The boss who loves to build the political case for social housing

Lisa Pickard, Chief Executive of Leeds & Yorkshire Housing Association
Lisa Pickard, Chief Executive of Leeds & Yorkshire Housing Association
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Lisa Pickard is a CEO who loves to speak up for people affected by benefit reforms. She met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

IN the early 1990s, rising interest rates placed a terrible strain on many families’ finances.

At the time, Lisa Pickard was a member of a building society’s re-possessions team based in Cumbria. She encountered a tragedy that left an indelible impression on everyone who witnessed it. It also turned her into a passionate advocate of social housing.

Today, as chief executive of Leeds & Yorkshire Housing Association, she wants to increase the region’s supply of social housing. She’s also campaigning to create a more positive image of people who rely on benefits.

“The incident that changed my career was an eviction case in Cumbria,’’ she told me. “The father of the family of three shot himself at the actual eviction. For most people, that would have sent them off work on sick leave, but I went down the route of thinking that I had to do something about it.

“The family were obviously traumatised. So I went to the local council, and said, ‘There must be something we can do?’”

The council suggested that a local housing association might be able to help the family rebuild their lives.

She recalled: “Off I went to the housing association, and I was really inspired by what they did. They helped this family move into family accommodation. From then on, I decided I didn’t want to work in the banks.”

As chief executive of LYHA, which has 40 staff, she is set to create more than 200 social housing units in Yorkshire, at a time when many people have no hope of reaching the first rung of the property ladder.

She is also the co-author of the Real Life Reform campaign, which is analysing the impact of welfare reforms on up to 100 vulnerable households. Doncaster-born Ms Pickard wants to combat negative perceptions that are often attached to social housing. Her own career path has been unconventional.

“I was from a working class background, and nobody went to university,” she said. “I did well in my A levels and got myself a place at Cambridge to study geography. I grew up through the miners’ strike, and I remember saying to myself, at the age of 12, that I wanted to be different.

“The miners’ strike left a mark; that probably was the start of my real values base. When you do implement change, you’ve got to do it in the right way. I loved school and did well, so I got a place at Cambridge, but it just didn’t feel right, because for me that felt, even back then with (student) grants, that it was too much of an ask on my family.” Although she didn’t have a degree, she managed to persuade Cumberland Building Society to grant her a place on its graduate management programme. Within three years, she had completed all her financial qualifications, headed up a city centre branch, and worked on the arrears and re-possessions team.

After the tragedy in Cumbria, she changed her career plans and moved into the social housing sector. Over the last 21 years, she has held senior roles at Places for People, Tees Valley Housing Group and Two Castles Housing, and she also spent two years as assistant director at the TSA, the social housing regulator. She’s been at the helm of LYHA since 2011. She has steered the organisation through a refinancing, which will help to provide more vulnerable people with a place to live.

“I feel I have a bigger social purpose as chief executive,’’ she said.” I do lots of work in terms of tackling perceptions about poverty and austerity.

“I want to get the message across about the positive impact that social housing has. The work we do helps people to realise their life chances. We can help some of the most vulnerable in society build their confidence. With four solid walls around you, you feel part of a community,’’ she added. “That instantly builds your resilience.

“Leeds and Yorkshire are a smaller player, but we are concentrated.. Eighty per cent of our properties are within Leeds. We have a turnover just over £6m, and 1,300 homes, but we are building 245 new homes over the next four years.”

The supply of new homes has fallen hopelessly behind demand in recent years, which means more people regard renting as a long-term solution. “We’ve probably had 20 years of home ownership being seen to be the preferred option,’’ she said. “We’ve now reached the stage where people don’t necessarily want to be home owners.

“We’ve got a transient population, people move for jobs quite a lot, so buying a house can be too much of a commitment, because you might not have the job security to go with it. We see people getting their first mortgage in their forties. In Yorkshire, we’re expecting to see a shortage of housing of around 200,000 to 250,000 homes in the next 10 years.

“There are those people who genuinely want to rent; and it doesn’t need to be private sector renting. Housing associations can offer that and keep rents affordable, which means there’s more disposable income going back into the community. We have got people who are in low paid work, or unemployed, through no choice of their own.

“There are lots of people who are carers, or who have a disability, or health issues, and they are often referred to as the vulnerable in society. They need good places to live as well.”

The latest edition of the Real Life Reform offers plenty of political food for thought. It found that one in five of the respondents to the survey had used a food bank, despite the economic recovery. Ms Pickard wants to show that a commercially sound organisation can also be driven by social values.

“Providing a social rented home isn’t just about providing four walls,” she said. “We can give people more self belief. It doesn’t matter how big you are as an organisation, it’s all about what you do in terms of delivering on your promises.”