John McLean, OBE, Radius Housing
The door to John McLean's office is gently nudged shut to keep out the background noise of drilling taking place in the street and with that, I have his full attention. The theme of our conversation commands mine: has Radius's housebuilding work had an effect on the harmony in Northern Ireland's communities?
“I believe that there’s no more a unifying factor than housing,” McLean begins. “And there is just a hair’s breadth between the parties in terms of their views on housing. We are extremely fortunate because no matter who has been in the Minister’s seat, there has been consistency on many aspects of housing.
“That suits us, as our organisation is deeply committed to shared communities. We’ve invested in building united communities through the government’s TBUC scheme. You can’t actually impose it upon people to say ‘you must live together in peace and harmony’, but you can get people to sign up to the principles and commit to respecting one another’s diversity. We’ve seen some of our communities brilliantly celebrating diversity, made up of people from Africa, Eastern Europe, and other regions who have come to live here and so it’s no longer about orange and green, it’s about international, cosmopolitan communities.
“When we go in, we seek to build a community which helps people access the sort of commercial and community benefits of the upturn in our fortunes in the last 20 or so years.
“The best days for us at Radius are when we can hand over the keys and see a family take up a home for the first time. To see the looks on their faces as they enter their new home for the first time, to see their kids run around the house in excitement, it’s just amazing. Of all the things we do, you know, to see a neighbourhood be regenerated or born into a new community and to start to thrive that’s so rewarding.
McLean is clearly committed to building sustainable communities where people can celebrate diversity and go on to contribute to a better society for all: from cross-border work to mergers, and with tenants and politicians. He sees better homes leading to better prospects for all, in terms of education, health and choice.
“We did a bond issue recently which has enabled us to think bigger and plan for greater things. We took our vision to the markets and we were 300% oversubscribed, so there’s clearly interest abroad in what we’re trying to achieve. It won’t be the last time that we look internationally for the benefit of the community.
“An example of what it makes possible is a current scheme in development on the edge of West Belfast which will see 300 families move in. The site used to be derelict and asbestos-filled reflecting years of irresponsibility of former manufacturers and now we’ve created this tremendous community asset. It’s highly unlikely this derelict site could have been turned round other than through a Housing Association, such was the significant remediation costs associated with that project. And now we have not only done it but we have created this fantastic neighbourhood, combining the potential for living, work and leisure.
“We can really see where housing is making inroads and is helping to stabilise what’s gone before. One effect is that our kids don’t see things in quite the same way as the narrative has moved on quite a bit. The big issue now is about getting people to enjoy the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland in a way that maybe previously passed them by.”
As we finish up, the office door is opened again. It’s clear that it was only ever closed so that we could forge a closer link as we spoke. In that one small gesture, a perfect glimpse of his working style: to bring communities together.