Fighter Ace’s housing legacy celebrates flying high 50 years from take off

A housing association founded by a Second World War Spitfire hero is celebrating turning 50, but as its chief executive Yvonne Castle tells Northern Housing, while it reflects on its past, Johnnie Johnson Housing is focused very much on the future

By Northern Housing Staff

WHEN the Second World War came to end, Ace Spitfire pilot Johnnie Johnson had a dream to build affordable homes for veterans returned from the conflict. The dream had to wait a while, but it finally touched down in 1969.

That’s the year that the former RAF Air Vice Marshall founded the housing association that still bears his name to this day. Johnnie Johnson Housing’s (JJH) first-ever affordable home became a reality in 1971, when he laid his first brick at Kenley Lodge, Bramhall

Johnnie Johnson, Normandy
Johnson with his Labrador dog, Sally, on the wing of his Spitfire in Normandy, c.June–August 1944. Public Domain.

In the 50 years since, the company estimates that it has housed around 35,000 people, fulfilling its founder’s vision to provide quality and affordable homes. As far as current chief executive, Yvonne Castle is concerned, that original mission plan bequeathed by Johnson remains very much its guiding purpose for the next half-century.

“This is an incredible milestone for us, representing just how far we’ve come and creating a marker in the sand for our future vision,” Castle said. “Coincidentally, it is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of social housing, which means we have a pretty long history in this sector.

Yvonne Castle
Yvonne Castle addresses guests at the 50th anniversary celebrations. Image courtesy of Johnnie Johnson Housing.

“We have been gifted a great legacy by our founding father, Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson, who was a real visionary and who made a lasting impact on tens of thousands of people’s lives by building quality affordable homes at a time when there were very few. We are committed to continuing that legacy, which was founded on values that we still live by today, including being bold, pioneering and outstanding.

“However, the environment in which we operate today is quite different and our challenges have changed significantly, in particular around the impending crisis of an ageing population. So the next 50 years will look very different for us.”

Based in Poynton, Cheshire, JJH today provides some 5,000 homes for around 7,000 people, and it operates through the North West, North East, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Its portfolio consists of a combination of independent living schemes, leasehold, shared ownership properties, as well as general needs homes.

Over the next eight years, it plans to deliver a further 1,000 homes, with the aim to encourage “community living and wellbeing”; around 70% of these homes will cater to supporting our ageing society, as people increasingly live longer.

Turning 50 may be a time for celebration, but as Castle indicated, it’s also a milestone that provokes reflection. The demographics of ageing are a case in point; it’s a challenge our entire society can’t afford to ignore.

As Castle explained, the scale of the task ahead is staggering: the population of the over-85s has increased over the last 140 years from 60,000 to 3.5 million, and by 2050 there will be 5.1 million people in the UK over the age of 85.

“With nine out of ten older people wishing to live at home during their twilight years and an increase in declining health, including dementia-related illnesses, housing associations like ours will need to transform to be able to continue to provide outstanding services. This is also against a backdrop of declining real-time funding for the sector,” she said.

Johnnie Johnson Housing
Guests take part in the breakout sessions at JJH’s 50th anniversary event.

But it’s the older residents who “hold the key to the future transformation” of JJH, she added. That’s why Castle and her team have spent a significant proportion of their time this year engaging with them.

“If we want to support residents who will be living much longer than those before them, with all the challenges that presents, then we must put them at the centre of our vision,” she said.

“The customer voice has been a recurring theme in our business for many years. We want to amplify the voice of our customers, improve accountability and strengthen relationships.

“We regularly ask our residents to contribute their opinions and get involved in scrutinising our ideas and decisions. We have a range of resident panels and forums set up across our regions, but this year, in our 50th year, we are ever-more focused on the challenges of the ageing population. Our main 50th celebration event was indicative of that.”

During the summer, the company welcomed 300 residents, partners and colleagues to a special 50th celebration at Yorkshire Air Museum. The museum sits on the site of the former RAF Elvington – a fitting venue for the company, given its founding father was a highly decorated WWII RAF veteran. Guests gathered inside a vast aircraft hangar, which had been transformed to host the event.

“We invited all our residents to the special event and were overwhelmed with responses,” Castle said. “It was quite an achievement to get so many people together from different parts of the country in one venue.

“We celebrated and exchanged stories and memories from the past, many about Johnnie Johnson himself, who some of our residents remember fondly. We enjoyed keynote speakers, an awards ceremony, superb food and entertainment; the atmosphere was quite overwhelming.”

During the day, residents were also invited to engage in a range of interactive breakout sessions. These served to provide an opportunity for staff to share the company’s vision for future homes and services, and to collaborate with residents on topics and issues dominating an ageing population.

Johnnie Johnson Housing
Guests enjoy the keynote speakers at JJH’s 50th anniversary.

“We shared our ideas and plans around communications and digital services, transformative health, wellbeing and care, and new-generation property development,” Castle added. “We have already made great strides in these areas, leading the way in the provision of new products and services.”

Some of JJH’s developments are already transforming lives of older residents and providing peace of mind to their family and friends, as Castle explained.

“Our tech-enabled monitoring services are revolutionising care,” she said. “They focus on early intervention – we can spot potential health problems early on in residents so they can be proactive with their care and avoid hospitalisation or avoid further deterioration.

“We are also one of only a small number of associations to have our own mobile responder service, with trained first aiders who can speedily attend to our residents in the event of an accident, fall or ill health.

“Our Invisible Creations programme is well on its way towards launch. In collaboration with other housing associations, we’ve developed a range of subtle and unobtrusive products for the home that aid mobility and help to prolong independence, enabling residents to live for longer in their own homes.

“Not to mention our digital GPS-based telecare service, which can monitor residents in and out of the home and giving them immediate access to us at the touch of a button. For example, if a resident falls, or can’t remember where they are, or they have any other emergency. These are the kinds of concerns that stop our older customers from leaving their homes and reduces their quality of life.”

Johnson himself died in 2001 aged 85. The veteran fighter pilot flew over 1,000 missions over Europe during his service in the Second World War, downing 38 enemy aircraft. He himself was never shot down. He was invited onto the TV programme This Is Your Life in 1985, and his life is explored in his biography, Spitfire Ace of Aces: The wartime story of Johnnie Johnson by Dilip Sarkar (Amberley Publishing, 2011).

For his housing legacy, there is undoubtedly much more change to come, but Castle is unperturbed by the challenges. “The future is exciting,” she said. “We endeavour to make sure the impact of the work we are doing today will provide as long-lasting a legacy as Johnnie Johnson has built over the first 50 years. I’m certain he would be very proud of our efforts so far.”

So, chocks away and tally ho, as a Spitfire Ace’s housing legacy continues to fly high into the future.

NH

 

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