Friday, 16 December 2011

The Most Popular Posts of 2011 - Part Two

A warm welcome to 2012
For the final post of a momentous 2011, I thought you might be interested to know what the most popular posts of 2011 were. Last week featured the 10th - 6th most popular and this week is the final countdown.

Best wishes to all for the festive season and wishing you an exciting and prosperous 2012. I'm almost certain the Mayans had it all wrong. We'll see...

5) Introducing Abodes Singles
A blog post introducing our innovative new product that seeks to connect single homeless people with properties, something that can be tricky to do.

4) Will This Be The Era Of Consumer-Led Public Services?
How will the huge changes in public services manifest be represented and (a common theme on this blog) how can we create a new measure of success that moves us on from purely financial metrics?

Well, do we? It would seem given a later post on this blog that the answer is no. I'll report back in 2012 to let you know how our pilot scheme is going. 

Inspired by a radio programme about pencils (read the blog and it does makes sense) I've been thinking about how we can create innovative products and services in housing. 

Do you tweet? Facebook? Are you beginning to wonder whether to invest time in Google+? If you're wondering about the value of social media for social housing organisations then have a read of this. It would seem that many of you are, as it's been the most popular post of the year. 

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Most Popular Posts Of 2011 - Part One

If you're wondering what could account for the smell of burning candles and the off-key singing it's because this blog has officially reached its first birthday. Although the blog list on the sidebar insists that the first post was actually in January, that's because it was the first one published - there was plenty of writing and mistakes to be made behind the scenes before that.

The blog has been an interesting challenge in looking at new ways of communicating with different groups, and assessing which of the new media tools on offer actually give housing professionals something new and useful. I think in the New Year I'll perhaps be able to round up some more insightful thoughts on what I've picked up from the experience of blogging and tweeting.

Many thanks to each and every one of the 12,000 or so of you who have read the blog in 2011 and, as ever, if you have any feedback or thoughts then I'm always interested to read your comments and do my best to respond. To finish off the year I thought I'd give you the run down of the most popular (or at least the most read) posts of the year on the blog.

10th - Does Housing Get Diversity Wrong? Looking at the specific challenges of addressing diversity in an area like Trafford and how housing approaches the issue.

9th - Supporting Community Action In Trafford With the challenge of the Big Society ringing in our ears, how are we addressing the issue across our own borough? As requested in the comments an update to this is in the works...

8th - Changes to the Board An important update on the mechanics of THT and how the changes would impact on the organisation and its customers.

7th - The Past And Future For Housing Inspired by Remembrance Sunday and my reading list I dug out the crystal ball and tried to look at a possible future for the housing sector.

6th - What Do Housing Associations actually do? Here's 964,339 Answers Revealing the research done for our contribution to the neighbourhood audit and looking at the wider (and often unspoken) work that housing associations do.

Find out the most popular next week, along with some of the search terms used to reach the blog!

Friday, 2 December 2011

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love VAT

When I was younger, there were always two things that I just couldn't be bothered to understand: Pensions and VAT. Obviously, as the years have taken their toll, I've found my interest in pensions has naturally increased, but I've still never managed to get that exercised about VAT. So it was amusing to me that George Osborne's statement this week had something interesting to say on both these topics - things that may yet turn out to have real organisational significance for Housing Associations.

Naturally, it was Osborne’s mention of pensions that grabbed the headlines. The three main points were that people would have to work longer before they got their state pension, that public sector pensions would be lower than historically has been the case and finally that pension funds would be investing in large infrastructure projects. Of these, the first two were merely re-statements of very clear trends that had been well trailed. But the news that pension funds will increase the scale of their direct funding of our roads, railways and hospitals of the future (you’ll notice that housing wasn't on that list) is more engaging.

Given that we now have six, not four, years of planned public sector retrenchment (or "cuts" as we’ve grown to know and love them) and that the banks are now in the business of building balance sheets rather than advancing long-term capital, we perhaps should be saying, "thank goodness someone is prepared to invest." That said, I'm sure it won't replace the cut public expenditure, I'm sure that over the lifetime of this parliament that infrastructure will depreciate by more than the additional investment made; but nonetheless in the current climate any new source of private capital must be greeted with enthusiasm. Now all we need to work on is getting that kind of institutional backing into affordable housing.

So the pensions may have been the lead story, but (and this is a sentence I never thought I’d write) it’s VAT that is the exciting part. Specifically, the catchily-titled "cost-sharing exemption", through which organisations that are exempt from VAT (like most Housing Associations are for the majority of their activities) can share activities without having to charge the other organisation VAT on those activities. With VAT now at a record 20%, that's no small saving and I predict it will have two impacts within our sector.

