Peter Stringer has a tough message for NIMBYs fighting development on their doorstep: “We have to ask ourselves whether providing housing for our children and grandchildren is more important than looking out on green fields”.
Peter’s comments relate to the crisis facing many rural communities, where there are simply not enough affordable homes for young people who want to remain in the area as they were brought up.
He is far from alone in voicing his concerns. In our February/March issue, regular Last Word columnist Rosemary French spoke of “ructions” between market towns and villages in the countryside where she lives in Surrey.
Rosemary wrote: “We have villages and towns to the west saying that all new housing must be in the east and vice-versa. We have one town council not only supporting the settlement, but suggesting the number of new homes should be tripled – so long as it is not near them.”
She added: “It has all got terribly personal, with a nasty, derogatory and anonymous website which pillories anyone and everyone who might dare to stick their head above the parapet. So serious are the disagreements that the definition of an unwelcome visitor is someone who comes from the next village or town.”
Peter, who retires this month (June) after more than 30 years in the housing sector, steps into the debate with a wealth of knowledge and experience. After graduating with a degree in town planning from Birmingham University, he worked in the planning office at Warrington Council, before taking up the role of housing services director with Maidstone Borough Council in 1986.
Local authority housing responsibilities changed in 1993 and Peter became involved in lengthy negotiations to transfer Maidstone’s council homes to an independent association. It was not an easy ride. “We met pockets of political opposition and a ballot among tenants came out 60-40 against,” he recalls. “I still felt it was the right way to go and when a new chief executive arrived in 1999 I wrote a report suggesting we needed to look at the issue again, as a way of getting more investment for housing, to regenerate certain areas and to tackle homelessness.”
A new board was set up in 2002 to present new detailed plans to council tenants, and another ballot held the following year backed the sale of housing stock to the newly formed Maidstone Housing Trust, while retaining many of the local authority’s roles and responsibilities. The trust, which became Golding Homes in 2010, now has 20,000 tenants and has invested more than £150 million in regenerating its homes and estates.
As Golding’s chief executive, Peter has engineered an extraordinary change in social housing, particularly in the Park Wood and Tovil areas of Maidstone, once regarded as deprived and forgotten. Gone are the “depressing and ugly” flats which bred a host of social issues such as drug use and child poverty. Millions of pounds have been spent on providing bright, airy homes which families want to live in, surrounded by open space, shops and a community centre with a nursery, youth club and public hall.
Goldings now owns and manages more than 7,200 homes across Kent, has built 1,200 new properties since it was founded and is committed to building an extra 200 every year.
Peter is immensely proud of his achievements over the years and passionate about ensuring the work will be continued, after he hands over the reins to Gary Clark this month.
“It has been a hugely rewarding experience to establish and lead Golding Homes over the last 14 years and a pleasure to work alongside so many talented and dedicated people committed to making a difference to the lives of our customers and communities,” he said.
Sadly, Peter lost his wife just before Christmas seven years ago, leaving him with a 16-year-old son and a daughter in her first term at university. However, both are now pursuing their careers and Peter feels it is time to consider his future. He bought an apartment in Tenerife last year and hopes to live there over the winter, walking, learning Spanish and playing golf. He is also considering the offer of several non-executive directorships on housing-related projects.
“I’m sad to be leaving,” he says, but he is sure his successor will take up the baton and fight for the rights of housing tenants in Kent.