and I thought the idea of housing co-ops was great. So, I’d applied to Birmingham Co-Op housing services for housing in Birmingham. I got housed by Victoria tenants in Small Heath and I think the second week I was there, I joined the committee because the old guard was stepping down. They'd been running the co-op for a number of years and were looking for new tenants to get involved. I got involved whilst I was working in the unemployment benefit office in Mosley at the time for the civil service.

So after a couple of years of working on the committee and with colleagues in the housing, I decided that my future lay in housing rather than the civil service doing clerical work in the Dole office. So, I applied for a housing officer's job and was fortunate enough to get it. The person interviewing me at the time thought I knew all about supplementary benefits as it used to be called which was run by DHSS and didn't quite get the fact that I dealt with unemployment benefit. But yeah, we didn't let that get in the way and I managed to blag my way into the housing officer's job and then from there I moved through different roles and different responsibilities until eventually I ended up as a Chief Exec and I’ve always absolutely loved it.

It's been 35 years and it's kept me getting up every day - seeing the difference we can make. I worked for local authorities and housing associations, multi-region ones as well as ones that were specific. So my last two roles, I had over 12 years in Wythenshawe in South Manchester working on a particular geography and then when the opportunity came up for Gentoo, I thought it was a huge opportunity. A very specific place-based organisation with a, shall we say, interesting history that was at a G3 rating and needed some assistance to get itself back on the straight and narrow with a new board coming in. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity and a really interesting part of the country that I didn't know at all well but the people have been amazing and I’ve been here now just over two years and loved every minute of it.

Alastair:
Great. Thank you for that. It's nice to hear those stories because I’m a big believer that the sector is a great place for someone's career. There are lots of opportunities and in a world where we're kind of trying to find purpose in what we get up and do every day, it's a good field to do that. So thanks for that introduction. So there are lots of things that we wanted to talk about. I’ve identified from chatting to other people in the housing sector that actually, there's a lot going on at the moment. So we're still dealing with the outcomes from the Grenfell tragedy and there's lots of attention on fire safety and fire risk. We've got new targets around net-zero and carbon reduction rightfully so in and amongst all of that, it's been highlighted the importance of including residents and engaging with residents more in these big decisions that we're all trying to make. It'd be interesting to find out how Gentoo is trying to increase resident engagement and involvement?

Nigel:
No, absolutely. And I think I’ve always been hugely committed to working with tenants and residents closely and ensuring that they've got the right influence. I think as you know everybody's talking about tenants voice. I think it's absolutely central to what we do and should be. We are, as you said, we're a social purpose vehicles. We exist to make sure we're providing services and good quality ones at value for money and making a difference to people and absolutely not in a paternalistic way as housing organisations historically used to work. Instead working alongside people whether that's around what's going on in the community or in terms of their homes and the provision of new homes. And you're right. I think certainly, we've seen a massive rebirth of wanting to get better at working with tenants since Grenfell quite rightly. That was a shot across the bows for everybody and a massive tragedy that should never have taken place in the way it did both from a building industry point of view, but also from a tenant and tenant voice piece. So I think there's a huge opportunity.

We at Gentoo have just started over the last few months remodelling what was our community engagement team, resident involvement and complaints to bring it all together under one heading. I think we're seeing more people start to work in that way. So you're actually getting the insight from complaints and using that to inform your engagement work but also then the broader community works. During the last year and the pandemic, my colleagues have performed amazingly well. The links into the community organisations, the diversity of the community and voluntary sector whether it's helping people with mental health issues, dealing with the food bank, young people play but also around you know, employment and skills are going to be critically important as we emerge.

