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Affordable Housing

Brick by brick: How Flagship is trying to solve Norfolk’s housing crisis

With the UK’s homes crisis is reaching breaking point, one housing association has promised it is doing all it can to help those in Norfolk and Suffolk. ELEANOR PRINGLE met Flagship Group chief executive David McQuade.

This is the pressure under which housing association Flagship Group operates, in its bid to help the UK government achieve its target of building 300,000 homes every year.

But currently the country is only finishing 200,000 homes a year for an increasingly demanding population. Flagship was set up after two associations, Suffolk Heritage Housing and Peddars Way, joined forces in 1998.

Group chief executive David McQuade, inset right, has been with the business since its inception, and said that despite the decades “housing challenges are as complex and difficult as they always have been.”

He explained: “We simply haven’t been building enough new homes to keep pace with need. This is for of a number of reasons; it might be demographics, it might be social behaviours. We have more people that are separated so each need a home, we have an aging population, there’s a whole range of factors which have meant demand has increased.”

He continued: “We’re seeing tremendous demand for any empty properties we do have. Typically for a two or three-bed house in Ipswich or Norwich we can see 60 to 80 families expressing their interest.”

And lack of supply in the market with increasing demand has meant house prices have shot up – making it even more impossible to get on the property ladder.

“House prices have rocketed over the past couple of years and wages haven’t kept pace with that. Put that with huge deposits and now you have an even more demanding scenario,” said Mr McQuade.

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“I’ve got four kids who have been in that position, and they tell me they can’t afford to buy or rent. The majority of customers we work with tend to be on below-average incomes – it’s just hard for them.”

Flagship currently has 28,000 homes on its books at reasonable rent for those who may not be able to afford renting privately.

It is also building around 700 homes a year, with the hope of increasing this to 1,000 homes in the next few years.

But deciding whether to build new homes or invest more into current assets is a dilemma Mr McQuade and his board face every day.

“You’ve got to make the call about how much to reinvest into our assets and providing the level of customer care, service, and modernisation we want to be able to offer,” Mr McQuade said. “These houses need new roofs and wires and heating, and then you need money set aside to build new homes too.

“The tension is knowing how desperately people need new homes but also wanting to provide customer service and we’re always grappling with that. At the moment we’re spending about £50m on assets and another £50m to £70m on new supply.”

The profits made through rent or sale of homes is currently reinvested back into the business – either through paying staff or improving assets.

But Mr McQuade says there are ways the UK can catch up with its housing demand.

“Our concern is that we won’t reach the 300,000 homes target based on what we’re doing now, and there will need to be some new models and behaviours if we’re to achieve that target,” he said.

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“Some of that is starting to come along with modular homes being built off site. We’re also looking internationally at what’s happening in other parts of the world, 3D printing in Japan and China and America.

“Is this something that we can learn from and bring back? We think some of those new solutions will probably be necessary alongside the methods we’ve already got.”

But although the technology is here, the uptake in the construction industry is slow.

“These methods are not as proven as people might like it to be, big housebuilders are not convinced the costs will be driven down,” Mr McQuade added.

“I don’t know all the answers, but I hope in 20 or 30 years time it might actually be affordable to buy a home.”

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