Firstly, it will reduce the imperative to merge as that will no longer be necessary to avoid paying VAT on services provided between organisations. Secondly, it will increase the imperative to collaborate in cost-sharing arrangements with other exempt organisations, as by doing so there is the potential to avoid 100% of the VAT that would otherwise be payable. I know that a lot of the detail of this has yet to be worked through and it may well be some time before we see how the exemption gets put to use, but let’s imagine for a second what might it offer.

Of course, the "scale-brigade" will immediately leap to shared back office services. If only their passion for agglomeration was matched by the level of evidence that it really does generate efficiencies! Interestingly, some press reports claim that it is an exemption specifically for back office services - whereas the HMRC Guidance says only that "the services supplied by the group to its members must be ‘directly necessary’ for the members’ exempt and/or non-taxable supplies." While back office sharing might benefit from this exemption, there has to be plenty of scope within it for organisations to be much more creative than simply creating call-handling factories, where any theoretical cost-per-call benefits are wiped out by increased call volumes - because the factories focus on the cost of each call, not solving the reasons for the call in the first place.

Could there, for instance be a route here to mutual specialisation, where two Housing Associations form a cost-sharing vehicle with the aim of Housing Association Number 1 becoming an expert in say Development, while Housing Association Number 2 becomes the expert in Maintenance? Could there, too, be a route to much better neighbourhood management, with Housing Associations with dispersed and fragmented stock in a given geographical area being able to appoint on-the-spot managing agents without incurring the current 20% VAT penalty? And, in a sector that is notoriously insular, is this the mechanism through which the Housing Association world can return to its roots and its values and re-establish productive, creative and VAT-free partnerships with Community and Voluntary Sector organisations?

There’s no denying that it’s been a week of unremittingly grim economic news, however, I can’t help but wonder what my younger self would have made of the fact that it's VAT that got me smiling again.

Friday, 25 November 2011

My Response To A Red-Letter Week For Housing

In a week of much material it was difficult to decide what was exercising me most. I was pretty certain it would be the much awaited Housing Strategy, and indeed that has much in it worthy of comment. But for now I’ll have to hope that the weeks to come will give me another opportunity. My immediate observation is that it seems to be more of an economic growth strategy than a housing strategy, a view reinforced by the presence of the CBI’s fingerprints all over it.
Launch of the Housing Strategy (Source)

I could also have written about the shocking but, oh-how-telling-that-it's-not-surprising, report from the EHRC about the state of domiciliary care in this country. We must all hope that the lessons about allowing the cost-saving motive to create a business model where profit-driven provider interests outweigh those of the customer, have been well and truly noticed by those in Government responsible for the nascent Open Public Services agenda.

Instead, it’s the statutory consultation on the revised regulatory framework for social housing in England from April 2012 that’s got my goat. Dry and technical it is, but uninteresting it is not. Here we see the Localism Act’s impact, as consumer regulation becomes a “backstop provision - a matter of regulatory interest only when there is “serious detriment”. Co-regulation comes to the fore, with all that entails, and still without an answer to the question about why a tenant would want to volunteer to be a co-regulator.

We see also what I’m sure will become a diverting sideshow about the scope for tenants to share in benefits arising from closer involvement in commissioning or carrying out repairs. I think there may be the germ of a good idea in there, but whether the regulator can, as it sets out, pass on Government directions on such matters is a moot point. Without a clear legal basis for this direction, it suggests the return of policy passporting – the practice of Governments to use regulation to impose policy matters on the Boards of independent organisations. I’m sure the National Housing Federation will be concerned that this would compromise that independence and might leave the country’s associations another step closer to re-classification as public bodies.

But it’s the value for money standard that’s really got me bothered. Don’t get me wrong, economy, efficiency and effectiveness are vital, value for money is what we want and what our tenants want. We strive to deliver it and we know we can always do it better. The “money” bit is easy to calculate – by now most housing associations have a pretty good grasp of how much things cost and how to report them. But where are the metrics to measure value and in the absence of those, what will the regulator do?

Here’s my prediction: greatest emphasis will be placed on the things most readily measurable. Tenant satisfaction, repairs right-first-time, new homes built. These things are (pretty) tangible. We can count them and so do the arithmetic that the term “value for money” suggests is required. It won’t be on the value of a community allotment scheme, or of building confidence and self-esteem in young mothers; or even of getting people into jobs. Yes, the consultation document nods to the concept of social value, but without any agreed measure for it, what defence does a housing association have when the Regulator comes calling and says that the value side of the equation doesn’t add up?

It's much safer for the association to stick to the easily measurable, to cherry pick the easy wins and shy away from the things that instinctively we know build the strongest communities. We desperately need Government to say, loudly and clearly, that this is not its intention; that the Regulator will not act in this way and that determining the balance between growing wider social value and say creating new homes is the role of each Board, we'll be listening closely for the announcement.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Breakfast - The Most Important Meal Of The Year

As November surrenders to December and the first frosts give us an indication of what meteorologists are saying might be another incredibly cold winter, I realised I am close to celebrating the first anniversary of this blog. I’m pleased to say that in around ten months it has attracted over 10k readers and even managed to keep some of those readers coming back for more. I was reminded of this particular anniversary by the fact that I wanted to blog about the breakfast meetings I do and remembered I’ve already done it, thus showing two truths: namely, the cyclical nature of the universe and the inevitability of a blogger re-treading old ground.
Not one of these.

