In this interview, John McLean, Chief Executive of Radius Housing is asked about Radius Housing and their recent merger. The process of the preparation, benefits and learning opportunities of the merger are discussed.
About Radius Housing
Radius Housing has around 13.000 homes in its portfolio and offers additional support services to 3300 households in Ireland. The company Radius Housing was formed through a merger about four years ago. The companies Fold Housing and Helm Housing merged together in Circle Housing. Fold Housing initially focused on supportive housing and general housing, while Helm Housing focussed on general need housing. The merger resulted in a dual focus company, with a size of 900 members in staff. While the activities of the former companies were different, the cultures and values of the companies were already aligned, which was beneficial for the merger.
Governance of Radius Housing
Radius Housing is a limited company with charitable status. The main business area is in the north of Ireland, however, there are two sister companies that are active in the south of Ireland. The board of Radius Housing consists of fifteen members and oversees the parent company (Radius) and both sister companies, Tealstone Developments and Radius Homes.
All fifteen board members are volunteers and recruited from both private and public sectors. A board member has a specific term they serve in the board – with a maximum of 9 years, following national federation guidelines. The board is supported by subcommittees. These committees focus on different specific topics, such as care. Committees are on a voluntary basis and consist of board members and specifically chosen professionals (so-called directors). There is special attention for the committee of care and support housing, as this committee contains over 1500 households to manage. This focus also means that there is a specific housing regulator for care and support.
The care and support branch of Radius Housing works together with partners that are carefully picked. The care services these partners offer range from support for dementia, to homelessness, learning disabilities, ex-offenders and substance abuse. These partners work with Radius Housing under a joint management agreement, where the staff acts as a liaison. Radius Housing provides landlord services, while the partner provides the care and support for the end-user.
Development of the 2017 merger
The best thing to come out of the merger was the new staff and board, and with this having a new perspective. It has however been difficult, especially in the beginning as the two original organisations were very different in size staff wise. To make sure all employees felt included in the new company, different measures were taken to change the perception of size. The focus was directed towards being a new company together, inclusiveness, and launching a marketing campaign. With this focus, and mixing people from the companies on day one, the initial boundaries were broken down.
A lot of effort was put into the preplanning of the merger. Around nine months before the start of the merger, a special committee started working on the merger – mitigating risks, aligning values, policies and legacies. This process brought credibility with the merger, and a strong focus on communication.
Nonetheless, there were problems in the first year – some expected and some unexpected. The Grenfell tower fire was a very pressing situation, which forced all employees in the company to work on this shared challenge. This unified a lot of parts of the business.
During the merger, the departments of finance and maintenance were the two most challenging to unify. This was because both original organisations had their own approaches to finance and maintenance, and these different approaches needed to come together. In the beginning, the choice had been made to postpone the merger of finances and maintenance a year. As a result, joining the different approaches took even longer; in total 2 and a half years. The process took this long, because Radius Housing did not want to inconvenience the tenants with the changes, and there were still contracts in place that either needed to be broken or to end naturally. As of right now, there is a strong motivation to additionally align the maintenance (now asset management) along with all properties in the portfolio in the best way.
Special thanks during the merger should be given to the middle management teams and the senior teams, as they had to really carry out the merger in the company. They were supported by consultants during the merger, but nonetheless carried out a lot of work. People’s support is very important and should not be forgotten.
Looking back at the first goals of the merger
Looking towards the future, it became clear that the traditional services of housing associations were not enough anymore. After the new welfare reforms of the market in the UK, there is a need for supportive services to be mainstreamed (mainly to help people stay in their homes). This is called the community investment side within Radius. Particular in these issues in Northern Ireland, as their legacy and historical issues still play a part in today’s social housing climate. Radius Housing goes out its way to get the ‘orange’ and ‘green’ sides of the conflict together and bring people together in shared communities where all traditions are respected. These shared communities are also very important in connecting tenants from a larger diverse ethnic background. This grants an extra dimension to the community, celebrating diversity.
This is all possible to carry out on a larger scale due to the merger and having a larger team. The new focus area of community investment extends to e.g. mental health, financial assistance, access to education, and apprentices. These are all goals of the mergers, reaching the critical mass, and have been started.
Moreover, a goal was to invest in new IT systems and housing management systems. Due to COVID-19, this goal accelerated as all communication was pushed to an online environment. Other new things are moving a bit to the development market (private) for sale and reinvestment in more middle housing. The money generated with this comes back into the business. There is also a budget for sustainability to invest in dwellings and accomplish sustainability goals. All of the above is possible because of the merger.
Lastly, the business has also seemed more attractive for hiring new staff. The now bigger company also had bigger departments, and this created better opportunities for old and new staff. The dynamics within the departments also changed for the better.
Potential future benefits of the merger
It seems like being a larger organisation, there should be opportunities to procure a better price for materials. This has not happened yet due to the changing world economy, COVID-19 and Brexit. More benefits are a higher development capacity and a financial capacity. However, the difficulty in the market and the non-availability of land and infrastructure are factors that currently limit developments.
There is a positive development in Northern Ireland, as this is part of the UK and functions quite well with a supportive local government.
Disadvantages to being a larger organisation are for example more slow decision making, hierarchy, and bureaucracy. To make sure this does not limit the organisation, or reflect on tenant satisfaction, a lot of surveys are carried out with tenants and employees. The results of these surveys have been more positive now that the merger is complete, this proves that the biggest issues have been solved for both tenants and employees.
Right now, Radius wants to shift focus to the existing stock and its quality. This realignment of focus – in combination with new developments still needed – highlights the new balance. Lastly – bigger is not always better. We should focus on what matters and on local aspects. We should not forget that a lot can be learned from smaller and expert organisations.