Leading housing association Karbon Homes puts its heart into levelling up
Karbon Homes has emerged as a key player in the “levelling up” agenda aimed at increasing investment in the North-East. PETER BARRON reports
AS a boy growing up in County Durham, Paul Fiddaman saw at first-hand the social challenges faced by a mining community having to reinvent itself as its traditional way of life disappeared.
There’d been 17 collieries within walking distance of where Paul lived, but once they’d gone, Stanley – like many other places in the North-East – lost its economic purpose.
Now, as chief executive of Karbon Homes, one of the region’s largest housing associations, he’s leading an organisation perfectly placed to have a major impact on the region’s future.
As well as managing 30,000 existing properties across the North-East and Yorkshire, the challenge is to build 4,000 new ones over the next six years – including 2,200 affordable homes in a £131.5m strategic partnership with Homes England.
“We’re a significant anchor institution in a number of communities, so we’re in the ideal position to take a long-term view, and it puts us right at the heart of the Levelling Up agenda,” says Paul.
“It also places a huge responsibility on us to make sure those places thrive, so we’re always having to balance a sound business head with a strong social heart.”
Paul started life in a one-bedroomed apartment in Hartlepool. His dad, David, was a policeman and his mother, Elizabeth, was a teacher.
“It was a question of whatever police accommodation was available wherever Dad was based,” Paul recalls. “It sharpens your focus because it makes you appreciate the importance of good quality accommodation and space.”
However, it was Stanley where the family roots were strongest. His grandfather on his dad’s side had been an engineer at the Beamish Mary pit, while his mother’s father worked in the wheelhouse at Burnhope colliery – a less arduous job above ground the consequence of being injured in World War One.
The family moved back to Stanley when Paul was around seven and, after excelling at Tanfield Comprehensive, he became one of the few local youngsters to make it to Oxford University.
After graduating in history, he went down the accountancy route, training with PricewaterhouseCoopers, before taking a dream job as financial controller, and then general manager, with his beloved Sunderland Football Club.
“I was brainwashed by my Dad to support Sunderland as a kid, but it certainly gives you a buzz to be so closely involved with a club you care about,” he laughs.
And it was through football that Paul found his way into the social housing sector. Sunderland chairman Bob Murray was a passionate believer in the club being at the heart of the community and he wanted staff to be involved with local organisations.
Legislation had recently been introduced to open up mixed funding for housing associations, allowing them to take on debt, and people with financial experience were needed to help them navigate that daunting new world.
Paul voluntarily joined the board of Phoenix Housing Association, and it was ‘a lightbulb moment’. “I suddenly realised I could work in an industry where your values and principles were given full rein, and you could be in a position to put something back,” he explains.
After three years supporting Phoenix, the chance came up in 1996 to become Financial Director of the Enterprise 5 Housing Association, and Paul began to work his way up the social housing ladder. After the glamorous world of football, it might even be described as a transfer to the ‘homes’ side.
By 2011, he’d become Chief Executive of Cestria Community Housing Association. Based in Chester-le-Street, it was a stock transfer organisation – taking housing from the local authority and generating investment so homes could be properly maintained and modernised.
Cestria later merged with Newcastle-based ISOS Housing, which in turn joined forces with Derwentside Homes in 2017. It was at that point that the organisation was rebranded as Karbon Homes.
“I remember attending my very first meeting at Enterprise 5, and I heard someone say ‘We are about people and housing – in that order’. That struck me as a sound philosophy and it’s one we still follow.”
Under Paul’s leadership, Karbon Homes has three key objectives: to provide as many high-quality homes as possible; deliver outstanding customer service to tenants; and invest in making communities great places to live.
The association is driving forward on each objective, achieving consistent growth, and has recently become the first housing association in the North-East to be awarded the Institute of Customer Service’s ServiceMark accreditation.
As well as physical regeneration through building new homes, existing properties are being updated to meet the current and future needs of communities.
“That’s a direct link to Levelling Up because we can invest in the look and feel of neighbourhoods, have an impact on local employment, and support local organisations with grants through our Communities Fund. We’re an organisation that people trust, so they engage with us,” says Paul.
Decarbonisation is also high on the association’s agenda, with retrofit programmes making homes more energy-efficient, investment in energy improvement measures, and successful bids to the Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund.
UK housing associations own around 2.7m homes and, with the average investment needed for each home to reach net zero carbon estimated at around £20,000, it amounts to more than £100 billion.
“The decarbonisation agenda offers massive growth potential, with high-value jobs, and it’s vital the North-East gets its fair share,” Paul declares. “The more housing associations invest in decarbonisation, the bigger knock-on effect on schools, training and employment, so it becomes a virtuous circle.”
It all adds up to Karbon Homes making a significant contribution to economic regeneration and, with a steady expansion of its services, it now employs 935 staff.
In December, it began an eight-month partnership with other housing providers on North Tyneside to deliver an innovative employability project, with the partnership receiving £716,612 from the Government’s UK Community Renewal Fund.
In addition, Karbon Homes is making a big impact through EU-funded employment projects, while campaigning for the Government to work with housing associations on the development and delivery of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
Social regeneration is also central to the association’s work, with a wide range of initiatives such as the £80,000 Haltwhistle Community Fund to support local projects in Northumberland.
And Paul is “immensely proud” of the way his team responded during the pandemic. A total of £117,000 was donated to 97 projects across the region through the association’s Covid-19 Community Response Fund.
Staff also volunteered to contact 10,000 of the most vulnerable households, offering support with food deliveries and prescription collections. Around 400 were signposted to additional sources of support but most were simply grateful to have someone to talk to.
“When the pandemic kicked off, we made an early commitment to the staff that they didn’t need to worry about their jobs or being paid, and what they gave us back was amazing,” says Paul.
Office-based staff made a rapid adjustment to working practices but operating from home wasn’t an option for those carrying out repairs, and yet they willingly carried on serving customers on the frontline.
The housing support team could have opted to make do with telephone contact but they didn’t think that was in the best interests of vulnerable people, so they continued with face-to-face services.
“I’m fantastically fortunate to be surrounded by committed people determined to do their best in the most challenging circumstances, and that stands us in good stead for the future,” says Paul.
Indeed, these are exciting times for Karbon Homes and, while communities across the North-East and Yorkshire are benefiting from its mission, there’s one project that’s naturally close to the CEO’s heart.
Nearly 30 years after the closure of the last pit in the Durham coalfield, an ambitious investment scheme is underway in Stanley – the town where Paul grew up.
“We own around 25 per cent of the homes in Stanley, so we’re in it for the long haul,” he smiles.
“It’s had tremendous challenges, so we feel a responsibility to work in partnership with other agencies to do whatever we can to deliver economic and social regeneration.
“Nothing would make me happier than to see vibrancy back in the town centre, along with improvements to people’s lives – and to know we played our part in making it happen.”