For the uninitiated the breakfasts are not early morning meals, but meetings at all sorts of times that I arrange with the different teams across the organisation. The teams are asked to get together before the meeting and draw a picture which they then present to me, in the location of their choosing. The picture is supposed to give me a snap shot of where that team is and what they’re facing at that moment. I’m a very visual person and consequently being able to put up the teams’ pictures on the wall of my office gives me a quick visual reminder of the issues they raised. It allows me to see the health of the organisation in a unique way. It’s also preferable to a picture from Ikea, especially as hammering a picture hook into a glass wall isn’t advisable.

There’s a team-building element to the idea of drawing a picture, in that it’s quite good fun and it encourages everyone to think about how to present the information. It’s not like you can just reel off a standard spiel about what’s happening, you have to think anew about the answer to “where are you and your team at this point in time?” which encourages a more honest, more immediate answer. It also allows people to go wild with their creativity and I’m pleased to say that THT seems to have some hugely creative people – one of the teams eschewed the idea of a simple picture in favour of a 10 minute video which they wrote, directed and acted in!

One of the other aspects that I really like about the breakfasts is that the team themselves choose the location of the meeting. Consequently, in the past month I’ve been to Barton Aerodrome, to the Sharron Church in Old Trafford, resplendent in its yellow paint, to the top floor of Stretford House, Circle Court, Vine Court, Millom Court, Buildbase and our offices in Altrincham, Stretford and Old Trafford. Not only is it refreshing to get out and inspect the various locations where our staff do their work, but it’s important as it takes me out of my comfort zone and puts the teams in charge – they set the scene, literally, and it’s up to me to do as I’m told, that’s a very healthy role reversal for everyone involved.

Once again the breakfasts highlighted a range of issues. Some serious which will take thought, planning and even courage to change; others were the sort of things that you might normally dismiss as smaller issues, but having been told them by staff first hand, it’s easy to see that the reason that these issues (technology, uniforms, equipment) are annoying for them – is because they prevent them from doing their jobs, not because they are simply looking for things to complain about. If my staff are telling me they’re being held back, then my primary responsibility is doing everything I can to remove those barriers.

Fortunately, the feedback also contained lots of positive things, stories about excellent performances, excitement about where we’re going and a feeling that maybe, just maybe, our ambition to be a force for good for our customers is being achieved. And it's as well that our staff are out there, in our neighbourhoods, doing their work day in day out. We can't stop benefit changes starting to bite, unemployment rising generally, youth unemployment hitting a record high for a generation, or councils cutting services and consulting on even larger cuts to Supporting People budgets. But through what we do we will continue to help people manage the implications of the literal and metaphorical icy wind that may well be about to blow through their lives.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Curse Of Interesting Times

It's been an interesting week. As some readers may have noticed, we've been at the centre of an ill-informed and unwelcome media bandwagon for a couple of weeks. While now is not the time to go into that in any detail, it is something that I will return to when the time is right. All I'll say for now is that its an "interesting" experience.

Playbook vs iPad - who wins?
Interesting was also how I'd describe a twitter exchange I had during the week. Having mentioned Aerotropolis last week - as the concept that would redefine the global city and drive this century's economic powerhouses, I wasn't expecting that the wonder of Twitter would put me directly in touch with Greg Lindsay, one of the book's authors.

For those of us already thinking that Western Europe's economic prospects were poor enough, the news that the European Commission has downgraded its growth forecast for next year from 1.7% to 0.5% was bad. Much worse though is Greg's view that Europe will probably never build another major airport hub, let alone anything on the grand scale of a modern Aerotropolis. So if his analysis about future economic drivers is right, is there a country out there willing to flatten what's left of its industrial heritage, incur the wrath of the Greens, and build "Eurotropolis", and if not are we heading inexorably but inevitably for a new Dark Age?

I've had an interesting week with technology too. I confess to being a Blackberry addict (although at the insistence of my wife I am slowly learning not to take it to bed with me) and it has been the gadget for me for the last five years, integrating my work and home life in a way that previously I had only been able to imagine. Not for me the beautiful iPhone; despite the fact it is better than the Blackberry at almost everything, the keyboard of the Blackberry is unbeatable and as a heavy user (this blog is being typed on it) that really matters.

