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Bernicia Group: A clear plan for success

Clarity is fundamental to business success. And one organisation benefiting from a clear outlook is North East-focused housing association Bernicia. The housing operator has this month unveiled a new four-year corporate strategy, which lays out goals to achieve substantial social and economic change. Pledging to invest £210 million to deliver hundreds of new properties and provide major improvement and maintenance programmes, the blueprint also aims to secure at least £15 million in added social value, drive greater inclusivity, diversity and equality, train the workers of tomorrow and help the North East lead the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. Here, chief executive John Johnston tells Steven Hugill more about the business’ plans and why things will always be done ‘The Bernicia Way’.

John Johnston sets his mug down on a bright yellow coaster and surveys the scene outside.

Beyond the large window framing his view, heavy fog has rolled in off the North Sea, blanketing a nearby static caravan park.

“A proper peasouper”, he smiles.

Far from representing another listless late winter’s morning, though, the picture is instead rather poetic.

For on a nearby table sits Bernicia’s four- year corporate strategy, a glossy brochure of clear commitments that promise to play no small part in re-colouring a world left waxen by two years of pandemic shade.

Launched this month, the blueprint commits the Ashington-headquartered housing business to deliver notable social and economic change.

Headlined by a £210 million commitment to develop hundreds of new homes, drive major improvement and maintenance programmes and introduce significant energy efficiency measures, it pledges to forge even tighter links with tenants and communities, boost social inclusivity, diversity and equality and deliver at least £15 million in added social value.

In addition, an extra £2 million will be spent on employability schemes to equip youngsters with skills for the jobs of tomorrow, while ambitions are also in place to catalyse industry collaboration to position the North East at the heart of the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

John says: “The North East is where our tenants and communities live, where our financial strength has been generated, and where the company has always been based – and we want to use our strength to help it grow.”

A central strand in the plan is a promise to “listen to customers and communities to deliver exceptional services”.

This, says John, who has led the business as chief executive since 2017, will be achieved by augmenting existing face-to- face support with technological advances that ensure “no tenant is left behind”.

He says: “We are a modern, dynamic, forward-thinking housing association based on traditional values of respect, trust, accountability, integrity and fulfilment of promises.

“It isn’t just what we do, but how we do it; we call it ‘The Bernicia Way’, and it is reflected in our tenant relationships.

“Their voices shout loud and provide important metrics that gauge our service level performance.

“And we’re investing heavily in technology to further meet their needs in ways that suit their busy and different lives.

“It’s crucial for us that nobody is left behind or disadvantaged, and our technology, as well as traditional ways for tenants to access services, means they won’t be.

“People will be able to use an app to diagnose and report repairs, book appointments and check their accounts.”

He adds: “But our traditional services remain too; our call centres are open, and we are investing in more staff so housing and estate officers will be even more visible across our neighbourhoods.

“And we’re strengthening social support.

“We already do a lot to tackle isolation and loneliness, such as a programme of events in our sheltered and extra care schemes, with things like bingo and cabaret nights, craft classes, healthy eating and inter-generational activities to break any circle of isolation.

“But we’re going to be doing a lot more.”

Further to its commitment to tenants’ unique needs and their health and wellbeing, John says the business – which owns and manages more than 14,000 properties between Berwick and Redcar and Cleveland – remains dedicated to ensuring people have access to new homes.

To achieve this, he says, it will spend £85 million over the next four years to deliver at least 600 homes, with a further £63 million set aside for improvements to existing properties and estates, and £61 million readied for day-to-day and cyclical maintenance.

“There is a great need for new homes in the North East,” says John, “and the 600 figure is a minimum; I’d be surprised if it wasn’t closer to 800.

“How many we build, though, will depend on opportunities and strategic fit – we will only build the right homes, in the right place, at the right price point to help strengthen communities.

“We’ve always spent above average levels of resource on repairing and modernising homes, and we are going to continue that while putting more money into our estates services, which include landscaping and grounds maintenance.”

Further investment will be made via an energy efficiency programme John says will include an additional £6.5 million spend to put Bernicia’s properties – which currently house more than 60,000 residents – well ahead of Government environmental targets.

