Interview: Nick Atkin – Golden opportunity

Yorkshire Housing’s new chief, Nick Atkin is chuffed to bits at being back in the county of his birth, but he’s trying not to be the professional Yorkshireman about it all 

By Mark Cantrell 

THE period we’re in now could well go down as one of the golden ages for the housing sector, reckons Nick Atkin. Obviously, we’re not talking about Brexit, the current state of politics [this interview originally appeared before Boris Johnson became PM –Ed], or Donald Trump, although the latter did get a mention.

“I’m just coming up on my first 100 days, but I’m trying not to use that term because I don’t want to be compared to Trump,” he joked.

Hard to imagine anyone having cause for that, although Yorkshire Housing’s new chief executive has been known to use Twitter to cause a bit of a stir.

“I sent a really grumpy tweet during the NatFed conference last year, when I basically said that we’ve got everything we asked for [as a sector],” he said. “Yes, we could still have more, but we’ve got rent certainty, we’ve got revisions to some aspects of planning, we’ve got long-term funding to build more homes, and we’ve also got a government generally that is supportive of what we do.”

The world has turned is Atkin’s point. Whereas once the housing sector was regarded by ministers as part of the problem, now it is seen as part of the solution, and it is accordingly being given things it can work with. So, it’s time to get on with the job.

“For me, if you’re not building, if you’re not looking at continuing to invest in addressing the housing crisis now, then when will you?” he asked. “Because I can’t see that the environment will be much better than it is at the moment. Indeed, I think we will probably look back in a few years’ time and see this as one of the golden periods when there were opportunities for housing associations and councils to build new homes.”

He added: “I think some parts of the sector are really playing their part and maximising the opportunities. I think others probably need to take a look at themselves. If they’re not building now, what else would it take?”

He certainly sees Yorkshire Housing doing its bit. The organisation is a strategic partner of Homes England and has big growth ambitions; a pipeline of some 6,000 homes will increase its stock by around a third. But Atkin wants to take the organisation even further.

“I want us to be one of the main housing providers of choice,” Atkin said. “If you want to rent a home in Yorkshire, I want you to immediately think of Yorkshire Housing. If you want to buy a home in Yorkshire, I want you to think of Yorkshire Housing. And if you want to build homes in Yorkshire, I want your first option to be Yorkshire Housing. We’ve got a very strong brand and I want to ensure that we play an even bigger role.”

The organisation is doing that, in part, through its membership of Homes for the North, but he also wants Yorkshire Housing to be in the vanguard of innovation, whether that’s through service delivery or business models.

“Homes for the North has been very effective in making the case for investment in the North versus other areas of the country,” Atkin said. “I don’t want to make it a straight North-south argument, [but] it is about making sure the North gets its fair share.”

He added: “The key issue for the North is to break some of the stereotypes – it’s not grim up North, it’s not all about flat caps and whippets: there’s a multitude of vibrant, fantastic areas… It’s around changing some of the lazy, preconceived assumptions. We’ve got a role to play in that, as Northerners, in terms of being really clear that there are some fantastic success stories.”

When it comes to innovation, technology might well be the first thing that springs to mind, but it’s more nuanced than that, he points out.

“The housing sector’s probably not always embraced innovation to the extent it needs to, that’s why we work closely with organisations like HACT,” he said. “Tech is just an enabler, and actually what needs to change is the mindset and the culture of how people operate… Digital in itself is not the panacea, but if it is designed in the right way it does allow you to change your service offer and target your resources to where they are needed most.”

Atkin is still in that settling in phase, getting to know the organisation from the ground up, and discussing plans; there’s a lot for him to take in.

“When the opportunity at Yorkshire Housing came up, I wasn’t looking to move,” he admitted. “When I did a little bit more research about it, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to go to an organisation that is in a really strong place, but to do things on a much bigger footprint, both in terms of scale and geography.”

Yorkshire Housing certainly covers a lot more ground – literally and figuratively – than Halton Housing, where Atkin spent some 13 years as its chief executive; everything from inner city through to idyllic rural and everything in between.

Quite a spread of challenges for Doncaster-born Atkin to chew on, compared to the more urban focus of Halton Housing’s Runcorn and Widnes heartlands. But as he looks to make the most of these tests to come, he’s also relishing being back in England’s biggest county.

“I’m trying not to be the stereotypical Yorkshireman,” he said, “but the ability to go back home, to my roots, I have to admit was also a major draw. A lot of my family still live in Doncaster, so the ability to be back in my homeland was also amazing.”

NH

This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #5 July 2019

 

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