So as phones have grown to tablets and while everyone else I see is showing off their iPad, I've gone the Blackberry Playbook route. It's been really interesting to get to know it - intuitive to its core, I've not even had to refer to a manual once. It's not as cool as the iPad, it's definitely got a worse name - somewhere between Hugh Hefner and children's TV - but it's got two things absolutely right. The virtual keyboard is the best I've ever used and at 2/3rds the size of the iPad, it is the perfect size for reading documents, reports and even books. And as a business user, what do I on it? Type things and read things. Steve Jobs was a great man and consumers all over the world have benefited from his genius; but before you go out and buy iPads or iPhones for your staff and Boards, check out the Playbook, especially if you are already heavily into Blackberry phones. For me Blackberry still "does the business."

And finally on the "interesting" theme, this week has seen the Lords amendments to the Localism Bill considered by the Commons and we now know where the powers ushered in by this Bill will end up. Designed to devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities more control over housing and planning decisions, it was announced with a great flourish and rhetoric about real power to real people. As Andrew Stunell MP put it this week: "The communities that local authorities have served have had the role of angry bystanders, whereby things were simply done to them, imposed on them or dumped on them - not done by them, decided by them or, least of all, chosen and delivered by them. This Bill marks a huge cultural change not just for those local communities and local councils, but for those in Westminster, and perhaps even more for those in Whitehall. We need to change that culture: it is a long overdue change, and this Bill makes a start on achieving it."

It will be interesting to see if this is what happens. Yes the Bill contains some very welcome revisions around the reform to the HRA and the Community Right to Challenge. More immediately though, will the planning provisions and housing provisions of the Bill combine to create the desperately needed new homes, in the right places, or will it create a hiatus in the system that stops development in its tracks? And, with the economy flatlining, welfare reform just round the corner, public services retreating as the cash cuts start to bite, are communities going to have the time, capacity and resilience to embrace their new starring role? I am hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

As a postscript, today's blog title obviously comes from the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times." Apparently, this is the first of three curses that increase in severity, see if you can guess the other two. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Past And The Future For Housing

As we wear our poppies, we remember how 93 years ago on the 11th November, the heavy guns of World War I fell silent. We remember the sacrifice, the squalor and the hardship; the death and destruction - and if you are like me you re-make your own personal vow of "never again". It's certainly a time to pause and think, and yes, also to mourn the continuing loss of life in conflicts across the globe. But we should think not just about the past, but about the future too.

For me, a geographer by training and a housing specialist by experience, there are some fascinating things to ponder. 93 years from now - heading in the future direction - what will our society be like and for whose benefit will it be organised? How much will the fabric and structures of our cities and towns have changed? Will our economy prove to have been sustainable or will some new economic order have been established? Medically, will we have the creation of artificial life and have taken away any need to die?

And perhaps the most useful question of all: why does this thinking about alternative futures matter? My view is that it matters because you are more likely to get to something different and better if you can envisage what that is and to "start with the end in mind." So when somebody gave me the heads up that Aerotropolis by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay was the next big thinking about how we might all live in the future, I thought I'd better take a look.

It's a thick book of nearly 500 pages so I can't begin to do it justice here, but its message is clear from the start. It is (you might have guessed it from the name) a passionate exposition of the city as airport, extolling it as the only logical thing for developing countries to base their economic growth around. And it goes some way to suggest that developed world cities that do not look to the skies for inspiration will be missing out. Peak oil is no worry in the rolling out of acres of flat black tarmac, of freight depots, hotels, convention centres and connecting transit systems – airlines will adapt long before the black gold runs out.

The book's central logic is this: we are ever more interconnected and that interconnectivity spurs people not to travel less, but to travel more and by the fastest and most convenient manner possible – the plane. As an interesting aside did you know that the total time taken to put up one day's posts on Facebook amounts to 23 billion minutes (about 44,000 years)? At the same time, we are global in our purchasing arrangements – whether for components that need assembling or finished products for the consumer. We all search, find what we want, order, and expect it to be delivered to our door the next day or soon after. And what moves all these physical things that complement the fastest broadband of the internet – it is of course the plane.

This week also saw the global population pass 7 billion, incredibly this comes just 12 years after we passed 6 billion and we have estimates as high as 20 billion for the end of the century. History shows us that economic growth is likely to be in those places with a young and expanding population. Combine that with the theories behind Aerotropolis and you would conclude that growth is going to be even stronger in the heartlands of these new mega-transit airports. And if that's the recipe for global success in the next 50 years, cities in the UK don't seem that well placed to profit – which doesn't bode well for those who live in them now.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Basics: Grounds Maintenance

Today is the final post in the Basics series we’ve been running to recap on some of the elementary services and products we provide (The Basics on Repairs, the Customer Hub and anti-social behaviour can be found here) and this one concerns grounds maintenance. Tony Lowry, Assistant Director of Neighbourhoods, has some thoughts on how things have progressed.


