- 08 January 2021
- News, Communities,
Having weathered the effects of COVID-19 last year, Tolent is pressing ahead in 2021 with a strong pipeline of work that includes pioneering local authority partnerships to deliver forward-looking accessible and assisted living properties, and key sustainability improvements to reduce the region’s carbon footprint. North East Times' Steven Hugill finds out more
“The work we are doing is making a big difference to the way people live their lives.”
Businesses, by their very nature, make an indelible impact on society.
Tolent, however, has genuine reason to salute its influence, with the firm delivering a transformational impression across the communities and economies in which it operates.
The life-changing improvements alluded to above by regional director Chris Price are borne out across numerous flagship residential projects and work that is delivering step-changes to living standards and the region’s commitment to reducing carbon.
A critical element in its endeavours are Tolent’s relationships with local authorities, which have seen the company embark on what is believed to be a UK-first development model with Newcastle City Council.
Known as the Annuity Lease Back Model (ALBM), the innovative and unique programme sees council-owned land leased to a development partner for new houses to be financed, designed and built to agreed standards.
When construction work is complete, properties are leased back to the council for an agreed period of time and, at the end of that window, the authority owns all of the homes.
For Tolent, the relationship has already proven to be extremely positive.
An initial £20 million scheme to deliver 148 accessible and assisted living bungalows, apartments and Tyneside flats across five sites for people aged 55 and over, or for those with specialist housing needs, has been hailed a major success.
In fact, such has been its impact, the business is now engaged on a second ALBM programme with the council to provide another 199 affordable rental properties across eight city sites.
“We deliver full turnkey bespoke solutions and have really strong relationships with a number of local authorities,” says Chris, “and through these we are creating communities for people to live.
“We are making a big difference in Newcastle with our ALBM work alongside the council and partners such as Your Homes Newcastle.
“Our partnership has generated great opportunities for the council to deliver new housing while minimising its financial outlay.
“We’ve also supported Sunderland City Council to provide specialist assisted living properties for disabled tenants and delivered its first council houses for more than 40 years.
“We are delivering strong propositions that allow people to live independently for as long as they want to, all while being part of a wider community and closer to support services.”
Using the example of Tolent’s work to create the Elswick-based Hodgson House, which includes 16 single-storey apartments designed for residents with on-set dementia and cognitive needs, development manager Harry Bell says the company’s work is “making lives easier”.
“At the minute, a lot of dementia services are spread across Newcastle, for example, but by creating developments like Hodgson House, we are making it easier for people and improving their quality of lives,” he says.
“They can be independent, but also have access to assistance as and when they require it.”
Another area where Tolent is driving positive change alongside local authorities is that of carbon reduction.
The company previously secured £1.9 million work with Durham County Council to retrofit 180 properties in the West Chilton area to ensure they meet environmental standards.
The work includes providing external wall insulation to 120 homes, installing air source heat pumps to 80 properties and fitting photovoltaic panels to 25 houses.
“This is a really specialist area for us,” says Harry, “we have a lot of experience, the expertise and the staff to carry it out very effectively and very efficiently.”
Chris says the focus on sustainability permeates throughout Tolent.
“A key element within our work is how, as an organisation, we are sustainable,” he says.
“We are looking at how we can reduce our carbon footprint and become carbon neutral.
“We have to play our part and we are looking at things like electric company cars and ensuring we have charging points at offices and sites, and how we can source more materials with a lower footprint.”
Increasing sustainability will also be significant to another element of the business’ future – its workforce.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the firm was known for holding regular, successful school visits to its sites, to introduce the construction sector to its potential new workforce.
However, with coronavirus having made such trips impossible in recent months, the business has instead provided digital lessons for youngsters and donated laptops to schools and toys and gifts to charities.
“We want to show what our industry is all about and encourage people to come and work in the sector,” says Chris.
“We want people to engage with us to understand what it is we are doing, but that doesn’t just mean children, it means parents too.
“The sector is perhaps not seen as being very glamorous, but it has many different facets, and it isn’t just about someone laying bricks on a site.
“There is so much diversity and opportunity.”
An industry driven, higher-level skills programme inspired by Ryder Architecture and led by Gateshead College, it prepares students for careers in sectors such as architecture, engineering, building services and construction and site management.
The company has already recruited four members of staff through PlanBEE and, says Chris, is keen to extend its relationship.
"The people on that programme are coming through with a lot of skills, and they can see there is a tangible route to getting a career in the industry.
“As a big local employer, we have a responsibility to do this, and it is something we will continue doing.”
And it such focus on the future that has helped Tolent move into 2021 with real momentum, despite the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having reacted quickly last year to introduce health and safety measures, which meant sites were closed for only three weeks during the spring national lockdown, the business was able to bring many projects to successful conclusions.
And in an environment where the Government has introduced its ‘Build, Build, Build’ programme to reform the planning system and increase housebuilding, Chris says Tolent is primed to thrive over the course of the next 12 months and beyond.
“2020 was a challenge but it was still a successful year,” he adds.
“We embraced the difficulties that came our way and were helped too by our fantastic clients and supply chain.
“The last two or three months of 2020 were hectic, and things are really moving again in the sector.
“There is huge demand, and we are seeing no signs of it slowing down.”