"Apparently as an organisation that works across the north, the fact that the vast majority of our staff are fluent Welsh speakers is fairly unique."
Amongst his career highlights, he lists the formation of Grŵp Cynefin housing association back in 2014; developing the Congl Meinciau Enterprise Centre in Pen Llŷn and establishing the first Rural Housing Enabler service in north Wales.
“There are so many things I could list as career highlights,” Walis George explains, “but I'm very proud of the formation of Grŵp Cynefin. The core values of both Cymdeithas Tai Eryri and Cymdeithas Tai Clwyd who were amalgamated in 2014 to form Grŵp Cynefin are as relevant and vibrant today.”
Working with rural communities to try and meet housing needs is the main purpose of the association, giving young people and families the opportunity to continue to live in their communities and offering regeneration opportunities to areas that are struggling.
“In addition, thriving communities ensure that the Welsh language and its culture are also given an opportunity to prosper in rural areas and that vision is something that has always been important to me over the years, as well as our Management Board members and our team of staff too,” he said.
As he prepares to bid farewell to over 200 Grŵp Cynefin staff, the fact that the housing association provides a fully bilingual service is a credit to Walis George, the leadership team and its Board members.
“Apparently as an organisation that works across the north, the fact that the vast majority of our staff are fluent Welsh speakers is fairly unique.
“The success of establishing Grŵp Cynefin is a credit to our staff and it is thanks to them that we now have 4,550 houses in our property portfolio today and that the society’s work continues to grow. I am proud to retire with the association in a sound financial position, with a great reputation among our tenants and stakeholders and strong enough to withstand any future challenges.”
The desire to raise a family in a Welsh community saw Walis George and his Flintshire born wife, move to north Wales in 1991. As a young boy raised in Llanelli, he was the only child from his street to attend the local Welsh medium school, Ysgol Gymraeg Dewi Sant.
After a period working as a civil servant in Llanelli and Aberystwyth, he spent three years working for the Welsh Language Society before gaining a position as a Housing Officer for the Secondary Housing Association for Wales covering the south Wales valleys. Antur Nantlle was his first destination after moving north and a year later, he started his career at Cymdeithas Tai Eryri.
He recalls the difficult period during his early years persuading the government, politicians and financers of the local need to build new homes in specific communities.
“Buying and renovating houses was Cymdeithas Tai Eryri's main work ethos during those early years. There was considerable opposition to building houses in rural areas, and serious work to persuade the authorities that building quality affordable housing for families and young people was a worthwhile investment.”
One of the housing developments that still brings pride to Walis George is the small development of Castell y Gog, a 12 property estate at Dyffryn Ardudwy, Gwynedd. Back in 2006, it was difficult to provide housing in rural areas but the introduction of the Rural Housing Enabler to the sector bought real change to rural communities.
The Rural Housing Enabler's work was to discuss with the community and gather evidence showing the housing needs within that community. There was an opportunity in Dyffryn Ardudwy to respond to the challenge that affordable housing was needed for local people.
“The turning point was co-operation, when Tai Eryri worked with the Community Council, Gwynedd Council, the National Park and the Rural Housing Enabler, the first housing of its kind in north Wales were successfully developed. And coupled with a local letting policy agreed by Dyffryn Ardudwy and Talybont Community Council, a sense of community ownership of the estate ensured their success.”
“I am also very proud of the fact that Grŵp Cynefin now offers more than housing. With Gorwel services supporting people who need assistance in many different areas, such as domestic violence, the Hwb in Denbigh supports young people and the unemployed and extra care housing schemes provides a special service for older people, the work of the association is varied.
“I take immense pride in our work supporting older people at Awel y Coleg, Y Bala; Llys Awelon, Ruthin; Penucheldre, Holyhead and soon to be added to our list Hafod y Gest, Porthmadog with early plans for a similar provision at Pentre Canol, Denbigh.
“The challenge of redeveloping the old sheltered housing scheme in Penucheldre was huge, and the 54-unit scheme was a completely new concept for Anglesey at the time. It offered us an extra challenge, beyond construction, as the interests and safety of the residents who received a care support service at the old site needed to be managed. I lost some sleep over the development, but the project has been a blueprint for future development plans. This excellent centre has a special place in my heart,” Walis George explains.
Dafydd Lewis, Chair of Grŵp Cynefin’s Board of Management said: “Our gratitude to Walis George for his long service to the housing sector in north Wales and nationally is immense. His enthusiasm and friendly nature has made working with him as Board members, staff, tenants and partner agencies, a very easy task. Grŵp Cynefin is losing a very good friend but we wish him and his family well on his retirement.
“At the same time, we are keen to welcome Shan Lloyd Williams as our new Chief Executive. We wish her the very best in the role and look forward to working with her in the coming days and weeks.”
As he bids farewell, Walis George recalls numerous funny tales of his time with the association, including one where he addressed a tenant working group for half an hour shortly after establishing Grŵp Cynefin. As he finished speaking, a voice from the back said to the room: “Excuse me, but who are you?”
He also recalls one of the toughest times of his career, which involved staff members. In 2011, the association lost two colleagues in one year: “Their deaths bought overwhelming sadness to all of us as a team, and whilst we tried to support each other we were obliged to continue to offer a service to our tenants and partners. They were great friends as much as colleagues and will never be forgotten.”
As he prepares for his retirement he says there are no specific plans other than releasing the responsibility to others. He wishes Shan Lloyd Williams as the incoming Grŵp Cynefin Chief Executive all the very best, whilst he looks forward to becoming a doting grandfather for the first time.
“In between my new housekeeping duties and keeping on top of the gardening, I'm also hoping to have more time to roam Eryri and the coast of Llŷn and Anglesey come spring and summer. I’ll then switch back to supporting my beloved Scarlets rugby team during the autumn and winter months!” said Walis George.
Walis George will officially retire from duties on 30 March 2018.