Grainia Long has taken over as chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing at a time of huge change for the sector. Rhiannon Bury finds out how she plans to help landlords improve their lot
Sitting behind a neatly ordered desk in an office bathed in spring sunlight, Grainia Long already looks well settled as chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing. Apart from tell-tale congratulatory cards and the odd bottle of wine on the bookshelves, there is little to give away the fact she has just landed one of the biggest jobs in housing.
In just 10 years Ms Long has gone from politics student in Belfast to chief executive at the helm of housing’s membership body at a time of massive upheaval and reform for social landlords. At 33 years old, she stepped into the breach as interim chief executive six months ago, after the death of her much-loved predecessor Sarah Webb last September. Now that she has landed the £120,000-a-year job permanently, is she up to the challenge?
If she is feeling the pressure Ms Long hides it well. On this particular morning she is preparing to make the move across the Irish Sea with her husband to start a new life in the midlands having endured six months of travelling between Belfast, where she was director of the CIH in Northern Ireland for nine months, and the organisation’s head office in Coventry. She is evidently relieved to be giving up the gruelling routine.
‘Doing this on an interim basis for the past six months has meant starting on a Monday morning and flying to work - which is ridiculous and surreal - and spending the whole week away and then going home again,’ says the native Dubliner in a soft Irish burr.
‘We’re both really excited about it,’ she adds, referring to her teacher husband who is also about to start a new job. She admits she is looking forward to walking her dog in the Warwickshire countryside and getting back a semblance of ‘work/life balance’ - although given she is also studying for a PhD in governance and completing a three-year term as a commissioner for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that still seems like a difficult balance to strike.
Ms Long spent much of her six months in the interim role ‘steadying the ship’ during what she acknowledges was a traumatic time for the organisation following Ms Webb’s death and during which she opted to take a low profile.
‘There were times that I felt we had to sit on our hands,’ she explains. ‘But the response to Sarah’s death showed to me the personal stake so many of our members have in the organisation. It was right that we took a step back.’
Now, she says, she’s raring to go. The CIH has a new governing board and is looking to appoint a full complement of senior managers behind her. So what can Ms Long offer a UK housing sector which has spent the past 18 months being shaken by change, first in the form of the Localism Act and more recently the Welfare Reform Act?
David Montague, chief executive of 66,000-home London & Quadrant, says the CIH needs to continue to represent housing across all tenures. ‘Grainia needs to embrace the sector with the same passion as Sarah did and from my meetings with her I have no doubt that she will,’ he adds.
Raising housing’s profile
Her first job, she says, is to prove to the government that housing has a place as a driver of economic recovery - and to get members involved in proving it for themselves.
‘Housing’s place as part of our economic infrastructure is definitely not where I would want it to be. As a sector we have a real opportunity between now and the  spending review to be much clearer and much cannier about how we demonstrate housing’s economic outputs and outcomes.’
Ms Long says the CIH’s annual conference in Manchester in June will be an opportunity to ‘get professionals in the room and start to hammer out and crunch some of those numbers’. It’s clear that she is passionate about making her mark, but still vague on the detail of how this might happen.
That said, Ms Long has always chased change in her personal life and professionally. She admits she and her husband are ‘movers’ - never in one place for very long.
Her CV bears testament to this. She moved from being a politics student in Belfast at a time which saw the signing of the Good Friday agreement, to influencing the implementation of the 2003 Homelessness Act while working for Shelter Scotland in Edinburgh and the passing of the Welfare Reform Act during her interim stint in Coventry.
In another life, Ms Long could easily have been on the other side of the interview desk having worked as a radio journalist for Irish radio station RTE while she was a student. ‘It’s funny how things work out,’ she muses. ‘I wouldn’t say I chose housing, I definitely am one of the people who fell into housing but I’ve deliberately not fallen out of it.’
As a policy manager for Shelter Scotland between 2002 and 2004 Ms Long successfully lobbied the new Scottish Government to limit the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for children, a period she describes as ‘one of the best times for me in terms of my career’.
Her lobbying and campaigning background came to the fore in the CIH’s response to March’s Budget when Ms Long criticised a ‘U-turn’ on council housing finance decisions and chancellor George Osborne’s plan to further cut the benefit bill. Despite this, she maintains the CIH’s stance under her leadership will not necessarily be more adversarial.
‘Rather than being more aggressive or less aggressive the CIH will be clearer on what it’s for or against,’ she insists. ‘In five years I would like the CIH to be a dynamic, energetic and a noisy organisation - I am really passionate about the knowledge and the experience that’s in the CIH. We have a lot of debate within our organisation and we need to do that more publicly.’
As the cards declaring ‘congratulations’ come down, Ms Long’s work to help prepare the CIH’s members for the changes they face really starts.
And if her career to date is anything to go by, she’ll be right at the heart of it.