A Decade of Dedication: An Interview with David Byrne

Outgoing Chairperson of Abbeyfield South Downs

David Byrne has been a steady presence for Abbeyfield South Downs for nearly a decade, helping shape our community. As he steps down after nine years of service, we sat down with David to reflect on his journey, celebrate his achievements, and hear his thoughts on the future of Abbeyfield South Downs.

Join us as we look back at the moments that defined his tenure, and the challenges faced and overcome.

David, what have been the highlights of your time as Chairperson?

Well, the highlight was opening the Holdenhurst scheme in Heathfield. It was an achievement in so many ways due to the length and timing of the project, also it effectively doubled Abbeyfield South’s Downs capacity, which enables us to help and do more.

What are you most proud of achieving during your leadership?

One of the things I’m most proud of is getting the original planning permission granted. We were quite emotional because we’d worked on it for a long time by then: in fact, I joined the board of Abbeyfield South Downs originally in about 2000 and it was on the table then. We then faced various personnel and funding challenges but eventually were able to move forward. It was going well then Covid struck!

What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

Regarding the Holdenhurst build, we got through the initial lockdown periods relatively unscathed. However, due to issues arising from the pandemic, our main contractors went into administration near the end. Ian Thomas, our new incoming Chairperson, was invaluable throughout the project, especially when finding a new contractor and getting the building finished and ready for tenants to move in.

That was incredibly rewarding, plus we got some great feedback on the building and the scheme, from tenants of course and from local people. It's something to be truly proud of; the Board were united in our objective of making sure that we provide affordable, quality housing.

One of the ongoing challenges is the housing stock. The older properties need to be constantly updated and that is a strain. However, we’ve also managed to bring some houses back from the brink with targeted marketing, to build communities where people want to live, so that’s a win. 

What legacy do you hope to leave for Abbeyfield South Downs?

A great team, led by Nikki Moss, our new General Manager. I would say that Nikki is the most qualified person in Abbeyfield South Downs regarding understanding the thoughts, feelings and emotions of tenants and relatives. That really helps with influencing the big decisions in terms of how our houses are run and achieving our mission.

Another thing is that I could look people in the eye and say that I would like to live at Holdenhurst. My wife’s got other ideas at the moment because she thinks we're too young, but I keep saying one of those flats, something like that would be perfect!


David Byrne speaking at the launch of Holdenhurst, Heathfield

How has serving as Chairperson influenced you personally?

Having seen the work at Abbeyfield South Downs, in the future, we are now totally sold on the idea of renting in the future. You go through life, and you rent when you’re young, then you want to buy, and I now see that towards the end of your life, it's best to go back to renting - preferably with a social housing provider that isn't going to charge awful service charges.

If you've got a charity like Abbeyfield that's committed to transparency and to making sure that it doesn't waste money, and importantly isn't trying to make money indirectly through service charges, then that to me is the ideal scenario as you get older.

I see this increasingly myself; I mean I'm 70 shortly and with things like cutting the grass - do I want to spend three hours out there every time? You get tired because you don’t have the energy of when you were 20-30 years younger. Somewhere like Holdenhurst takes away that worry because somebody else is organising the grass cutting, somebody else is doing the decorating, the maintenance. If something doesn't work you tell them, and that stress taken away!

What important lessons did you learn from your role?

I'm a great believer that its stress kills people, which is why I don't do much these days! I believe in delegation to try not to burden yourself with too much, but be prepared to step in if you need to.

What advice would you give to Ian Thomas, the incoming Chairperson?

As Chairperson you're the person that's doing the chief oversight. Don't be too hands on, trust people around you that you appointed and keep smiling. Ensure you understand what the charity is about, its mission, and what is involved so that you can stick to it – and be prepared to make tough decisions.

What will you miss most about being part of Abbeyfield South Downs?

Well, I'm still going to be involved, I am staying on the Board and intend to play an active role. So, I hope that I won't miss too much! Sometimes it's nice to have the status of Chairperson but I've done nine years, I think I've done my turn.

I’m looking forward to working with Nolan Taylor, the previous Chief Executive who is also going to join the Board. I think we will probably work together on some new projects or hopefully another new development if we can find some suitable land.