He says: “We know the pressures tenants are under around the cost of living and energy prices, and we’ve got our own emissions responsibilities too.

“The Government has a number of objectives, which include all socially rented homes meeting SAP C requirements by 2030.

“Against that backdrop, we are going to unleash a programme of work to get more than 90 per cent of our homes to SAP C level or above, five years before the Government’s target.

“It will include installing more efficient heating systems, additional insulation work, photovoltaic panels and air source heat pumps.”

John says a significant factor in realising this – and that of Bernicia’s wider strategy – is a commitment to strong financial planning and bolstering its organisational effectiveness.

Furthermore, he says Bernicia, which employs more than 550 people, will implement a number of measures to build on its excellent governance and strong leadership team, strengthen internal and external talent pipelines and continue the roll out of an equality, diversity and inclusion platform to become an “even better and stronger organisation”.

He says: “Our financial strength has been hard earned – our annual turnover stands in excess of £90 million – and it’s not going to be wasted; our increased investments will be directed at exactly the right things.

“And to do that requires an effective operational framework backed by a strong team, which we have in abundance.

“Our success has come from the dedication and hard work of staff; they have cultivated an environment where exceptional service is standard.

“A lot of it comes from training and developing our own, and we have excellent rates of people ascending through the business and staff retention too,” continues John, who began his career with Bernicia more than 30 years ago as a housing officer.

He adds: “But we’re going to continue building on it.

“Our staff and tenants come from a wide variety of walks of life, and so should we. “For that reason, we’ll remain a very inclusive organisation.

“Not only is it right and fair, but it strengthens the business too, which leads to better decision-making and Bernicia being a better all-round organisation.”

Togetherness links to the final pillar in Bernicia’s strategy, with a focus on supporting the North East through further collaborative work, aiming to deliver at least £15 million added social value over the next four years while providing great employability support.

And a key factor in enabling such, says John, will be the ongoing growth of Bernicia’s commercial company, which includes block and estate management and landscaping provider Kingston, and sales and lettings operator Living Spaces.

Their successes, he says, will be funnelled back into Bernicia for the benefit of tenants and communities.
John says: “It’s essentially about providing added value; aspiration, confidence building, training and employability.

“We’ve done lots of initiatives with tenants, such as our estate-based, national- award-winning Learning Hives, which provide training and employability support.

“But we want to move to the next level.

“The additional £2 million will come from our commercial company, which is a profit-for-purpose endeavour that gift aids profits to Bernicia to deliver social and added value.

“The pandemic has really affected our communities, but our support will shine a light for the current and next generation on the possibilities out there, regionally, nationally and internationally.

“And we’ve recruited an employability team to work with partners to help deliver programmes.

“Part will be working in schools and colleges, part will be funds to deliver additional apprenticeships or placements, and part will be collaborations with other organisations, including employers and other housing associations to help youngsters gain work-ready skills.

“It’s a strong commitment, but a very worthy one,” adds John, who reveals the organisation’s strategy also commits to an annual £200,000 donation to the Bernicia Foundation, which provides grants and bursaries to young people and community groups.

And John says the collaborative approach will also help leverage the North East’s place within the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

He says: “We’re going to invest £210 million on new homes, major works and maintenance over the next four years and would like to engage with as many regional contractors – which share our standards and added value objectives – as we can.

“It’s part of our wider responsibility to both Bernicia and the region.

“We are an anchor institution and want to add to the discussion in terms of what the North East needs and deserves.

“We have wonderful people, wonderful natural resources, great cities, great ambition and land to develop; we can be the driving force for ‘levelling-up’.”

John adds: “We operate in an environment of risk, be it from the increased cost of living, a lack of materials and capacity, or new standards we need to meet.

“But for us, the biggest risk of all is that we enter a period of inertia – and we cannot do that.

“Which is why we are pushing on with our ambitious new corporate strategy.

“We are a very strong organisation and want to release more of our capacity to help our tenants, communities and the North East thrive in the years that lie ahead.”

April 11, 2022

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