My favourite food is without doubt, Indian. I love the flavours, the presentation, everything about it. In fact, I like it so much, I decided to take a lesson in Indian cooking and what surprised me was the sense of real science behind the cooking.

There really is a clear and rational hierarchy of spices and how they should be used and in what quantities. Like the primary colours we learnt about at school, there are in Indian cooking, four primary spices on which everything else is based. These are the spices that drive the whole experience.

So what has this to do with grounds maintenance? Well, if we are really serious about creating sustainable neighbourhoods, places where people choose to live, then grounds maintenance is one of those key ingredients that has to be right. Just like the primary ingredients in Indian food, simple, effective grounds maintenance offers a gateway to lots of subtle ideas that really add something to neighbourhoods.

Grounds maintenance is one of those services that if you get it right then no-one says anything. It becomes an unspoken comfort - just like a nice two-year-old sofa that has adjusted to your body. But get it wrong, and the whole world will tell you! Three years into the THT’s existence and we were making progress on a range of issues - but in terms of grounds maintenance our brief was wrong. We had two very poor contractors (only the council performed creditably) and despite all our progress, we had thirty complaints a week about grounds maintenance, which keeps you firmly in the quagmire.

Two years later an effective specification of the standards needed, working with a first class organisation called Greenfingers (on their site you can click on the Map Garden and select Trafford Housing Trust from the customer drop down list to see photos of the areas they look after) who provide the service, and we have to date had not one complaint. In fact, we've had several compliments. Greenfingers really are first class and share the same values of leadership that THT do. Treat the workforce well, engage them, give them responsibility – and they have created a working ethic where any slight slip in standards, any minor hint of dissatisfaction is addressed in an effective, unfussy style.

And really it’s all so simple - turn up on site when you say you are going to, be visible so the community knows you are there, leave the place looking clean and tidy before you leave. Oh and don’t forget to ask customers what they think and if they have any ideas. Then when you get feedback act on it the next time you visit.

Research by Keep Britain Tidy shows how key factors affecting the local environment, such as how well the communal land is kept, can actually help engender a real sense of community. Another body of well-documented research shows that the stronger the sense of community in an area can impact on people’s quality of life. In short - and as ridiculous as it sounds at first - there is a link between personal well-being and a lawnmower, because strong positive perceptions of place have an impact on people’s everyday feelings. And best of all, this positivity about an area is catching. Is it a coincidence for instance that as soon as our grounds maintenance improves, the volume of fly-tipped waste we have to remove goes down?

So grounds maintenance is one of the basics – but no way is it a functional, dreary service that we get right through gritted teeth; getting it right is the catalyst for making someone feel better about where they live and therefore getting it right deserves all the care and attention an organisation can spend on it. Remember this the next time you add just a quarter of a teaspoon of paprika to all the other spices to create the most flavoursome Indian food full of hidden subtleties that make you appreciate the joys of living.

Friday, 21 October 2011

What Do Housing Associations Actually Do? Here's 964339 Answers

You’d think that the clue to what Trafford Housing Trust actually does is in the name. You wouldn’t have to be a genius to see that we look after a lot of housing in Trafford. It’s funny then that I don’t really consider houses to be our primary function; really what we do is create communities.

Communities is something of a tired, and at times difficult word, especially when it emerges from the mouths of politicians. But consider what it means to you. Take a mental image of a community - it probably involves houses, but it’s also people. It’s the green and commercial spaces around the houses. It’s some form of friction between the people – social friction – both good and bad. It’s the services provided to the people who are in those houses. Your image possibly goes beyond just houses and encompasses other forms of accommodation – sheltered schemes, flats, people outside the houses looking in. All of these things go towards making up a community.

Why is this distinction between houses and communities important to me? Well, because I think it points towards a hugely misunderstood aspect of Housing Associations’ work. We’re moving into an era of housing where the simple provision of housing will be delivered by an array of sources. Any one can provide housing and the Government is committed to supporting those who do it at the lowest cost. If we don’t understand precisely what a Housing Association does then I think we run the risk of leaving a lot of the work of creating communities undone.

I mentioned as part of a recent post about the National Housing Federation "Neighbourhood Audit", that we are undertaking once more. The previous Neighbourhood Audit revealed that the work that Housing Associations undertake benefits one in every ten people in Britain, with over £430 million being invested into communities! This review was last undertaken in 2008 and so it will be interesting to see how this has changed since the last time.

