Our senior career profile this week is with Geoff Pearce, who has had roles in the social housing sector for many years and whose experience and insight have led to his latest role on the board of one of London and the South East’s most respected housing associations.
Please tell us a little about yourself and Swan/NU living.
I have worked in social housing for almost 33 years, first in a local authority in the mid-80s, then moving on to the housing association sector. I am a chartered surveyor and, as executive director of regeneration and development at Swan Housing Group, I oversee a development programme which currently stands at 6,500 homes in our secured pipeline. Almost all of these homes are being built by Swan’s in-house developer NU living, which has completed over 1,200 starts. All profits from NU living are reinvested in homes and services for our residents – that’s our “social purpose”.
Swan has always been a regenerating landlord. We started out with 2,000 homes in 1994 and have grown to owning and managing over 11,000 homes in Essex and East London. Our social purpose – delivering homes and services to our residents – underpins everything that we do. Our aim is always to be the local partner – we work closely with a number of key Boroughs and, as a result, can focus our attention on delivering large scale regenerations in partnership with the GLA, Homes for England and our Borough partners. These range from the £300m regeneration of Blackwall Reach in Poplar to the £50m retail-led regeneration of Laindon Shopping Centre.
We build using both traditional and modern construction methods, but are always prepared to innovate – our award-winning, iconic, cylindrical towers at 360 Barking are being built by NU living using traditional construction but with a high-tech unitised cladding system, whilst the remaining circa 500 homes at our £130m regeneration of Craylands in Essex, are being built offsite at our new modular housing factory using cross-laminated timber using our NU build system. We always seek to develop mixed tenure, sustainable communities.
Can you tell us about your career path, from education to training, work experience and previous roles?
Whilst studying for my A levels at a comprehensive school in east London I contemplated studying Architecture. No-one from my family had ever been to university and the thought of supporting me through seven years of study was pretty unappealing to my parents! After a chat with the school careers advisor I set my sights on becoming a building surveyor, and eventually got a job with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where I stayed for 14 years working my way up to a team leader position. I learnt a huge amount and worked across all of the disciplines of building surveying, but it wasn’t until I moved into a project management role in the housing association sector that I found my vocation.
I previously worked for Swan Housing Association as assistant director and led huge growth in their regeneration work in East London. I then moved to East Thames Group as group director of development and asset management delivering numerous significant projects including the development of the former Athletes Village in Stratford and the regeneration of the Ocean Estate in Tower Hamlets.
After seven years at East Thames, I returned to Swan as executive director of regeneration and development in January 2014 and have overseen the growth of our secured development pipeline to over 6,500 homes, the majority being built by NU living, our in-house developer with many homes being delivered offsite, through our new modular housing factory. My team has now grown to over 100 staff, with expertise in regeneration, planning, construction, sales and marketing, communications and manufacturing.
I am a chartered surveyor and passionate about housing – I grew up in social housing and saw first-hand what an impact high-quality housing can make but also what a negative impact poorly designed homes can have on a community. What I saw inspired me to get involved and make a difference and providing great homes and communities remains my motivation today.
Are there any past projects and/or mentors that have been particularly inspiring?
I have been incredibly fortunate to work on some fantastic projects in my career. Bow Cross is an obvious one – it’s a project that we began in 2005 and completed in 2015 and involved the complete refurbishment of 295 homes, including three towers of the Crossways Estate as it was then known, together with the construction of 385 new homes.
I think one of the reasons it holds such significance for me personally, is that I remember as a child walking around the estate in the mid-1970s, with my dad who was “the man from the Pru” and being awestruck by this brand new, glistening concrete estate with its megalithic car parking structures and bridges accessing the blocks at the second floor. Thirty years later the estate had deteriorated due to poor design and under-investment in its maintenance. Those car parks had apparently always been no-go areas and the access bridges had left the areas around the blocks as unsupervised, derelict areas. I worked on the regeneration from the start and was involved in the stock transfer negotiations and resident consultation, so was delighted to return to Swan in time for the final completion in 2015. What’s so fantastic about Bow Cross is that the estate is truly transformed and still looks great today and it’s a really cohesive community.
The project won the prestigious Mayor of London’s Award for Planning Excellence in 2015, also winning the Best Project Five Years On at the same awards – a testament to the hard work that went into transforming Cross Ways from what one journalist described as “a prime example of post-war social housing gone horribly wrong”. Instead of a run-down estate, with hostile walkway bridges and a reputation for crime and antisocial behaviour, Swan was praised as “having transformed the area into a traditional street-based neighbourhood where people wanted to live”. Now that’s a job worth doing!
