Interview: Nigel Wilson – Making home in Sunderland via Northern Housing Magazine
Northern Housing caught up with Nigel Wilson to see how he’s settling in as Gentoo’s new chief executive. Going by what he told Mark Cantrell, he’s clearly relishing the role
THERE’S much Nigel Wilson (main picture) fondly remembers about his time in the North West, but the new Gentoo chief executive certainly isn’t missing his daily commute.
Wilson took the helm at the Sunderland-based housing provider in January, after some 12 years working in Greater Manchester, first as chief executive of Parkway Green Housing, and then, following its 2013 merger with Willow Park Housing, as chief executive of Wythenshawe Community Housing Group.
All told, he has worked in housing for some 30 years, in the North West but also the Midlands, so his move to the North East is quite the venture to pastures new.
“I’d loved and enjoyed [Wythenshawe] massively, but I think there was something in me that was ready for a change,” he said. “I thought this was a good opportunity, relocation for me and the family, a fresh start in a completely different part of the country – but a beautiful one – and I wouldn’t have to sit on the M6 every day for the rest of my life. After 12 years, I was ready for it; 100 miles a day up and down is not something you celebrate, really.”
Gentoo, of course, has been through a rocky patch recently, so there must have been some misgivings; for sure, but after taking a long hard look, he liked what he saw. Its focus on a place – mostly Sunderland – rather than a geographic spread also resonated with his experiences at Wythenshawe.
“Gentoo had gone through the trials and tribulations, but fundamentally it’s a good business, with great people, in a great city where its role is massively important,” he said. “For me, it was about due diligence: talk to people who knew the business and knew the people, about how strong the business is underneath, and how appreciated are the people inside the business.
“The message coming back was it’s a really good business; it’s been badly let down by some individuals, but ultimately there was pride and passion inside the business. Some of the work it has done on a national level, in terms of the attention it’s brought to issues around domestic abuse and domestic violence is something it can remain proud of and continue to do.
“So, yes, like anybody, you’re not going to put your family at risk to work somewhere that might be in serious trouble, but for me there was a sense that it knew it was on a journey to get itself back in order. It had a good base, performance on the frontline was really good. For me, you only had to meet the people who work inside the business to feel and hear their passion for the work they do in Sunderland.”
The journey continues, of course. “We’re still at G3 and V2,” Wilson added. “We hope the work we’re doing with the regulator will get us out of G3 and back in G2 as soon as we can. That will get us back to a compliant level and we’ll continue that work to get back to G1, as the business should be. All the indicators are we are going in the right direction.”
So, as the organisation gets back on track, what is Wilson’s vision? “We want to deliver more affordable rented homes in Sunderland,” he said. “For a number of years, Gentoo had not been delivering the scale and numbers that it might have done. The board is supporting an increase in delivery of new affordable rented properties going forward. We want to make sure we are doing that at the same time as we continue to invest in our existing homes.”
‘Affordable’, as many know and rue, has often come to mean anything but; Wilson says in the North East it’s not such a problem, with the difference to social rent “negligible”.
“It’s not as marked as it might have been in Manchester,” he said, “but still, for me – and I may be accused of being a bit old fashioned – I see our primary purpose as providing socially affordable rented housing that people need.
“I’m quite happy that we should be looking at a range of products, whether that’s shared ownership, rent to buy, whatever else meets the needs of our communities, [but] fundamentally our core business at Gentoo is those rented homes we’ve got.
“I would bring more to market that meet the needs of the people in the city who are looking for rented homes that they can afford, which give them a standard of living that is fair and reasonable, and give them the chance to make future life choices.”
So, Wilson is evidently settling in, but what of the wider North, is the sector and its partners settling into a more concerted approach to making its voice heard down south? Yes, in short, with work carried out by Homes for the North and the Northern Housing Consortium among others, helping to evidence the case.
“There has been some rebalancing, but you can never be complacent,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to keep banging the drum to make sure the issues are heard. There’s always a southern bias, to the national media particularly, so we need to make sure we can break through that Westminster bubble.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing #4 April 2019