Business

Housing heavyweight eyes expansion under leadership of ex Edinburgh Trams boss

ONE of Scotland’s biggest landlords, Places for People, has underlined the growth potential it sees in the country after proving its worth amid the pandemic.

Tom Norris, who is managing director of Places for People in Scotland and heads its affordable housing operations, said he sees scope for the organisation to build on its standing by increasing its presence outside the core central belt.

Places for People builds, buys and manages affordable housing and has around 8,400 homes on its books. Many are in the central belt.

The not-for-profit organisation provides a wide range of services for people who live in its homes as well as building them. It generates some of the funding required by selling homes at prices that can top £500,000.

Mr Norris said: “The focus for me is how we make Places for People Scotland relevant across the whole of Scotland as opposed to our heartlands … How we grow it, how we do more for our customers.”

He added: “There will always be a need for big housebuilders doing what they do but there is an increasing need for business with a heart.

“We are very well placed to do that piece, which is about building communities, building places rather than just building houses.”

Mr Norris noted the coronavirus crisis has posed big challenges for Places for People but also made clear what an important role it plays.

Lockdown restrictions made it hard for staff to do maintenance work and to make visits to tenants in person. But rather than put employees on furlough, Places for People redeployed 76 services staff to provide support for people on the phone. This allowed the organisation to provide a lifeline for many vulnerable people.

Mr Norris gained experience of working in other challenging situations before joining Places for People including a stint at Edinburgh Trams.

A former Network Rail graduate trainee, Mr Norris joined Edinburgh Trams in 2012 to lead the launch of passenger services. He did not work on the £776 million construction programme that was affected by delays and cost overruns, and which is the subject of an ongoing inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Hardie.

Mr Norris reckons the launch of services in 2014 was a big success but he decided to leave Edinburgh Trams in 2015 for a big job at ScotRail operator Abellio.

He thinks the success of the community building approach taken by Places for People can be seen in flagship developments such as The Engine Yard on the site of a former tram depot on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk. This features homes that Places for People sold at prices of up to £627,500 for a two-bed penthouse, and others for rental on an affordable basis. Some are reserved for older people. There is a gym on site.

HeraldScotland: The Engine Yard Development in Edinburgh Picture: Places for PeopleThe Engine Yard Development in Edinburgh Picture: Places for People

READ MORE: Five million use Edinburgh Trams in first year

“Our approach is to look at place in the round and if you look at Engine Yard that’s a very good example,” said Mr Norris. “I honestly think it’s great development and it’s a model of what developments should be as you go forward. It’s truly mixed tenure, the door is the same; it doesn’t matter if you own it or rent it or someone rents it for you. People are living in a community together.”

Places for People has benefited from the surge in house prices which followed the easing of lockdown measures.

While some think there could be a rapid correction if the pandemic causes more problems for the economy, Mr Norris seems sanguine about the outlook.

He noted house prices have remained resilient in Scotland as a simple function of supply and demand.

“The market’s high at the moment but, particularly if you go rural, supply is not very high so it’s going to push prices up. I feel as though house prices in this country are likely to continue their momentum is my gut instinct over the long term.”

READ MORE: Plans for landmark Edinburgh property development backed by investor

Mr Norris is not concerned that Places for People could get squeezed by commercial housebuilders, which have been buying huge amounts of land.

“The reason I don’t think so is because we offer so many different things. We will partner with some of the big housebuilders if it’s right for us, to deliver more units,” he said, adding: “It’s a model that fits in very well with the political psyche in Scotland.”

Mr Norris wants Places for People to become an organisation that’s recognised across the whole of Scotland and is seen as a partner of choice by local authorities and the like. He is confident it can provide valuable support for the Scottish Government’s drive to deliver 100,000 affordable homes by 2031/32.

READ MORE: Scottish cities targeted by homes for rent investors

Partnerships between private and public sector bodies and third sector players such as Places for People will be key to meeting the need for housing in Scotland and addressing challenges such as the decarbonisation of housing.

However, Mr Norris cautioned: “The impact of Brexit, everything that’s gone on. I think next year will be a challenging year.”

He thinks it could be harder for Places for People to retain staff if the easing of lockdown measures encourages people who have been sitting tight amid the pandemic to look for new jobs.

The music graduate also worked for out-sourcing giant Serco before deciding the not-for-profit world had more appeal. He joined Places for People in 2019 as group business practice director before moving into his current role in October last year.

Noting that creating shareholder value is not what gets him out of bed in the morning, Mr Norris observed: “Places for People is commercially driven but its all about making people’s lives better. For me it’s a perfect fit.”

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

You can’t beat Scotland on a good day. If I had to choose, Knoydart is my no 1 destination. I enjoy the outdoors and love to be in the mountains. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a fair bit and adore Canada and New Zealand. My business travel has tended to be in the UK only.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I always wanted to go into politics; the ability to make things better for other people is something I’ve always held dear. I grew up in a family of musicians and although I went on to study music at university, I decided not to become a professional musician and it has remained an enjoyable hobby to this day.

What was your biggest break in business?

Leading Places for People in Scotland is fantastic and gives me everything I need from a role and organisation. Notwithstanding that, being giving the opportunity to lead Edinburgh Trams early on in my career into the launch was a huge privilege.

What was your worst moment in business?

There were many stomach-drop moments during my time at Edinburgh Trams, when something would come up that was unforeseen that we thought may put the launch at risk. I couldn’t pick one in particular, but we did take it live as expected in the end, so I guess it came good.

Who do you most admire and why?

My parents are my heroes. The type of people who interest me most are those who stand up for their beliefs and who live their own values. I have real respect for people who show integrity and who lift others up as they progress through their career.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?

I’m reading ‘Love for Imperfect Things’ by the Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim. I’m a huge fan of Biffy Clyro, so seeing them play Glasgow Green recently felt significant, given the impact covid has had on live music. The last film I saw was ‘No Time to Die’, Daniel Craig’s last as James Bond. It didn’t disappoint.

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