Profile Home and away, by David Orr

28 Jul 05
The new head of the NHF will be seeing his Edinburgh home only at weekends from now on. But that's a small price to pay for a man with a mission, he tells Neil Merrick

29 July 2005

The new head of the NHF will be seeing his Edinburgh home only at weekends from now on. But that's a small price to pay for a man with a mission, he tells Neil Merrick

Just above a picture of his three children on the wall of his air-conditioned London office, David Orr has a photograph that reminds him why he would be foolish to spend too long away from his native Scotland.

Gullane Beach, with its sweeping waves and apparently endless sand, is a mere 20-minute drive from Orr's Edinburgh home. Yet, since becoming chief executive of the National Housing Federation earlier this month, he is resigned to living there only at weekends.

During his first week in post at the start of July, as London lurched from Olympic triumph to the despair of terrorist bombs, Orr could have been forgiven for wanting to be back home again. In August, he is determined to spend at least a week in Scotland so that he can visit the Edinburgh Festival with his wife.

But once summer comes to an end, he knows that it will be strictly down to business as the federation gears up for potentially bruising battles over the government's plans to extend home ownership and divert development grants away from housing associations.

Prior to the end of June, the federation had been led by Jim Coulter for 16 years. During the past eight, since Labour came to power, it has enjoyed a generally cordial relationship with ministers and the Housing Corporation.

The extra money that Labour has diverted towards social housing, both to improve existing homes and to build new properties, was naturally welcomed. At the same time, the sector grew significantly as councils transferred stock to registered social landlords.

But suddenly the going seems to be getting tougher. The NHF has criticised the Homebuy scheme, which will allow tenants to buy shares in their homes, and is fiercely opposing the right of private developers to bid for public funds in direct competition with registered social landlords.

Orr is angry that, by allowing non-RSLs to take grants, the government is refusing to show housing associations the trust and respect they deserve. Although he insists that he is not arguing for inefficiency, he believes RSLs' proud track record in creating successful communities is being largely ignored in the desperate search for further savings.

But he also knows that many associations are keen to form consortiums with developers and increase their chances of gaining grants. So will this make it harder for the NHF to represent large RSLs, which already receive the lion's share of public money, along with the remainder of its 1,400 members?

'I think it's manageable. Our focus is not on how big an organisation is, but how good they are,' he says, diplomatically. 'Housing associations have always adapted. What's happening now is that they are adapting to social housing grant for developers.'

In spite of being willing to 'ruffle a few feathers' where necessary, Orr insists that he is an effective communicator or go-between and will ensure that the voice of social landlords is heard clearly in government.

He also believes the sector needs to be better understood. 'In many areas, the work done by housing associations has transformed communities, but we are still regarded with a degree of suspicion,' he says. 'Social housing is seen as a second-rate thing.'

By taking the NHF job, Orr is effectively relocating to London for the second time in 30 years. In 1977, he moved south to work with homeless young people at Centrepoint before, in 1986, becoming chief executive of Newlon Housing Group in east London.

It was a rational step, he says, after spending nine years of 'dealing with the consequences of housing failure', to want to lead an organisation that could directly tackle housing and other social issues.

His move back to Edinburgh in 1990 was, he says, entirely motivated by the desire to lead the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations rather than because he missed home. During his 15 years as director and then chief executive of the SFHA, the sector grew more than five-fold (mainly due to transfers), so that there are now 230 associations in Scotland managing about 250,000 homes.

A strong nationalist, Orr believes devolution increased the focus on housing and raised the profile of RSLs. Although the federation fought moves by the Scottish Executive to increase the right to buy for housing association tenants through the 2001 Housing Act, he believes the Act was a major success in speeding up transfers and assisting homeless people. 'The housing association model became the delivery agent of choice,' he says.

In the same year, Orr joined the Executive on secondment as community ownership manager. Some local authorities regarded him with suspicion as he toured Scotland to discuss housing strategy, but he insists that he did not try to push transfers for the sake of it. 'It was never my agenda, or that of the Executive, that they had to transfer their stock,' he says. 'We wanted to look at how best to provide a high-quality housing service.'

Although frustrated by Executive bureaucracy, Orr valued the opportunity to see how civil servants lobbied ministers. When he returned to the SFHA one year later, it was with a fresh perspective that led to an overhaul of the federation's governance structure.

'I found it fascinating to watch the way that the whole government machinery works,' he says. 'Lobbying is one of the roles that we have to play, but it's not a relationship that you get close to unless you are inside.'

Those that have got close to Orr praise his authority and grasp of the facts. Ann Santry, chief executive of Sovereign Housing Group, worked with Orr at Newlon Housing Group as its development manager. 'He is a strategic thinker who is very focused and tenacious,' she says. 'He is a good communicator who keeps people in the loop over what's going on.'

Tony Hutson, the SFHA's campaigns and media officer for the past three years, says Orr has a real passion for housing. 'He takes it very seriously and makes sure that he is grounded in all the facts,' he says.

While Orr is a passionate Hearts supporter, adds Hutson, he has no time for futile rivalries such as that between Edinburgh and Glasgow. 'He is very much a Scot and is immersed in Scottish culture,' he says. 'He thinks we should stand up as a forward-looking nation.'

Orr, who is also vice-president of Cecodhas, the European liaison committee for social housing, still has to work out exactly how he will divide his time between London and Edinburgh. But he is determined to spend more time visiting London's theatres than he did 15 years ago, when his children were much younger.

Looking at the picture of Gullane Beach again, Orr admits it will be hard spending so much time away from Scotland, but stresses that he is committed to and excited by the new job. 'We're going to have to think up a family strategy that involves a base in London and one near Edinburgh,' he says.


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