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Thinking big

The new chair of the G15 on how he plans to protect the group’s interests and why he sticks by his controversial comments on welfare reform

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Thinking big

Brendan Sarsfield started his career in social housing with one thing in mind - ‘to avoid mathematics’. The chief executive of 24,000-home Family Mosaic says he ‘really wanted to work with people’ after studying double maths and physics at A-level, followed by an architecture degree.

This arithmophobia lead to his first local government job more than two decades ago - sending out rent arrears letters at Castle Point Council in Essex. His second role was as a housing assistant at Hillingdon Council and his third, a promotion to housing officer.

‘You could say I had a slow start,’ he tells Inside Housing, as we discuss his most recent position as chair of the G15 group of London’s 15 largest housing associations, which works to push housing up the political agenda to tackle the capital’s affordable housing shortage.

Ironically, the group boasts some impressive numbers: its members collectively house around one in 10 Londoners and build approximately 10,000 homes annually.

During his two-year term as chair, which he started at the beginning of July, Mr Sarsfield will guide the G15 through a period of great turmoil in the housing sector, with welfare reform threatening revenues and a weak economy constraining capital expenditure on affordable homes.

New agenda
The 52-year-old believes the housing sector as a whole has a huge job ahead in terms of repositioning itself in the minds of the public. His personal motivation for getting out of bed each morning is ‘to reinvent the product’, he says. ‘Social housing is no longer part of the country’s or government’s psyche and people don’t know what it’s for anymore.’

Mr Sarsfield’s sparse Family Mosaic office near London’s City Hall is embellished with his favourite photo, taken at the top of the Strata, a 43-storey tower block Family Mosaic helped develop in Elephant & Castle, a few miles away. It shows a panorama of the capital in glistening sunlight.

Having inherited the G15 job after a couple of years as vice-chair, London is now well and truly his domain. What will the group call for under his stewardship?

‘I want to campaign for a housing strategy that’s worthy of the name,’ Mr Sarsfield says. He argues the lack of an effective local or national policy means the sector gets ‘marginalised in many ways’, with no government touchstones that won’t be compromised by issues like welfare reform.

‘We all want to understand why money goes into transport rather than housing and help argue the case that more should come in our direction,’ he adds.

However, Mr Sarsfield stresses the G15 consists of ‘very different organisations’, including London & Quadrant, Peabody and Circle, whose aims aren’t always aligned. ‘London has a huge [housing] supply problem and we come together to fight for that,’ he adds, but ‘being chair of the G15 is not like being the chief executive of a housing association - it’s all about consensus’.

And maybe that’s why he seems reticent during our interview today, with responses containing many considered pauses and several back-tracks to rephrase. Perhaps Mr Sarsfield doesn’t feel too comfortable making sweeping statements on behalf of the G15’s members? ‘I would say our development is evolutionary now rather than revolutionary,’ he concedes, falling back on standard chief executive jargon.

However, it’s clear that he isn’t shy of ruffling a few feathers when he feels it’s warranted.

Courting controversy
Take this summer’s Chartered Institute of Housing conference as an example. On stage with Lord David Freud, the minister for welfare reform who helped usher in a new wave of controversial initiatives, Mr Sarsfield stated that, outside the packed room of housing’s great and good, the majority of people agree with the government’s bedroom tax.

Chair, G15 and chief executive, Family Mosaic

He says the penalty isn’t ‘the worst housing strategy in the world’, but argues it has ‘been implemented very unfairly’ and is driven by the Treasury’s desire to cut the welfare bill.

One chief executive who was in the audience at the CIH conference says listening to ‘Brendan cosy up to the one person he should have been standing up to’ was ‘an insult to those of us who work tirelessly for vulnerable people every day’.

Mr Sarsfield dismisses this criticism as coming from ‘a very small minority’ within the housing sector. ‘I think I’m right and I don’t say that with any pleasure, I just think sometimes the truth hurts,’ he says.

‘The government believes it has the support of the nation and I think our job is to make sure that the public knows who we house and that they’re ordinary people who want to work, want to get on,’ he adds.

The G15 itself attracts some criticism due to its exclusive nature, with sceptics complaining that it focuses attention on issues most relevant to large organisations, essentially encouraging social landlords to profiteer.

Money matters
Big surpluses in its members’ accounts - such as L&Q’s £118.1 million in 2012/13, the largest ever recorded by a housing association - are often met with anger from those who feel the origin of social housing as a charitable movement is being forgotten.

Mr Sarsfield becomes a bit exasperated at this interpretation, blaming Inside Housing no less. ‘We need you in the media to explain it properly,’ he says.

‘People need to realise that actually those profits that everyone is making are just being returned into the business to reduce borrowing.

