Merger, merger on the wall...
As one of the hottest topics within the Welsh housing sector right now, merger was at the heart of The BIG Question 2016. Does Welsh housing need to change to succeed? Well in short, yes. Yes it does.
Leaving mergers to one side momentarily, over the course of several sessions including an address by Carl Sargeant AM the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children a challenging backdrop was painted. What is crystal clear is that despite the ambition, the commitment to supply and a strong understand the role the housing sector has in tackling poverty challenges will only intensify. Duncan Forbes, chief exec of Bron Afon hit the nail on the head for in his comment to the Cabinet Secretary.....
"We can't build fantastic homes for people to enjoy their poverty"
Protection of Supporting People and the homelessness prevention fund in the recent Welsh budget is rightly being seen as a big win - too right. What we can't lose sight of is the cuts to the regeneration budget, loss of EU structural funding and continued demand and pressure on support services. Tackling poverty has, particularly in recent years been clearly at the heart of housing provision. But there is an evident challenge around how the sector continues to maximise its ability to tackle poverty with this delivery and funding infrastructure at worst disappearing or at best, in flux.
But back to the subject at hand though, mergers - is it a fairy-tale hero or the pantomime villain?
Amanda Davies and Wendy Bourton, chief exec and vice chair of Pobl group respectively, explained the journey of Pobl Group - formed as a result of merging Swansea-based Gwalia group and Newport based Seren group.
Gavin Smart, deputy chief executive of CIH went about questioning the pobl from Pobl. Amanda described the process as like being on a roller-coaster, enjoying the view on the ups, seeing a world of possibilities whilst also at times feeling sick and wanting out.
The exploration, Amanda explained, had its roots in a discussion around merging care and support services, but it quickly became apparent that the scope was bigger; it was about the organisations in their entirety. Amanda explained the rationale as being rooted in having commonality, a joint goal to do more for communities and increase impact.
Gavin highlighted that in England, high-profile mergers have fallen as a result of culture incompatibility. Not so for the likes of Seren and Gwalia where throughout the organisation, where a common culture, based on simply “doing the right thing” provided a positive basis upon which to move forward. Wendy highlighted that this shift wasn’t a “flick-a-switch” exercise, but a process that would continue to be organic and fluid. For the boards, Wendy noted that as important as the due diligence and everything in-between was just simply “hanging out” building the relationships needed.
Wendy, highlighted that for both organisations it was about not losing the core identity, or the power of the brand whilst also delivering more and delivering better as a result. She went on to emphasise the role of challenge. No doubt the room felt a bit uncomfortable at times with the analogy used to describe the process of finding out about each other as rooting through someone’s underwear drawer but it seemed that this kind of discomfort had characterised the narrative. It was ok for it to feel uncomfortable, sometimes making is difficult to keep the narrative positive in the face of criticism or concern.
Amanda emphasised that is was always important to keep the “why” in mind. Brought to life by their ambition to deliver 3000 homes over the next 5 years and continuing to be a large employer with their 2680 staff base only set to grow.
But this hadn’t meant losing the local, personal connectivity of the organisation to its communities or staff. In fact, it had only served to strengthen it. The importance of collecting strong data on communities, understanding in detail what the issues impacting people on their doorstep are. Whilst for the staff, still ensuring a feeling of connectedness across the organisations underpins the current approach to organically merging the organisations.
So, for Amanda, due diligence, the team of non-execs, open communication and instilling ownership at all levels of the organisation (and beyond) in the process, rationale and outcome of the work were (and continue to be) central.
It’s clear that merging, depending on how it’s done could be either the fairy-tale hero OR the pantomime villain. When done right, the Pobl story shows that engagement, the difficult conversations, transparency, remaining grounded all really matter and probably not being overly worried about throwing up on the roller-coaster helps too.