16 October 2020

Ahead of our session on partnership working at the National Smaller Housing Associations’ Conference and Exhibition, I wanted to share the positive experience we've had of working with English Rural and how we've made it a success.

New Forest Villages Housing Association (NFVHA) is a small rural housing provider which has built 47 houses for rent for local people across six New Forest villages.

In 2015, we were looking for a trusted partner who had strong rural housing credentials whilst our sole member of staff took maternity leave. After considering all the options and meeting with several prospective partners, we chose English Rural. Our values and culture aligned, and their offer was transparent, good value and genuine. We had a lot of potential as an organisation, but the partnership offered access to a range of expertise and skills that we would not otherwise have had.

In September 2019, we merged with English Rural, by becoming a subsidiary within their group. I cannot pretend that our board and shareholders were 100% in favour of this idea at the outset but once we delved further into the advantages of being part of a better resourced organisation, opposition soon faded away. English Rural had a flexible approach and were prepared to tailor the merger to suit both parties. They helped us to develop a new, ambitious business strategy, whilst improving our financial and operational performance. The amount of choice and support available to our residents also increased in terms of how they pay their rent, report repairs and more ways of communicating with us.

One of our greatest fears was that we would lose our local brand identity and goodwill, but happily this has not happened. We have retained our own logo and name and still have a local board.. Our original housing manager also remains in post as an employee of English Rural. Retaining this single point of contact meant that residents have access to the same housing manager they have always had, but they were now better supported. The overall quality of service to our residents has been enhanced because of the merger.

I joined the English Rural Board after the merger, and this has allowed a flow of information between the two organisations. This is hugely beneficial as it means our voice can be heard. This also enables me to participate in training sessions and this enhanced knowledge and skill can easily be fed back to the NFVHA board.

There are four main advantages to the merger from my perspective:

  1. Anxieties around how to maintain good governance have been eased through the support we now receive as part of the group. We have adopted English Rural’s policies and procedures and their expert team updates these and ensures compliance.
  2. Our financial management is more consistent and clearer. The services of English Rural’s Financial Director and his team are invaluable. The reporting is clear and thorough, and we have expertise to call on when negotiating loans and investing our funds. We now have a clear and ambitious five-year business strategy to work to which was agreed between us. We have also managed to drive down costs, offering better value for money for our residents.
  3. The expertise of the English Rural development team have already been of great assistance and a programme is emerging that will restart our stalled development programme. We now have a target of investing in 14 new homes and upgrading our older homes over the strategy period.
  4. Our part-time housing manager was TUPEd across to English Rural. Her local knowledge and contacts have been retained but she now has the support and assistance from a team of property managers. This ensures holidays and sickness are now covered easily so our tenants have an improved continuity of quality service.

If you are thinking of partnering with another organisation, ask what you want from the relationship. Think about finding an organisation that achieves shared objectives and can help you develop your potential into something real. Ultimately, it is about trust.

While it's only one of the ways to work in partnership and not the right solution for everyone, the merger with English Rural has been an unqualified success for both our board and more importantly our residents. We now look forward to the future with confidence and optimism.

As we face this unprecedented crisis of coronavirus, I feel very relieved that we can shelter under the trusted umbrella of a competent and well-run organisation on this rainiest of days. We are now stronger, together.

Pam Reynolds

Pam is Chair of New Forest Villages Housing Association

As a property lawyer, Pam has had more than 30 years' experience of the legal side of rural housing development dealing with issues such as acquisition of the land to final completion of the houses. Living and working in the New Forest she has first-hand experience of the difficulties local people have in finding suitable affordable accommodation and is a keen advocate of English Rural’s ethos. Pam also works as a legal adviser to a firm of estate agents.

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