We have recently completed our own audit and the figures make for shocking reading (shocking in a good way, I believe). Here are some of the headline figures:

  • Total spend on Safety and Cohesion in our communities: £189,087
  • Total spend on Education and Skills in our communities: £47,259
  • Total spend on Employment and Enterprise in our communities: £294,149
  • Total spend on Environment and Liveability in our communities: £287,495
  • Total spend on Well Being in our communities: £58,377
  • Total spend on poverty and inclusion in our communities: £37,857

The complete spend for a year’s worth of investment adds up to £964,339.59 per year. That’s an astronomical sum when you consider that it equates to nearly 3% of our annual revenue. I think it’s essential we blow our own trumpet particularly loudly on this point, because when you compare it to other companies’ spend on Corporate Social Responsibility and how loud they shout about their work in communities, what Housing Associations do is well out in front and yet you don't hear a peep about it. Perhaps unsurprisingly the documented CSR spend of other firms is hard to find, but one example for comparison would be Nike who allegedly spend $25 million on CSR and have revenue in the same year of $19 billion – equating to just 0.13% of revenue.

Housing Associations should emphasise just how much work they are doing with their communities because "its what we do". As an industry there’s absolutely no harm in explaining to people the full extent of the work that we do. Especially when you consider that several studies have shown how important social responsibility is to both employees and customers. For instance this American survey suggested that 34% of employees would take a pay cut to work with a socially-responsible firm. Not only that but 70% of consumers would pay a premium on products from a socially-responsible company.

Before anyone worries, we’re not going to be putting up rents or asking our staff to take a pay cut, because we invest heavily in our communities, but it’s strange to think that there is a whole side to the housing industry that doesn't get talked about enough. Hiding your light under a bushel is all very laudable but the housing sector has no such reason to adopt such modesty. When cuts assail us and competition is increasing it’s vital that all are aware of the full extent of our work, so that customers, employees, ministers and even ourselves can see that beyond the deceptive names, the housing sector is also about investing in communities.

I’d like to end the blog today with a challenge – how can we create an industry-by-industry index to show the total social value created (call it CSR if you like) and if we had one, is there another sector out there that would rank higher than Housing Associations?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Basics – Repairs

As October progresses and we start to look ahead to the Christmas period, it’s that point in the year when you realise how much still has to be done! One thing that can never be overlooked are the basic services and products that we are responsible for and this includes the repairs. Mike Corfield, Assistant Director of Customers and Properties, has rounded up where we are with this vital topic.

If you do something 30,000 times a year, it’s pretty important that you do it well! Our responsive repairs service carries out this number of repairs each year across the full range of our housing stock. Repairs can range from leaking taps to replacing windows; from faulty electrical sockets to patch plastering. Our tenants report this diverse range of works each and every day we are open for business.

When you are undertaking this level of work, you quickly begin to see the priorities that our customers have. Two things that are of paramount importance are that we respond quickly and, where possible, by appointment, so that you are not waiting around all day for us to arrive. I also know that it is important to our tenants that the job is completed with the minimum of fuss and in one visit where at all possible.

For this reason we have invested a great deal in our repairs’ service. This investment can be seen in the form of new technology, a modern van fleet and convenient stores facilities to provide our repairs operatives with the materials they need to carry out the work. But most importantly we have invested in our people, in the shape of customer care training, diversity awareness sessions and multi-skill and dual trades workers to ensure we can provide a flexible service. These improvements to the service we provide have been done working alongside our Repairs’ Focus Group (email us if you'd like to get involved with this group) and I am proud of what we have achieved together.

Repairs are not one of the so-called ‘sexy’ services and are often an inconvenience when you need one, but getting them right is such an important part of the landlord's offer to customers that I think it is important that we constantly review how we carry out our repairs. It was feedback from the Focus Group that led to the repairs service being made available outside of normal business hours. The take-up of evening and Saturday morning appointments has been strong and I hope that this extension of our operating hours will continue to be a valued feature of our service.

Perhaps controversially I have been wondering if the service is too good! Whether the things we do and the costs we incur are what our tenants want and whether in some circumstances our approach spends tenants rent money unwisely.

Increasingly I think that great basics in relation to repairs does not mean that we should respond unthinkingly to every report we receive. It should mean that if tenants abuse their homes they should not just be free to have the damage repaired without question. That does not represent value for money for the vast majority of tenants who cause no damage to their own homes.

It is for this reason that we have introduced a system where the tenant is expected to pay up front for non-emergency re-charges and why we are looking at those tenants who appear to report a disproportionate amount of repair work each year. We want to understand the reasons behind these problems and support our tenants accordingly, but think it is only fair that they meet their own obligations not to damage or neglect the properties they rent from us.

It's fair to say we retain a gentle skepticism about the Housing Ministers' plans to reward tenants for undertaking their own DIY and repairs. We are fully behind imparting skills to tenants (such as the DIY courses we ran aimed at residents as part of the Big Day In...), and we are always looking at sensible ways of saving money. But Shapps' idea brings with it the danger that you incentivise people who possibly aren't the best people for the job to "give it a go". It raises the prospect of patched-up, bodge jobs, which at best will not work and at worst will endanger the current tenants - or those who rent the property afterwards. We know that the quality of repairs is of paramount importance to our tenants and at the moment we aren't seeing much interest from them in a DIY approach - although, as ever, we remain open to new ideas.

