Fiona Fletcher-Smith, who takes over from David Montague after 13 years, has accepted that the pace of development would “ease in the short term” as the association’s existing 250,000 residents were prioritised.
In an interview with Social Housing two weeks into the job, Ms Fletcher-Smith is asked what this means for the 2027/28 completion date it had previously set for reaching its 10-year new homes milestone.
“I think we have to be honest with ourselves, that the 100,000 homes is an ambition, rather than a target,” she answers. “It’s very important that we remain ambitious, not just L&Q but as a sector. We have to be part of solving Britain’s housing crisis, and at L&Q we absolutely still want to be that key part.
“But it is an ambition and we’re not holding ourselves to that target.”
Ms Fletcher-Smith’s prioritisation of existing residents is in line with a change in emphasis from the 110,000-home landlord a little over a year ago.
In November 2019, L&Q announced a ‘pause’ on new scheme approvals as it addressed quality issues and focused on ongoing fire safety works. These factors, alongside a hit to sales, had contributed to the group reporting a £148m fall in surpluses for the 2019 financial year in the months before.
Ms Fletcher-Smith is keen to highlight the context in which L&Q pressed the pause button a year ago and in which it continues to operate. “We are currently onsite with just shy of 20,000 new homes, we’ve got an approved pipeline of 30,000 homes and, through L&Q Estates [formerly Gallagher Estates], we probably have about 58,000 plots for new homes. So when L&Q pauses, it’s a bit different because we have that pipeline to build and to keep us busy, and that all adds up to about £5bn worth of new development.
“We will continue to do that. We just won’t be focusing on a lot of new business because I want L&Q now to really focus on the safety of our existing residents and the fire remediation work that we will need to do, and also investing in our existing stock to make sure that people have safe, warm, comfortable homes to live in. That’s where our priorities are going to be.”
Pipeline notwithstanding, keeping the brake on development might seem a surprising early move for a new chief who has served for the past three years as L&Q’s group director of development and sales, leading on landmark projects such as the 10,800-home Barking Riverside development. Prior to L&Q, Ms Fletcher-Smith was director for development, enterprise and environment at the Greater London Authority.
But the stance may be interpreted as a continuation of Ms Fletcher-Smith’s approach since arriving at the landlord from City Hall in 2018 and reflective of her very first experience of L&Q many years earlier. Temping as a housing officer for the association for two summers in the mid 1990s while completing a university degree, Ms Fletcher-Smith says she “fell in love with the place”.
“It was so caring… on your patch you almost knew all your residents by name. So when I came back to L&Q, I was really keen to enter the human being into the development process, and that’s what we have been doing as a team.
“It is about saying no to poor quality, to really challenge ourselves and those building for us on the quality, reminding them that at the end of all of this process, there is a human being that is going to move in there and that their home is their place of sanctuary and safety. We have a massive duty to make sure that that works.”
L&Q is currently working up a new five-year plan which it hopes will crystallise its focus on residents’ needs, supported by “excellent services and thriving communities”. Ms Fletcher-Smith indicates that this means facilitating, rather than prescribing, and involving existing and potential new residents in placemaking.
“It’s about enabling communities to develop. I think all of us, as housing professionals, need to be very careful about a sort of a paternalistic approach to how we do things, and it’s really about creating places where communities can flourish, grow, feel comfortable and contribute.
“It is about really giving our residents opportunities to be involved in the strategy and policy that directly affects them.”
She adds that this follows the lead of the Social Housing White Paper.
L&Q will be supported by a new resident services board, which will have a purview on all services that affect residents, from existing services to new development to environmental sustainability.
“We’ve got some of the most amazing residents on board there. I guarantee they’re not going to give me an easy time as chief executive, but bring it on because I think it’s going to be fantastic.”
The work will also focus on L&Q’s relationship with its leaseholders. Asked whether leaseholders will be asked to bear the cost of fire remediation work, Ms Fletcher-Smith will not be drawn, saying only that this remains a “very live issue”.
“We are not at a stage yet of having made any decisions around the fire costs. However, the scale of the challenge to us as a sector is so phenomenal that we will have to look at this very, very carefully with our board.”
Despite this uncertainty, Ms Fletcher-Smith describes the relationship with leaseholders as becoming one of an “advocacy” role on the part of the organisation.
This means L&Q will support leaseholders to recover funds where available. “It is about maximising where we can get income back from either government schemes that will help us pay for remediation; [or in] the case of poor quality if we have found that a contractor or builder has built something that just is not adequate. Be warned, we will want to seek to gather those monies back from you. That’s going to be a really key part, that we are therefore working on behalf of our leaseholders.”
Ms Fletcher-Smith is also committed to offering financial transparency to its leaseholders, meaning it will be clear about “what is being charged and what isn’t” and be able to explain the group’s procurement processes and how it is achieving “best possible value”.