This time next year Geraldine Howley will be getting ready to preside over one of the biggest conferences held in the UK.
The annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Housing attracts well over 2,000 delegates from across the world, and the three-day event – which used to be held in Harrogate but was moved to Manchester after outgrowing the North Yorkshire spa town – is accompanied by a major exhibition.
Geraldine, group chief executive of Shipley-based Incommunities, was recently elected vice-president of the institute by its membership – which stretches as far as Hong Kong and Canada – and is set to become president in 2015.
It puts her at the head of a lobbying organisation that is regularly consulted by government on housing policy and social issues, as well supporting housing professionals through qualifications, training and development and guidance on best practice.
Sitting at the summit of her professional body is a far cry from the day in 1977 when the young Geraldine started a temporary receptionist’s job at Bradford Council’s housing and environment department at Jacob’s Well.
She said: “I am absolutely delighted to be elected as the next CIH vice-president. I have spoken to many members about the issues that are important to them and I will take what I have learned on board in my new role and influence where I can.
“The coming year is set to be an extremely challenging one for the sector and I am really looking forward to working with, and supporting, the incoming president Steve Stride and my fellow housing professionals to meet these challenges. Together, we can make a positive difference and improve lives.”
Improving lives is central to Geraldine’s day job as head of Incommunities. What started as the Bradford Community Housing Trust in 2003 following the transfer of 24,000 council houses into a not-for-profit trust, is now an £88 million turnover business employing more than 1,000 staff.
While renting homes remains its central function, Incommunities has diversified into building homes for rent and sale and focused heavily on regeneration projects.
Incommunities has invested more than £40 million in building new homes, including in Ilkley where the first homes for sale were constructed. More properties are also being built in Woodend, Ravenscliffe, Chain Street and Green Lane.
In addition, £350 million has been invested in modernising Incommunities rented housing stock to above the Government’s Decent Housing Standard.
The company has also developed a range of people-related activities, including training and skills development and apprenticeships, supporting business start-ups and a strong commitment to community relations and charity support.
Geraldine, who was born in Otley and grew up in Bradford, opted for a career in housing after rejecting teaching after two years at training college and a spell of teaching practice.
The former St Joseph’s College student was attracted by the value and ethos of the housing department while doing her receptionist’s job, and expressed an interest to senior managers in having a long-term career in the sector.
She was only the second female in the local authority to land a role as a housing officer covering the Canterbury estate and Manchester Road area while working towards her Institute of Housing qualifications.
“At that time housing was a very male-dominated sector, with many ex-policemen and bailiffs employed. The job involved collecting rent and dealing with difficult tenants. This was 1978 and the men were used to women clerks but not a woman doing a similar job to them – which meant I stayed on the coffee-making rota!” said Geraldine.
But she was determined to make her mark, reflecting that social housing was pioneered in the 19th century by a woman, National Trust founder Octavia Hill.
At the age of 23 she was promoted to neighbourhood manager at Thorpe Edge and later moved to a bigger patch at Buttershaw. This was a time when the Council had a housing office on every estate – around 36 in total, responsible for up to 1,000 properties, each providing intensive local housing management.
To further boost her career prospects, Geraldine qualified as a chartered surveyor in 1985 which enabled her to become responsible for the housing department’s development and regeneration arm, which built sheltered housing and homes in Bierley After becoming an area housing manager, Geraldine became the first woman to take a job-share role while raising two young children, working in Keighley and Shipley, where she was housing manager of a 60-strong team.
She returned to full-time work on achieving promotion to become chief housing office for Bradford and later became director of housing following a restructure. In this role she was responsible for the stock transfer of the Council’s housing stock into a social enterprise.
It was an option chosen to enable what became the Bradford Community Housing Trust to raise private capital to meet the Government’s demands to significantly upgrade the properties. The stock transfer of 23,000 houses was completed in 2003. During the process Bradford Council changed from Labour to Conservative control which brought Kris Hopkins – now MP for Keighley and housing minister – in as housing chairman.
“I worked closely with Kris to complete the stock transfer. It enabled us to borrow £275 million from Nationwide Building Society on very good terms over 30 years. We later borrowed another £20 million from Nationwide and £20 million from Barclays. That sort of funding isn’t available now. We’re looking again at refinancing using other instruments such as bonds,” Geraldine said.
The stock transfer was backed through a tenant ballot but the new body had what Geraldine called a ‘horrendous’ structure with a 115-strong board, shadow board and six active housing companies operating from different business plans and goals.
“It took two years to collapse the structure into something more manageable and we met some strong resistance at first. We now have a housing association board, a group board and a commercial board focusing on specific areas.
“While 94 per cent of our income is from rents, the recent welfare reforms mean that many tenants have seen their benefits affected and we needed to strengthen the business plan to generate profit for a purpose and plough money back into our operations.
“Our commercial board members are not from the housing sector and include a former Marks & Spencer director and people with City and financial experience. The group board includes a balance of skills, and the housing association board, which owns the assets, includes tenant representatives with proven competency measured through appraisals and training,” said Geraldine.
The latest Incommunities initiative is opening a furniture store in Bradford city centre so that hard-pressed people don’t have to use high-cost finance houses or credit-based retailers charging inflated prices by instalments.