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Willie Hartley Russell, of Bucklebury House, takes on chairmanship of Berkshire-based charity, The Almshouse Association

A leading Berkshire figure has been appointed chairman of The Almshouse Association.

Willie Hartley Russell, former high sheriff of Berkshire, became chairman of Berkshire-based charity The Almshouse Association on Thursday, June 15 after serving as its vice chairman for six years and on the board of trustees for the last 20 years.

In his new appointment, Mr Hartley Russell aims to promote greater public and political awareness and to tackle some of the misconceptions around almshouses, which he said will play an increasingly important role in the years to come.

Willie Hartley-Russell
Willie Hartley-Russell

The Almshouse Association supports more than 1,600 independent almshouse member charities, which provide low-cost community housing for an estimated 36,000 residents across the UK.

Around 550 almshouses are in Berkshire and are managed by 32 almshouse charities.

“It was the first firm of sheltered accomodation, of affordable housing,” Mr Hartley Russell told newburytoday.

“That’s really at the centre of what we do and I think it’s been brought into sharp focus the last few days with what Prince William is setting out to look at homelessness and housing.”

Mr Hartley Russell brings generations of family commitment to almshouses to his new role.

He chairs the family foundation, The Hartley Trust, formerly known as the Donnington Hospital Trust — the tenth-oldest almshouse foundation in the country — which maintains strong links with Newbury Soup Kitchen, supporting the local homeless population.

Mr Hartley Russell also spoke about some of the main challenges confronting the progress of almshouses.

“One of the issues we have is that quite often almshouses are not recognised by the Government as affordable in their legislation, which is mad,” he added.

“While we don’t charge rent, the residents make a contribution and that is usually less than half the market rate.”

Almshouse charities today are investing heavily in modernising their properties to provide disabled access, internet connection, electronic doors and sophisticated alarm systems.

But this process is costly and many properties are listed for their historical and architectural value.

Mr Hartley Russell explained more about the support The Almshouse Association offers to almhouse associations looking to develop their facilities.

He said: “Something the Almshouse Association does is raise funding to help less well-off almshouses, those without an endowment, where they need to put in insulation or a shower or a new kitchen and they haven’t got the funds.

“We make non-repayable grants to some of those charities to help maintain the standards the association feels they should be kept to.

“Looking forward, the association as a whole is encouraging the creation of new charities and the creation of new almshouse units.”

On his appointment, CEO of The Almshouse Association, Nick Phillips, said: “Willie brings formidable experience to our leadership.

“With his financial career in investment management, he brings sound business acumen, and with his long history of family commitment to almshouses, he has a depth of knowledge that can see the association and the wider almshouse movement thrive and become robust for the next century.”

Almshouses, unlike social housing associations, are low-cost community housing aiming to encourage independent living.

They are managed by a board of volunteer charity trustees.

Mr Hartley Russell is leading a delegation from the Association to meet with former Prime Minister, Theresa May, this Wednesday (July 5) to discuss raising the profile of almshouses in legislation.

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