So I think having a rounded approach as an organisation is what we're trying to achieve and make sure we get that insight to inform our policies and procedures and the approach we take to things. Organisations in the past have been very happy to report we're 99% compliant or 98% compliant with complaints time scales. But what have you learned from the complaint is the real telling thing. And I think that's what customers have a crap service wants to know - that it's going to be put right for them but also isn't going to happen to their neighbour. I think we're large organisations. We have over a thousand colleagues working with us and 29,000 homes. Something happens every day, things go wrong and it's about our ability to be honest about that and work to rectify it and learn from it. I think those things are absolutely critically important when you talk to tenants. They know you can't do everything right away and they know you can't get everything right but they just want to make sure you're learning from that and I think that's the opportunity.

We've also been looking in the Northeast about how we can bring that tenant's voice together. One of the things that struck me when I started here having done work particularly around Greater Manchester was there's a lot of collaboration. There's a lot of collaboration in the Northeast but one area where we didn't necessarily have that was working with tenants and residents. So just before the pandemic in January, what was it, 20 I guess. You lose track of years, don't you? We got over 100 residents together at the Radisson Blue in Durham from right across the Northeast. Local authorities, ALMO's, Retained Stock and housing associations. There was a huge energy in the room that afternoon to want to do something together to give themselves a voice on a regional and national stage and pick up issues like stigma and pick up issues like decarbonization. So, unfortunately, we had to put that on hold during last year but we started it again in January this year and we've had three meetings virtually which isn't ideal but we had strong attendance at those and represented from across the region and we're now moving on to getting that group established.

They're going to be doing some work with TPAS independently because it's about them creating their own independence and voice and I think we'll see that going from strength to strength. There's a huge passion there. The Northeast is a passionate place. There's a huge amount of pride in what they do but also what they want to do is really demonstrate to the rest of the country that this is a great place and they are doing some great work and they don't want to be tarred with the same brushes everywhere. I think some of the frustration for tenants has been that we are doing some great stuff - we don't just need to be told we need to improve. We want to demonstrate some of that good stuff as well as looking at how we can have a voice going forward.

Alastair:
Fantastic. Thank you for that. Yeah, it's sort of echoing some things that I’ve heard before about trying to not do things to or at residents but with them and looking at the investments that housing providers are going to be making in their properties that they'll have to get to net-zero, net-zero carbon. There is a danger of just doing stuff at resident's and to their homes. So I did want to ask you a little bit about the net-zero topic. Are there any projects that you guys are working on or have worked on in the past - anything that the sector can maybe learn from that you've done well?

Nigel:
You learn from the stuff that's gone well and gone less well, don't you? In reality, I think Gentoo was very early in the whole PV panel installation industry and got their fingers a little bit burnt with a drop in the feeding tariff rate, but we've got over 6,000 homes now that are generating that electricity. We've got stuff around battery storage going on and I think we've learned lessons from that - both good and bad in terms of how these things last and how it works. And I think as you said, it's absolutely important that people have a really good understanding of what's happening to their home. At the end of the day, they're renting their home from us, that doesn't give us the right just to do. We've got to consult, we've got to build information and ultimately, as we bring new technologies into the home as the gas boiler disappears and the wet central heating system changes, people need to understand how that's going to be different for them because the ability to get a blast of heat quickly is going to change fundamentally whichever way we go with the technology.

I think whilst we've got lots of different technology going on, it is important to remember it ultimately depends on how Mrs Miggins feels about her home and how warm she feels or how hot the water is etc. So I think it is about taking people with you on that journey, spending time talking to them, working with them and then I think particularly what we've seen, as you may know, we've been doing a massive installation of ground source heat pumps in Sunderland. Seven tower blocks in the city centre. They've gone through over £9 million worth of change and that's required us to work intensively with the residents and our contracting partners. So we've worked very closely with ENGIE and Kensa. Obviously, Switchee has been involved in that process as well in terms of the technology and the ability to communicate directly with the tenants and SunAmp Shoe Box is installed instead of gas boilers. That's a massive change for these residents and we've worked very closely with them and all our partners to make sure the technology is working. We've had some hiccups along the way let's be clear but on the scale of this, there are very few projects on this scale that have been taking place.

