After more than two decades of evolution and change, the consolidation of the Northern Ireland housing association sector appears to have abated. From a peak of more than forty providers, just twenty remain operational today, but the quality of our homes and services has never been better.

The composition of the sector has significantly changed too. From what once resembled a patchwork landscape made up mainly of small to medium sized community-based organisations, four prominent providers now lead the rest of the field in terms of balance, sheet strength and annual turnover. However, despite this gulf, performance data consistently demonstrates that size is not a barrier to delivering service excellence, in maintaining good governance and leadership, or in realising growth and financial sustainability. Our small to mid-sized housing associations continue to be influential in leading change and innovation in our sector, and consistently make a significant contribution in increasing supply and meeting housing need. Moving forward however, and even greater opportunity exists for us to maximise capacity where we may not be already doing so.

At Ark Housing, we recently undertook an in-depth review of our own capacity as part of a broader strategic assessment of contribution. This review identified significant opportunity leading to the development of an enhanced investment plan and the implementation of the necessary structural and operational changes that would be required to take this plan forward. We also reviewed our governance and senior management frameworks and the skills and competencies that we would require at those levels. Finally, our risk and scheme investment policies and processes were overhauled and restructured in a way that would both ensure the association maintained the right balance between achieving growth, maintaining affordable rents and safeguarding our long-term financial stability.

Through our revised plan, we aim to invest close to £85m in new housing supply between 2019 and 2024 giving a much-needed boost to the local economy as well as contributing nearly 600 new homes to the social housing sector. We will realise balance sheet growth of over 200% over the same period, and by 2024, we expect to comfortably reach our goal of managing more than 1000 homes.

Of course, many challenges remain. Brexit remains an unknown quantity; at the time of writing, the reclassification issue had not yet been resolved; welfare reform, particularly the potential loss of bedroom tax mitigation, continues to cast a dark cloud over the sector; and last but not least, the risks associated with emerging supporting people strategy, continue to threaten or undermine our goals.

However, with careful planning, strong collective leadership, and by maximising our capacity, we can overcome many challenges and continue to make a positive difference to people and communities long into the future.

  • Jim McShane,
  • Chief Executive
  • Ark Housing Association