We believe our repairs team offers a quality, responsive service to our tenants when they need a repair, but one that will not hesitate to charge for work where we believe the repair is not the result of fair wear and tear. I do not think such an approach is inconsistent with great basics, indeed in my view, to do otherwise would be to undermine any claim we had of offering great basics in this important service area.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Basics: The Customer Hub

Amid the chaos and celebration of an excellent Big Day In… (see Facebook for the full photo galleries) this week sees another “basics” post, looking at the work and progress of the Customer Hub.


 “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

Try texting on that.
On the 10th of March 1876 Alexander Graham Bell uttered the above words into his curious new invention, which he called the telephone.

Ever since this time organisations have struggled to get the basic function of picking the phone up right: endless waiting times, labyrinthine push-button technology, voice-recognition software (that often doesn’t recognise voices) and staff unable to answer basic enquiries when you do finally get through - are common features of telephone handling at its worst.

In the early days of Trafford Housing Trust, calls from our customers were received all across the organisation; in each of our neighbourhood offices, at the repairs' hotline, at our head office and they were made directly to landlines and mobile phones across the business. Not surprisingly our customers experienced a poor service with fewer than 50% of calls actually being answered. The need to improve this situation has led to the establishment of our Customer Hub (Contact Centre) and some 18 months after its launch I decided it was time to reflect on whether it had achieved what we envisaged for it at its launch and what customers should expect when they contact an organisation by telephone.

Our Customer Hub now handles up to 3,000 calls per week and we manage to answer 95% of these without the caller hanging up. I think this is a tremendous improvement over what we had and I know the new service has received a great deal of positive feedback. But just being able to have your call answered is only the start of the story - you ring because you need something from us and it is pointless you calling if the person who answers the phone is unable to help you.

It is for this reason our Hub staff have not been set up as switchboard operators, following cumbersome written instructions and handing off ‘difficult’ enquiries to other more experienced staff. The Hub has a target of being able to deal with 75% of the queries you make over the telephone. This means staff receive detailed support and training and are constantly looking at ways to help with issues with which they are unfamiliar. You may not realise but details of any previous enquiries you made are logged on our computer system so in many cases the Hub staff are as well placed to help you as the actual person you have previously dealt with.

So is the Trust completely on top of how it deals with your telephone calls? Of course not. We think that there are a number of improvements we can make to the training and support of staff that will mean they are able to resolve more and more of customer enquiries at the first point of contact, we are also conducting an exercise to understand more about why customers contact us in the first place. We have found that many people are ringing us because they are chasing a previous call, or because something has gone wrong with a service we have provided them. We need to understand what we are doing wrong that causes these calls and look at ways of improving our systems to ensure such failure-related calls are reduced to an absolute minimum.

We also need to look at streamlining our procedures for dealing with the issues customers ring us about so that they are:

 · As far as possible handled there and then without the need for a call back
 · Are carried out efficiently, without waste and fuss
 · Actually resolve the issue that you rang in about

There is a long way to go but if the starting point of customer service is a speedy, convenient and knowledgeable place to contact the Trust, then I think the Hub can be the cornerstone of our desire to have great basics.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Big Day In Is Tomorrow!

Tomorrow is an auspicious day at THT. Indeed it is special enough to warrant a departure from the usual Friday-only blog post policy. The reason tomorrow is special is not because it is the birthday of Lee Thompson from Madness, or the anniversary of the Jarrow March (thank-you Wikipedia) but because it heralds the long-awaited arrival of THT's Big Day In...

The idea behind The Big Day In... is simple enough. We spend our working lives talking about how being at the heart of neighbourhoods is the key to what we do, so for the 5th of October we are going to exemplify that by taking the entire THT staff into our neighbourhoods and putting them to work.

The projects were all suggested and voted for by tenants - all we asked was that they were achievable in a limited period of time and that they could be achieved by a team of THT staff. There are 20 projects in total ranging from DIY courses to shopping services for the elderly and tomorrow we will be documenting how they go and giving feedback on Twitter and Facebook to keep you updated.

We'd love some encouragement, so get commenting, tweeting and posting! If you see any of us around Trafford, don't be afraid to offer us cups of tea and biscuits!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Basics: How To Beat Anti-Social Behaviour

Back to basics (although it should read ASB)
One of the enjoyable problems of writing this blog is that the subject matter for posts comes thick and fast, consequently choosing what to blog about can mean choosing what to miss out.

It seems that rarely a week goes by without housing hitting the headlines – as it did this week when Ed Miliband asked whether community-minded residents should get priority when it came to housing. Aside from reacting to the latest news, there’s the multitude of intriguing issues at work in the sector – ranging from innovation to responsibility – all of which could probably be the subject of a blog in their own right.