We've degassed the blocks at the same time as we've installed sprinkler systems, upgraded the fire stopping and put in new fibre broadband infrastructure as well and replaced the soil and vent stack. So it's a massive transformation. It's a lot of work going on around your home. Just digging the big holes for the ground source heat pumps is no small installation as well as everything else. But everybody who's been in to visit the properties and the flats has seen a massive transformation. That your old idea of what sprinklers look like, you know, these big things that stuck out in the middle is gone. These are fit flush into the ceilings. It's an amazing misting system but again, that we estimate will bring around a 25% efficiency for those tenants. So they feel that difference for them and for us hopefully it becomes a much safer place for them and that's critically important. Also somewhere that you know, gives them the warmth and the hot water they want.

That transformation is different because you can't be turning it on and off simple things like that. You need to leave it on and build up that heat and the hot water. So again, I think we know from the early days it is some of that behavioural change you have to help people through and support and you have to invest in that in the same way as you invest in all the rest of the kit and caboodle. I think we're seeing positive feedback from that and we're the difference it makes. It's a massive carbon reduction and it's a flagship scheme for the city as well - it demonstrates you can do it. It's not cheap. There's no point in trying to pretend it is but these are things that have got to be done to give those blocks that sustainability. People living up there have got an amazing view of the coast and they love it. People who are living there absolutely love their blocks and I think that that's been a massive help to us.

Alastair:
Yeah. I’ve been up there myself actually from the involvement with Switchee and it is really a great project. I think you've hit the nail on the head with a couple of things there you know, there's a lot of carbon reduction that can come from these and you calculate that you install this and you take out that and the numbers all look great but if the resident doesn't feel good about it or they feel that they're too cold or spending too much money, then it doesn't work basically.

Nigel:
Yeah.

Alastair:
So something that we've been quite proud of is helping with some of that communication piece.

Nigel:
Yeah.

Alastair:
So when the complicated new technology goes in sort of helping residents to get familiar with it but also surveying people. So we have a touchscreen on the wall and we're able to ask residents how they're doing or if there are any system issues we can kind of push some of that notification directly into the wall and so they get that information directly. I’ve looked at the plans on net-zero around the country and I think there's going to be around 600,000 air source heat pumps installed over the next few years and frankly getting 600,000 people to understand how to use this new technology just by themselves without any support is going to be really difficult. So yeah, it's good to invest in these projects upfront for the behaviour change side. So this kind of segues quite nicely on to you saying, it's not cheap to do this and I think if we could just close out by talking a little bit about how on earth housing providers are meant to find the funding and the money to actually do these big projects?

Nigel:
Yeah, I’m not aware of anybody having the magic tree full of cash that's going to start shaking it out. Because we want to build new homes, we're going to have to do decent homes 2 to our existing stock and we're just about to go on that journey around again replacing component parts in homes. As one of my colleagues in the Northeast said, a chief executive “Decent homes should be decent homes. A shower should not be aspirational”. That's pretty standard but was never in the original decent homes - lots of people fitted them. So things like that are critically important. Fire safety works - we've got 30,000 fire doors to survey, monitoring and log. It's no small job in and of itself in terms of that as well as all the other compliance work that goes on. We want to build the new homes to a good standard. We're investing in things now in our new homes that put a £10 to £12,000 premium on it just to get ready. Like putting the connections in for the plug-in cars and things to come because otherwise, we're going to be retroing the whole time.

We're involved in a massive scheme in Washington in terms of replacing the district heating scheme that's obsolete. We stopped what was going to be a thousand installations of new combi boilers on that basis. What is the point of that - when we're moving to the future why would we do that? Because it was the cheapest which again, we're having to unpick some of that and as part of that we've been fortunate to work with the council to get some BEIS funding of the new social housing carbonization fund. So we're going to be putting new technology into 46 homes and looking at how that works in terms of the infrared rate and heating technology. That's gonna be another behaviour change piece in terms of managing people and with the voltaic panels and the SumAmp storage again, this is all about putting that together in a way. That's probably over a £1 million scheme for those homes.

