The past year has been unlike any other in history. For Coastal, it has meant a continued journey of self-discovery to deliver safe services for residents, maintain our ambitious development programme and ensure our people’s health and wellbeing as they adjust to new challenges and ways of working.
Without exception, Team Coastal has performed phenomenally through this period. As a business we are not simply surviving but thriving; our culture of innovation, problem-solving, eliminating waste and adding value has never been stronger and we are taking every opportunity to learn and grow through this time of unprecedented social change.
In Port Talbot, we have worked closely with the local Business Improvement District on their funding bid to Welsh Government’s Coastal Communities Fund, securing £220,000 to create a hub for local businesses and retail within our existing redevelopment of the former Glan Afan Comprehensive School. The homes created by Coastal are already occupied; now commercial units located within the building’s striking, brick facade will provide meeting and co-working spaces on a bookable basis, as well as offering slots for market stalls and pop-ups to help new businesses. There will also be a home delivery and click and collect service for local residents and businesses, which will help meet the huge growth in demand for these services seen over the past year.
At our Leonard Charles development in Swansea city centre, we have worked with the local authority to release existing ground floor commercial units for redevelopment into homes for people sleeping rough in the city. The pandemic brought a keen focus on tackling street homelessness and showed what can happen when there is the political will to truly address the issue. We are delighted to be playing a part in the next phase of addressing street homelessness in Swansea over the longer term through this strategic partnership with the local council.
With fire safety in tall buildings still high on the sector’s news agenda in spite of the pandemic, we are pleased to see our efforts in this respect reaching fruition. Coastal acted early on investigations into our one residential building above 18m, Strand Court, and following a successful award of £2.9m from Welsh Government’s High Rise Residential Buildings (HRRB) Grant, work has started to replace the areas clad in High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) as well as enhance the building’s fire safety performance through other means. We have created a Resident Liaison Officer role for the duration of the works and, whilst there is inevitably some disruption, residents understand the need for the work and welcome Coastal’s prompt action.
Our development programme continues to test new approaches to construction whilst delivering much-needed homes. Our keen focus on sustainability and low carbon development is perfectly in step with the new Welsh Government’s cabinet changes to reflect the urgency of addressing climate change.
At our Hedgerows development in Pennard, local materials are a common feature across both more conventionally-built homes and 6 properties built through sustainable construction methods by our partners Down to Earth, who have engaged a range of excluded and isolated people to contribute during the build, learning valuable transferable skills in the process. Home sales at the development have been particularly successful, with the vast majority of available homes reserved off-plan before the on-site show home was even available for viewings. All sales have been conditional on meeting local connection criteria and this will also be extended to the social rented homes via a local lettings policy, meaning this development will 100% deliver on its commitment to provide much-needed homes for local people in this sought-after area of Gower.
Active and innovative development is the first part of Coastal’s journey to providing high-quality, affordable homes to the people of south Wales. At handover stage our committed housing and maintenance teams take the reigns and provide an excellent ongoing service, tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of individual residents. To support these teams and provide the data to drive continuous improvement, we are pleased to be introducing new IT systems across Coastal’s housing management, finance, and HR services.
This would be a significant undertaking at any time, but to successfully implement such wholesale IT changes during a prolonged period of remote working has required the energy and commitment of internal specialists alongside their ‘day’ job. It also draws on what has proved to be a timely decision, pre-pandemic, to invest in Coastal’s Tech Team, recruiting to new operational and strategic roles.
The range of services provided by Coastal is vast. Over the past year, we’ve found alternative ways of delivering these and developed new approaches for emerging challenges resulting from the impact of the pandemic. Whether working in or around people’s homes using new safety procedures and enhanced PPE or working at home, perhaps whilst juggling childcare and other personal commitments, Coastal’s staff are a model of professionalism, empathy, and resilience.
Due to the nature of their work, our repairs and trades team have been those most exposed to the risks of Covid and they’ve been exceptional in adapting to new working practices and maintaining excellent services throughout.
Our caretakers have continued to be the front face of Coastal, out and about on estates every day maintaining those important outdoor spaces and keeping them clean and tidy for residents to enjoy. Outside space has never been more important than during this pandemic and it has allowed us to accelerate some of our planned green initiatives to better benefit people, wildlife, and the planet. We have made considerable strides with this over the past year and residents have in the main thoroughly welcomed the changes.
Looking to the future, our estates teams have developed a calendar of green initiatives with the support of our Sustainability and Conservation Coordinator, which will reduce our potential for environmental damage further by up to 50%.
Financial support has been a key focus for our housing teams as they assist people to navigate unforeseen changes to their financial circumstances. Our specialist Financial Health Manager has been an enormous help throughout the last year, keeping housing teams updated on all the changes facing residents through the various financial schemes provided by the UK and Welsh governments. Financial support to residents has also benefited from a continued rollout of Coastal’s payment plan initiative, which sees housing officers and assistants take a much more proactive approach to resident finances. This has helped keep arrears at a reasonable level despite us seeing huge increases in Universal Credit claims amongst residents.
Despite the change in many people’s circumstances, we have continued to let homes in high numbers, including new homes that have handed over from development, and are using no-contact methods to ensure our entire lettings process is Covid safe.
The achievements of the past year are the result of a hugely motivated and committed workforce aligned with a culture of innovation, problem-solving, and doing the right thing. We’ve taken several steps to ensure our people have access to the support they need, particularly in relation to their wellbeing.
In addition to a formal programme of support through external suppliers such as Aspire2Be and Healthy Performance, we have also increased elements that were already well-established at Coastal, such as wellbeing circles. We introduced new approaches including Spoonroom sessions, which saw people from across the business come together on a casual, drop-in basis to spend quality time listening to each other, share their experiences and just be together in a dedicated virtual space. Initiatives such as these have formed part of what it means to be part of Team Coastal during 2020/21 and will continue to do so as we navigate the changing nature of work. Whilst we don’t yet know precisely what that will look like, we are committed to doing everything we can to base it on what we’ve learned this past year and what our people have valued and captured through a comprehensive series of open, honest Coastal conversations.
During the year we worked to manage the impact of the pandemic on our services. We saw an increase in the level of vacant homes due to the lockdowns, although this is now returning to normal levels, and we have been cautious in our estimates of rent arrears we will be unable to recover. We have worked with commercial tenants throughout the last 18 months to help them sustain their tenancies and now have fewer vacant commercial properties than before the pandemic, with only a moderate amount of lost rent.
Our income for the year ended 31 March 2021 includes £1.9m from homes built for sale, the majority of which were for low cost home ownership.
Our financial position is strong, with the loan facilities we arranged in 2020 available to fund our ongoing housing development programme. The facilities include long term ‘fixed rate’ loans which mean that our interest costs will be protected if and when general interest rates begin to increase. During the year we also updated our Value for Money strategy and our Risk Management Policy to ensure that we can continue to deliver on our commitments and aims.
We have restated the results for the year ended 31 March 2020 to include updated amounts for fire safety remediation costs at a small number of buildings. Like many other housing associations, we have been inspecting our properties to ensure that they remain safe and we will be investing in the next couple of years to ensure that where necessary they meet the most up to date standards. The costs have also been included in our business plans.