Connexus turns five

22nd July, 2022
Connexus at 5

It has been five years since housing groups from Herefordshire and Shropshire joined forces to create Connexus, combining resources to support and build communities.

It’s fair to say that a lot has happened since 2017. Like most businesses, Connexus had to adapt to a number of challenges including a global pandemic, labour shortages and increasing living costs. Despite these difficulties, new ways of working and a focus on people mean strong foundations have been laid for the future.

Here's the Connexus story so far:

A new connected approach

The organisation was founded when two housing groups, Herefordshire Housing and Shropshire Housing Group, came together under one banner - Connexus. The groups were made up of three housing associations and associated companies, mainly Herefordshire Housing, South Shropshire Housing Association and Meres & Mosses Housing Association. All together Connexus would own or manage more than 10,000 properties across Herefordshire and Shropshire and employ more than 500 members of staff.

The core ambition was to deliver more properties for outright sale and market rent, which would happen alongside a development programme of shared ownership and affordable rent homes. These would be delivered through Connexus and outright sale brand Floreat. A focus on developing communities as well as new homes was agreed – improving services and investing in social mobility, skills and opportunities for local people.

Challenges and opportunities

A year after Connexus was formed in 2018, that vision turned to reality as Connexus unveiled its first flagship Passivhaus scheme at Callaughtons Ash in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. The innovative properties were amongst the first affordable homes in the UK to achieve the coveted Passivhaus Standard and would go on to win Low Energy Project Award at the Structural Timber Awards 2019 and feature in The Sunday Times.

Innovation ran through new developments including Independent Living Scheme Beech Gardens in Ludlow. With apartments and bungalows built to HAPPI principles – the homes ensured good natural light, room to move around, great storage and ventilation.

Connexus also hosted its first all-colleague event in 2018, which aimed to bring colleagues together from across the group to share ideas and develop more effective ways of working.

Later that year a judgment from the housing regulator saw Connexus receive a G2/V2 rating for governance and financial viability. In response the board began to put improvements in place, with additions to the management team and more robust ways of managing risks a top priority

Foundations for the future

In March 2019 board chair Ruth Cooke announced Richard Woolley would become Connexus’ new chief executive – replacing interim chief executive Duncan Forbes. Richard pledged to build on the work the organisation had put into motion, determined to deliver further improvements and cement relationships with partners and stakeholders.

An example of this approach was becoming an early adopter for Together With Tenants – a sector-wide initiative focused on strengthening the relationship between residents and housing associations. Together With Tenants aimed to heighten accountability to customers, set out clear expectations and encourage scrutiny of a new draft charter. The initiative would support the goals of the Government’s Social Housing White Paper, released the following year.

Connexus was also gaining recognition for its innovative approach to addressing local housing challenges. Shortlisted for three UK Housing Awards and winning one – Best Older Peoples Landlord – the win highlighted the organisation’s commitment to supplying long-term support, care, and accommodation for older people across Shropshire and Herefordshire.

Following a successful summer, new additions joined the Connexus board, including new chair John Barker. John brought with him a wealth of experience, having held roles in executive and non-executive positions, including 20 years as chief executive of Moat.

The year ended with Connexus retaining its G2/V2 compliance ratings from the regulator but seeing its credit rating upgraded to A3 by Moody’s, reflecting a ‘renewed business focus’.

Community investment

Through the Community Development Fund Connexus has invested over £320,000 in community groups, activities and good causes. Here’s just a few examples of how the fund has helped:

New Saints Football club

The New Saints of Oswestry Town FC were granted £2500 from Community Development Fund in 2021. The grant went towards proving free holiday activities and food parcels for 258 children and young people living in Ellesmere during the school holidays.

West Mercia Women's Aid

The fund has provided a number of grants to West Mercia Women’s aid, including the help to kickstart their resettlement programme, which offers safe and secure accommodation to victims of domestic abuse. West Mercia Women’s Aid supports around 50 women and their children to move into permanent housing in Herefordshire each year.

Food banks

During the pandemic, the fund provided £2,700 to 18 food banks and local support charities. The support was in response to a downturn in donations and increase in demand during lockdowns and restrictions.

Lakelands Academy

Lakelands Academy in Ellesmere received £5,000 for a state-of-the-art upgrading of their theatre lighting and sound systems. Though their primary focus is providing top-level education for secondary school pupils, the theatre facilities are enjoyed by people of all ages from the Ellesmere community.

Eco Carnival

The fund provided £3000 to the Ludlow Fringe Festival Eco Carnival in July this year. The festival is a community arts project, delivering social and creative sessions where local people can learn new skills, meet new friends and work together.