So it is about looking at how we get to affordability for our organisations. These sums going on top of your decent homes work, on top of your ongoing investment works, on top of your day to day repairs, on top of your new build and all the other things that have to be done means that the balancing act of our business plans, how we renegotiate our financial arrangements and look at working with lenders around that is critically important. I know there's lots of work going on by the national housing federation. There are organisations certainly the Northeast working collaboratively to see how we can procure more efficiently and effectively. As you were touching on - the supply chain isn't there yet for lots of this technology. Then after the supply chain, the fitters and the installers aren't there yet. So we've got an opportunity and I know the Northern housing consortium have talked about wanting to use this once in a generation opportunity to create jobs and employment. To really give people the opportunity for the future to retrain, reskill and be able to deal with the other installers and developers and I think we've got to look at that as a country if we are serious about levelling up.

This is a key opportunity for that, certainly for the North, but I think it's going to be a challenge. There's no point in hiding from it. The numbers won't stack up. If you've got a property that's let's say in the Northeast that might be valued at £40,000 to £50,000 and you've got to spend another £40,000 on it. It's never going to pay you back. But equally, it's a home that somebody's occupying that has served a purpose. So there are lots of challenges around sustainability. About what we do about that, how we balance that new versus old because we'll never have as many properties as we've already got. So you've got to make sure that investment's working.

We've got stock in some cases whether it's tower blocks or walk-up blocks that are going to be challenging from a structural point of view because everybody talks about fabric first. Well, some of this fabric is going to be challenging.

Apart from that, it'll be easy, won't it?

Alastair:
Exactly. Yeah, there's so much to consider and I think some of the local authorities need to address how they look at planning permission when it comes to energy efficiency measures because like you say, if it's a conservation area or a particular build type, it becomes almost impossible or certainly cost-prohibitive to do a lot of the decarbonization. Or you get halfway there but you can't do that final piece. So it's a big challenge. It's a good opportunity certainly from the housing sector to kind of lead on this and then boost the economy with it and deliver the supply chain that's required for it.

Nigel, I’m sure that we could gas on about these things and these topics for a long time but we're just out of time. It's been great to talk to you. I think just to recap, we've said the housing sector is a great place to start someone's career as it has been for you and for me as well. We shouldn't look at how we're doing things in a kind of paternalistic way. We're not doing things to or at residents we're doing it with them. It's their home. It's where they live and you’re the landlord, we are the supply chain so we need to bring people along for the ride. The tenant's voice in the Northeast that you guys are setting up sounds like a great forum to do that. I’ve certainly felt this, I’ve been involved in energy efficiency for a long time with the different funding that's come in and out. It's been a difficult place to be. You go all in one direction, maybe PV and then that falls away for a while but actually now that you've got that 6,000 in stock and people are talking about battery storage and EV a lot more that could come back around. You could set up another energy company or something like that.

And finally, great to hear about these projects - one which we're involved with at the Gentoo towers projects 364, which is very close to our heart and then this Washington project as well. I think the social housing decarbonization fund has an opportunity to accelerate some of the supply chain issues. Taking it from being a bit niche and expensive into being something that can be rolled out across everywhere. If I’ve learned anything in the last few months it's that there's no silver bullet, cliched comment, but, you know, it's not gas boilers everywhere anymore. It's a bit of ground source, a bit of air source, a bit of infrared, a bit of hydrogen maybe in the future? And the key bit is going to be residents and engineers being able to install, maintain and control these things so that it works out okay. Nigel, thank you so much for your time today and yeah, see you at a conference maybe in a couple of years.

Nigel:
Hopefully, hopefully. Thanks a lot! Take care, everybody. Cheers!

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