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29 September 2022

Striking the balance between financial priorities and poverty initiatives: how ClwydAlyn is supporting its tenants and staff through the cost of living crisis

Striking the balance between financial priorities and poverty initiatives: how ClwydAlyn is supporting its tenants and staff through the cost of living crisis

Clare Budden, ClwydAlyn Chief Executive – and Chair of the North Wales 2025 Movement – explains how the housing association is working to end avoidable health inequalities in North Wales.

Like many other communities, North Wales has been battling ‘wicked issues’ such as poverty, health inequality and homelessness. In some of the poorest areas of North Wales life expectancy is eight years less than the regional average, with healthy life expectancy around 18 years less. The reasons for these disparities are varied and complex and not something ClwydAlyn can sort out on its own - but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something.

As the leader in an organisation, you have an opportunity to influence and shape the priorities of the business. Working with the Board, staff, and our tenants we agreed our mission should be working ‘together to beat poverty’. We know poverty directly affects many of our tenants, staff, and the communities we work with. We were already on this journey, but these ‘wicked issues’ have been amplified further by external factors such as Covid-19 and the looming cost of living crisis.

We face a huge challenge, and I don’t underestimate what lies ahead. Over the last few months, we’ve been debating internally about what our priorities should be and the approach we need to take to support our residents, staff, and the business.

We can’t have a big goal around addressing poverty in our communities and then ignore our staff who may be living in poverty themselves. We also have increasing pressures on our finances, so it’s a careful balance to strike between investing in our poverty initiatives and managing the often-conflicting financial priorities that we face daily.

We know a holistic approach that has our residents and staff at the centre of any decisions feels the right approach for us and our values. On the other hand, we need to protect the business carefully balancing our increasing financial and regulatory pressures. It’s a huge challenge; do we go with our heart or our head? The likelihood is it’ll be a mixture of both.

As an employer it’s important that we take care of our staff, and in turn we know they will take care of our tenants. We pay staff market median for their roles; we’re also a living wage employer. We’ve undertaken an organisation-wide terms and conditions review, aligning three different sets of terms and conditions to ensure equality for all our staff no matter what job they do (including the Executive team).

We settled the pay review for staff for this year in January (and we link pay to rent increases). By April, inflation meant our staff faced a real term pay cut, which is likely to deepen as the cost of living continues to soar.

One of the impacts we are seeing already is more staff asking for advances on their wages each month. We are processing overtime and expenses more frequently too - instead of once a month, we are now paying fortnightly.

We’ve developed a strong support network for our staff with access to a range of services to support wellbeing. Over recent months we’ve also started to hear more and more stories about staff going without food or limiting themselves to one meal a day to save money, while others were working a lot of overtime just to get by. This is worrying, and it was important that we found a way to support them.

We took some tax advice to see how we could maximise any benefits we provided for staff. We came up with our ‘Eating Well’ initiative and we agreed that by offering free lunches to everyone, staff could eat healthily and use the money that they would’ve spent on lunch on other things.

We worked with our healthy food partner and social enterprise Well-Fed, to provide staff with a hot meal every time they’re in work. What started as a pilot scheme in May has now become a vital service, with roughly 14,000 meals eaten by staff from across the organisation, so far. I’m happy to confirm that we have committed to this initiative until at least April 2023 and we’re funding it by cost savings in other areas of the business. But it’s not easy to find the extra budget alongside the growing pressure on our finances.

The fantastic thing about this is that it directly benefits our staff, potentially saving our full-time employees £100 a month and also putting quality food in their bellies. It’s been a huge success and has done so much more than just feed people. It has brought people together for lunch, people who wouldn’t usually see any colleagues all day because they’re out in the van. Some of the feedback has been moving. Our dining spaces are now bubbling with staff enjoying lunch with each other around the tables.

The Well Fed model is a unique partnership. We provide them with guaranteed income through the purchasing of 2,500 meals a week for our Extra Care schemes. This allows them to employ a team who can make many more meals with the same people resource. These “subsidised” meals can then be provided to people experiencing food poverty. We also grant fund an additional £100,000 a year to provide food for our communities in a variety of forms. From freshly prepared ready meals and slow cooker bags to Hello Fresh style meal boxes with recipe cards.

The biggest drivers of homelessness and ill health are poverty related. That is why I helped set up and chair the 2025 Movement here in North Wales, which brings together a wide range of leaders and practitioners from across local government, housing, public health and higher education, all working together differently and sharing knowledge and resources to achieve our mission – to end avoidable health inequalities in North Wales by 2025. To find out more about the work we have been doing please visit our website here.

I’m determined to do all that I can to campaign for a fairer Wales where everyone can live their life with dignity and choice. In the meantime, housing associations, the public sector and the third sector need to work even better together to address the impacts of the crisis as best we can.