‘We are all sweating our assets for the benefit of our social purpose and I actually think it’s a really good thing that the G15 has made so much money because so much good is being done with it.’

He moves on to contrast the G15’s performance with that of the government. ‘I would trust our investment decisions more than I would trust most government departments,’ he says. ‘Our businesses are value-driven - that leads to us making better use of money than government departments.’

Mr Sarsfield’s disdain for the much maligned Communities and Local Government department in particular shines through when discussing June’s spending review.

‘It feels to me that the CLG is trying to be a very minimal department, so I think others are taking on its role and that may not be a bad thing,’ he says referring to the £3.8 billion funding pot, administered by the Department of Health, which combines health and social care services and could help landlords offer housing-related support services.

Mr Sarsfield is also critical of the government’s extension of the affordable homes programme, which involves investing £957 million of capital funding each year from 2015/16 to 2017/18. Rudimentary calculations suggest the grant rate per home will fall from an average £22,000 under the existing programme to around £20,000.

‘We have to acknowledge that it’s not a lot of money,’ he says, ‘not enough to do the work that’s necessary. But [the G15’s] job now is to try to make the case for as much of that to come to London as possible.’

Proactive approach
Keith Exford, the G15’s previous chair, thinks negotiating such deals will be a key area of Mr Sarsfield’s stewardship, one which his successor is well positioned for.

‘He has hit the ground running,’ says Mr Exford, chief executive of 57,000-home Affinity Sutton. ‘When I started we’d been through a period where we’d had to react to government coming into power and changing things - we were always in reactive mode.

‘We now have to turn our attention to what sort of influence we have on the political parties’ manifestos [ahead of the 2015 general election] to place more emphasis on affordable housing,’ Mr Exford adds.

A current concern for Mr Sarsfield is the roll-out across the UK of a £500-a-week limit on the total amount that can be claimed in benefits by single parents and couples with children. ‘I worry for those in the private rented sector in London because the cap is going to be very difficult for them to live with,’ he says.

‘Most housing associations have tried to keep the rent down for larger homes to avoid the cap, but inevitably we all have a number of tenants who are affected and we’ve all got to try to support them through coming months,’ he adds.

Another worry is the government’s move to scrap a policy designed to align council and housing association rents, after the CLG last month revealed it is ‘minded not to extend rent convergence beyond 2014/15’.

Mr Sarsfield says the move not to give organisations more time to reach convergence would disproportionately hit London and recent stock transfer associations, which historically have lower rents, and have not been able to increase the amount they charge tenants at a quick enough rate to meet target rent levels by 2014/15. ‘It affects us at Family Mosaic and will take capacity out of our business plan - that will affect appetite for development,’ he says.

‘[The loss of income due to] rent convergence [not being extended beyond 2014/15] combined with the effect of welfare reform and falling grant rates will be obstacles that get in the way when we are trying to develop,’ he adds.

‘We will obviously be lobbying to get convergence put back into the equation, but if the government decides not to [we will make sure] they are aware of the damage they’re doing.’

Mr Sarsfield, who says his original career goal was to make it to area housing manager, seems proud of the extra responsibility resting on his shoulders now he is at the helm of the G15, even though it will eat into his normal working day.

He recounts how one of his four daughters saw the announcement of his new position, and called out to him at home: ‘Dad - what’s this G.I.5?’

‘It’s a bit like M.I.5,’ Mr Sarsfield replied, perhaps considering how the group also works to protect a huge chunk of London’s housing assets against the range of threats that it currently faces.

The bigger, the better

An old New Islington and Hackney Housing Association business plan nestles on top of a filing cabinet in the corner of Brendan Sarsfield’s office. He was chief executive of the landlord when it was rebranded as Mosaic in 2004.

Family and Mosaic housing associations then became Family Mosaic in 2006, with Mr Sarsfield appointed chief executive of the 24,000-home new organisation at the point of its merger. Does he expect another wave of mergers across the sector as providers seek to boost capacity in straitened times?

Mr Sarsfield says ‘the need to consolidate should be driven to help us get more money into housing and quality services out there on the ground’, with large housing associations like his own offering ‘scale, resources, efficiency and a consistency in quality’.

‘Seeing the quality of services we’re able to provide and the investment we’re able to make, I think it’s hard for some of the smaller housing associations to compete,’ he adds, not doing much to dispel fears over the G15’s obsession with dimensions.

Mr Sarsfield concedes that lots of the smallest housing associations are exceptional, but says ‘medium-sized ones have to define their future’.

‘I would question whether some of the medium ones which are widely dispersed could have the same sort of focus that we have,’ he adds.

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