Passing the peak 

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in 2020, it led to some of the biggest limits on personal freedoms in a century. Connexus colleagues rose to the challenge, keeping an emergency service running and staying in touch with customers through welfare calls over the phone and socially distanced visits. The Shropshire Domestic Abuse Service, which forms part of Connexus, continued to provide a crucial lifeline for victims of domestic abuse throughout the lockdowns, seeing referrals rise matching a national pattern of increased domestic abuse.  

In April, the brand names which had operated under the group umbrella since 2017 were consolidated and the organisation became known simply as Connexus. It was the start of a new era, made possible by the hard work and dedication of colleagues, customers, and stakeholders from those businesses over a number of years. The idea to bring people together matched the mood of the country at the time and the change aimed to deliver a more consistent approach and easier access to services when they were needed most. To help deliver this, Connexus chose the location of former Shropshire Housing Group headquarters to be its new head office - sitting in the middle of Connexus’ operating area at Craven Arms, the premises would allow for better collaboration and a base for the organisation’s services.  

In the second half of the year the Independence Trust left the group, as Connexus focussed on its core geography of Shropshire and Herefordshire. More changes followed and after a stringent selection process, the Connexus Careline service was acquired by national provider Doro (now Careium), which Connexus still has strong links with. At transfer, the service supported around 25,000 telecare connections for older and vulnerable people, and enabled people to live safely and independently in their own homes for as long as possible.   

A panel at the Tenants Voice virtual event
A panel at the Tenants Voice virtual event 

Out of the blocks 

With lockdowns and restrictions subsiding, Connexus adapted to a ‘new normal’ and began to bring its services back up to full strength. Although there would be further lockdowns and restrictions throughout 2021, Connexus sought to reach out to its communities – creating safer ways of working, visiting more homes for repairs, maintenance and compliance work and keeping in touch virtually with consultations and online events.  

Development of new properties, which had reduced significantly because of the pandemic, began to gather pace again, with targets of 250 new homes planned each year. A Young Persons Service in Hereford was opened, which would provide high-quality accommodation with 24/7 support, training, and the opportunity to take up formal educational qualifications.  

On the surface the country looked to be bouncing back strongly following the worst of the pandemic, but the social and economic toll of the virus cast a long shadow and would affect those living in poorer communities most. Connexus teams reacted to support those hardest hit, helping sustain tenancies, find suitable accommodation and maximise customer income and benefits.  

uth Cooke, outgoing Chair, hands over to new Chair, John Barker.
staff collecting award
Homes next to wild flowers at Callaughtons Ash
Mobile Responders
New homes at Beattie Avenue
Representatives from Connexus collect a health and safety award on stage in 2022
Connexus colleagues at the opening of Bath street in Hereford
Jo Tracey - Director of People at a colleague conference
Richard with the Connexus team, customers and Councillor Peter Broomhall, Mayor of Wem at a garden opening at the Westlands scheme, Wem.
Children at Ledbury School celebrate naming roads on a local Connexus housing scheme
Local housing chief executives interviewed live at online event Tenants Voice
Children take part in summer activities on a field at New Saints FC
Homes next to a road at Oak Meadow - Bishops Castle
Gardens at an Independent Living Scheme ready for the Platinum Jubilee
A customer at an Independent Living Scheme
Independent Living Scheme Lewellin House

Adapting to a changing world  

With a new year came new challenges. A cost-of-living crisis fuelled by rapid inflation following the pandemic and war in Ukraine led to spiralling energy costs and food bills. It would mean a continued focus for Connexus on supporting customers who were struggling, with teams providing advice and working closely with partner agencies and specialist support providers to get people the help that was needed.  

In March this year, after three years of improvement work, the Regulator of Social Housing upgraded Connexus’ governance and viability compliance ratings to G1/V1 – the highest of four possible grades. The new ratings were an important moment, with the board and management teams keen to use the outcome as a springboard to continue improving services for customers. 

Getting out and about and involved with face-to-face with customers has been of huge importance to everyone at Connexus this summer, the first without coronavirus restrictions since 2019. June saw celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee take place at homes, Independent Living Schemes and specialist services across Connexus with customers and colleagues of different generations coming together across an extended bank holiday weekend. 

Buildings at Bath Street Hereford
Bath Street in Hereford 

New schemes like Bath Street in Hereford have been officially opened, and new community gardens based around social interaction have been blooming. High levels of investment are being channelled into existing properties too including £14m for renewables, kitchens, bathrooms and other much- needed improvement work. As Connexus approaches the future it is committed to creating and maintaining communities while remaining acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead. 

New plans which will take Connexus to 2026 and beyond are currently being developed in partnership with customers and will reflect what matters most to local communities. There will be greater emphasis on reducing fuel poverty and delivering improving frontline services based in our communities like repairs. Continued investment and regenerating areas will remain a key priority, while all the time making sure Connexus is honouring commitments to reducing its impact on the environment and meeting its responsibilities as a trusted social housing provider.