Gary Orr talks to BLM about why he is taking his housing company into Bristol

Gary Orr, Yarlington Chief Executive

Business Leader Magazine speaks with Yarlington Housing Group Chief Executive Gary Orr about his companies’ growth, their expansion into Bristol and the issues facing the UK housing market.

Can you tell the readers about your personal background?

I’m group Chief Executive of Yarlington, a housing association in the south west, and I’ve been with the organisation since 2011. We own over 10,000 properties and provide affordable housing solutions to people across the region. In terms of the organisation itself, we have an annual turnover of just under £60 million per annum and an open market value of £1.2 billion.

We were established in 1999 when we acquired South Somerset District Council’s council housing. We purchased the housing stock with the promise that we would bring the properties up to what was then known as the decent home standard.

So, the early period of our company history was about dealing with a backlog of repairs and necessary investment in the housing stock which we achieved between 1999 and 2010.

Primarily, our concentration was in the south Somerset area but having achieved a decent home standard, we then went about looking at how we could extend our service offer and respond to a wider housing need.

Once we had provided social rented housing and affordable renting, we recognised that there were other products and services that people across the region required.

What about Yarlington Homes today? 

Today, Yarlington provides services which include social rented new build houses, affordable rented new build houses, shared ownership, which is part rent/part buy, and housing for outright sale. Our business has radically changed, we are now responding to a wider group of customers needing affordable housing.

The NHF’s most recent Home Truths annual report showed that in the south west house prices are more than ten times the average salary and households would need a pay rise of £33,600 to afford an average home.

As a result, we recently launched a new corporate strategy, Yarlington Next-Gen, which commits to building an additional 1,500 new homes in the region over the course of the next four years, 500 of which will be built in the city of Bristol.

Yarlington Next-Gen consists of three founding objectives:

  • To service our 23,000 customer in the most economic, efficient and effective manner
  • To significantly increase the number of new homes we provide in the south west
  • To implement a new service and operating model, consistent with the needs of our customers.

You mentioned about expanding into Bristol, what is the reason for that?

Yarlington’s primary purpose as an organisation is to help end the housing crisis. Here in the south west, as across the vast majority of regions in the United Kingdom, there is a dire shortage of housing of all types. There is an acute housing need is in Bristol.

We were also really encouraged by the political landscape that was being set in front of us; we have a Mayor whose number one priority is to build more affordable homes in the city and Bristol City Council are putting in additional resources and considering how they use their land to build more homes.

Why do you think we are not building enough houses in the UK?

I think there has been such an under investment for such a long time.  We haven’t got a long-term housing strategy for our country and in terms of population growth we haven’t been building at a rate that is necessary to respond to the formation of new households. Without a long-term housing strategy, we also haven’t sufficiently identified the land that’s necessary to build those homes nor have we created the relationships and the connectivity between housing and economic growth.

We have also had a planning system that hasn’t been pro-delivery and there has been a significant under investment in terms of the provision and investment of new supply.

What I would also say is that, as a sector, we need to win the hearts and minds of people that we need to build more homes.

Would you like to see a law introduced which forces landowners, who have been sitting on land for long periods, to develop it?

Certainly, yes! Under future planning powers, a use it or lose it approach should be taken, particularly where there are planning consents in existence. I think planning departments should have the right to be able to challenge, encourage and incentivise those who are sitting on land opportunities to bring it forward.  There should be a grown-up discussions about whether there are consequences of landowners choosing not to choose land supply that’s ready to build affordable housing.

Do you think we’ll hit house building targets in Bristol and the South West in the next few years?

I’m optimistic that the ingredients are emerging to enable it to happen.  We have a political consensus. We have a very ambitious sector and there are a number of leading housing associations and house builders that really want to get on and build.  We have access to capital and now we need the identification of land supply and a planning system to make it happen.

If we can create a planning system and a strategic land supply, I think the south west can meet its objectives, because I think the consensus has emerged that something needs to be done.  Local communities are recognising, and beginning to ask the question ‘where will our children live?’ People are also recognising that there is a massive affordability crisis and as a result we’re losing our talent and the people who would like to create homes in the south west.

If the new government translates their manifesto pledge, into investment and an on-going commitment, I think we can create the circumstances to address it.