ASK Colcestrians what is the worst thing about their town and most will say it is the amount of new housing.

Colchester earned the dubious title of the second fastest growing borough in the country with an average of 850 homes being built every year.

But the town's infrastructure - its roads, schools and hospitals - are buckling under the strain of the demands of the booming population.

Ask Sarah Thakkar, the chief executive of the north Essex housing association Colne, the worst thing about Colchester, however, and she will answer differently.

She will say it is the lack of housing.

She is not being controversial, nor is she being irresponsible. She is just expressing her overriding concern for much-needed homes.

Colne's portfolio includes 3,000 owned or managed homes across north Essex and south Suffolk as well as eight sheltered housing schemes and150 bed spaces for vulnerable clients mostly managed on Colne’s behalf by specialist agencies.

But the demand for housing is ever growing.

There are more than 3,000 people on Colchester Council's waiting list alone and there are more would-be homeowners than ever struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder.

Meanwhile, Government funding for housing associations has been cut.

So how can Colne help?

"At Colne we want to be part of solution and that means being innovative. If we only functioned traditionally, we would not survive," said Sara.

"We are in a strong financial position and we use that money to build and improve more homes across a whole range of requirements.

"For example, we work with private developers to build houses and the profit made is used to build social rent homes."

Other initiatives include offering homes on a shared ownership basis or right to buy schemes.

Sara has decades of experience in housing.

Her career has been diverse but with a recurrent theme - helping others.

After leaving university, she started working as a family therapist with children who had been emotionally, physically or sexually abused.

"It was the best job and the most difficult job I have ever had," said Sara, 51, who lives in Braiswick, Colchester.

"It was on a massive housing estate with severe deprivation."

She left the job to go travelling, answering the call of the wanderlust she still has today. (She has recently returned from trekking across Namibia with her 79-year-old father, Nev.)

When she was 23, she went through New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia, working in a variety of jobs to pay her way.

When she returned to Britain, she got a job setting up new outlets for the fashion store Burton.

"It had the customer at its heart but was not what I expected," said Sara.

"That was when I moved into property management. People fall into housing rather than seek it as a career. After a few years, I realised I was quite good at it.

"I went back to university to get more qualifications and was going to set up my own business. I came out in 1989, just as the recession hit."

Instead, Sara got a job with Bath City Council in the housing department and the rest, as they say, is history.

From Bath, she moved to Westminster where millionaires and MPs live cheek by jowl with some of the poorest people in London.

"In Westminster I was working in one of the most deprived areas of London," she said.

"It was behind the Tate art gallery, next to Pimlico with its expensive houses.

"It was an area of both absolute affluence and abject poverty, the most deprived area of the city.

"You had children who were trying to run homes for their parents, who would have to get themselves to school and feed themselves."

During her ten years there, she also became chairman of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service.

It worked on the principle of putting residents at the heart of decision-making and to encourage independent living.

She also set up a residents-led housing association which encouraged residents to be empowered to supply and manage their own services.

From Westminster, Sara went to Epsom, another area with areas of both wealth and poverty, before moving back to London.

Sara led a housing association which worked with 11 boroughs including the wealthy Wimbledon and Wandsworth.

Without the wholesale transfer of housing stock, it meant there were small clusters of housing association premises.

Sara said: "It is more disparate, fractured. You have a diversity which creates the tapestry of life."

In moving to Colchester and taking over as chief executive of Colne, Sara relished the opportunities for more social unity, of helping to support communities and give them a voice.

"What was missing in London, and what you have here is that you can get your arms around it.

"We were sitting on a £1 billion portfolio of houses but you are moving away from the social heart."

Sara said Colne housing association was able to combine a commercial edge with that social heart.

But there is still the fundamental problem of more housing exacerbating the strain on services.

Sara said: "Colchester and East Anglia are big growth areas because people are being priced out of London.

"It is a challenge," she admits.

Sara smiles again. "Some of us thrive on challenges. It is a bit like doing the ironing and starting on a crumpled shirt. It is satisfying to smooth it out and make is wearable."