I also enjoyed working on the former Athletes Village as part of the Olympic legacy – there’s a real thrill in delivering a nationally important project like that and knowing you are making a real difference in the capital.
What is it about your current role that you most enjoy?
I still get a buzz at every stage of a project. Whether it’s being chosen to deliver the project, achieving planning permission, starting on site and all the milestones along the way, I get a real feeling of pride in my team and those we work with. They put their energy and passion into delivering these transformative projects, which can, and do, change the lives of people living in these homes and benefitting from the wider placemaking that we are able to deliver working in partnership with the Mayor of London, GLA, Homes for England and our Borough Partners.
I also love having the ability to innovate and to challenge my team to think differently to tackle the challenges we face – for example, being one of the first HAs to open a factory to build modular housing. I can’t see a problem without wanting to come up with a solution!
Do you think there are fundamental differences between working in this sector at a housing association and a private housebuilder?
Absolutely. We are not driven by profits. Yes, we want to generate income on our commercial activity but all that income is reinvested in new homes and services for residents. This also enables us to take the long view whether it’s because we are in it for the long term – we hold our stock and manage it well, so are incentivised to make sure it is high quality and built to last – or because we can choose to take a lower profit margin making projects more viable. This enables us, for example, to deliver 50% affordable schemes which a private developer just wouldn’t.
This also enables us to take on the projects others won’t, such as Laindon Shopping Centre. This award-winning regeneration (Best Scheme in Planning, National Housing Awards 2017, Best Regeneration at the Housing Design Awards 2017 and Highly Commended at MIPIM Future Projects Awards 2018) will see a run-down sixties shopping centre in Laindon, Essex transformed into a new retail-led high street with new shops, anchor food store, new medical centre, Swan office and 224 homes. Local people were consulted throughout the planning process and over 600 expressions of support were received! As we are able to take a long view and have our social purpose behind us, we can finally bring about the long-awaited regeneration of Laindon, where so many previous owners have failed. Why do we want to? Our roots are in Basildon and Laindon and we care that the failing centre is blighting the homes and opportunities of the residents (many Swan, many not) who live around it.
Are there on-site or off-site roles in your team that you find particularly interesting and/or admirable?
Well, I love my own job of course! It touches on so many areas and disciplines and I get real satisfaction out of every success. At the moment, I’m finding the production engineering and manufacturing roles very interesting – it’s a new area for me and there are so many differences between this sector and construction. That said, I have real respect for our site-based teams: they are at the coal face of what we do, in all weathers, producing great-quality buildings under often challenging timescales with huge technical complexity. However if I had to go “back to the floor” it would be in a project management role, where I would have the opportunity to influence design which was the original passion that led me into housing development and regeneration.
With national new homes targets increasing, what are the career prospects at NU living?
Our team continues to grow and with a development programme of over 6,500 homes and ambitious plans to secure further schemes, it’s a great time for anyone to join NU living. We feel that our social purpose makes us unique. We are commercial but for all the right reasons and, unlike other developers, we are committed to our regeneration projects for the long term. Housing associations are in a great position to meet the government’s ambitious housing targets and, at Swan, we expect NU living to continue to deliver the majority of our development programme, whether that’s using traditional or modular construction.
What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a job in UK housebuilding right now?
It’s a great time to get into the housing sector – a lot of the barriers that might have put candidates off are being addressed. Whether it’s diversity in the workplace, gender pay, or attitudes to flexible working, my experience is that the sector, and particularly, the housing association development sector, really is a great place to work.
My team now includes experts in regeneration, planning, construction, sales and marketing, communications, management and manufacturing. They are a diverse group of staff across the board – our graduate trainees are probably 50/50 male and female – and it’s a great team to be part of.
Swan Housing Group were #8 Best Housing Association to work for in the Sunday Times Top 100 Not for Profit companies this year – coming in at number 22 overall. That score reflects the views of our staff on what it’s like to work for us. We are busy transforming the way we work, working in an agile way, giving staff the tools they need to work in a modern way and we fully expect that to continue. Why? So we are a great place to work and can attract and retain the best people.
We all like to work for something “worthwhile” I believe but for millennials entering the workplace, this is key. To them I say, come and work for us – the 2017 WhatHouse? Housing Association of the Year – our Social Purpose underpins everything we do and every day you will make a difference!