However, one thing I want to focus on more are some of the main issues that THT as an organisation are confronted by. As well as that I’d like to give readers an up-to-date view of the services we’re responsible for. So over the next couple of months there will be a series of guest posts from people within THT looking at these “basic” topics. First up, Tony Lowry, Assistant Director of Neighbourhoods, on how we are confronting the ever-present issue of anti-social behaviour.


In a recent blog Matthew wrote about the importance of getting feedback from tenants. One topic that they have always been very vocal and emphatic about is anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour is one of the main causes for concern from tenants, and if we are to achieve our mission of being at the heart of our communities then we have to take it as seriously as they do. You can read more about our approach to the topic here, but the simplest thing to say is that we understand precisely how this issue can ruin the lives of individuals, destroy families and ultimately tear apart communities unless it is dealt with promptly and properly.

Despite the doom and gloom that usually surrounds the topic, over the last few years there has been a lot of work done on how anti-social behaviour is approached by organisations like THT. That effort has laid out an intriguing – and exciting – new approach, which has resulted in some real success. Statistics never tell the full story and I wouldn’t like to say that we had the problem beaten but the following make for good reading:
  • We get 250 cases of anti-social behaviour a year. This is less than similar organisations working in similar areas. We feel this has much to do with the quality of our work to prevent anti-social behaviour in the first place.
  • We know tenants want us to work towards solutions quickly. Consequently, we monitor the time taken on every case and we now have only nine cases open more than nine months. 18 months ago this was 36 cases.
  • Every person reporting anti-social behaviour gets at least a monthly update.
  • We have just had our best month ever with the number of anti-social behaviour cases successfully resolved in agreement with the person who reported the case.
One very interesting study which has helped shape organisations' response to anti-social behaviour was undertaken in nearby Salford. One of the surprising things that it revealed was that only a small number of families were responsible for most of the anti-social behaviour experienced in the area. These were not typical families either – they were living chaotic lifestyles characterised by debt, addiction, domestic violence and long-term benefit dependency.

To get a fuller picture, all of the contacts and interventions from the various agencies were mapped out and costed for just one of these families. The cost amounted to £160k per year! It would have been cheaper to put a Police Officer on their doorstep all year round! The key thing that the study revealed was that all of this intervention was reactive and, therefore, unplanned. This incredible amount of money was spent fighting fires. Clearly, this was not the right approach and led to a re-think in how to address the problem. The conclusion was that organisations and agencies had to learn to combine their resources and budgets to change the approach so that now, virtually all of the contacts and interventions are planned.

The financial implications of taking this proactive stance and helping this family out in a more rational way, is that it now only costs £120k per year, saving the tax-payer £40k per year. If you factor in the tax now being paid by the two members of the family who are now in work, the overall savings are more like £60k. Perhaps more importantly still, this positive approach is more effective and means that rather than spending the money on clearing up and punishing anti-social behaviour, we can help prevent families from committing it in the first place.

Imagine the implications if it’s not just one family, but twenty, or thirty getting the benefit of this shift in approach. The overall cash gain to the tax payer is potentially in the millions. This isn’t money that will come through to organisations like THT, but if we are undertaking this work and standing by our values to make communities stronger, then that means we have to protect those who are about to drop off the edge. If we can help a family with a few problems, or those intent on bringing full-blown chaos to an area - then we, the families and our communities all win.

Impressively, the recent trend of anti-social behaviour reducing has continued despite the cuts impacting on youth services and police numbers. The key to making this work in the future is to make real and fundamental changes in how services work together. It’s about stating what needs to get done, how it will be done and who is responsible for getting it done. If we are to carry on these improvements and continue acting on the concerns of our tenants then these partnerships are the key to unlocking the problem, because ultimately we believe that we can beat anti-social behaviour.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Back To Basics (AKA The Importance Of Trousers)

The all-important trousers
With all the fuss and furore around benefit changes, planning policy and new funding mechanisms for building much-needed affordable homes, it's easy to forget that for our tenants, it's the basics of our current service that really matter. However, when you add in concerns about plunging stock markets, stressed banks, a double-dip recession and public service cuts - you can see why organisational attention can easily drift away from the things that matter.

Last night, at the end of a process that's involved large numbers of our tenants, my board signed off our 2011 Annual Report to tenants. Now we've had another busy year and a report on everything we've done would have stretched the attention span of the most diligent reader; so we asked our tenants what they thought we should cover - and loud and clear came back the message that they wanted to know how we were doing on the basics.

So this year our report concentrates on our repairs service, the way we clean up in our common areas, the way we cut (and now collect) our grass, the safety, security and reassurance given by our sheltered scheme managers, our 24/7 TrustCall service giving help and reassurance to the most vulnerable in the borough, the way we answer phones, our success in collecting rent and of course about our response to ASB. It's these services and products that are key to the happiness of our customers.

When it goes out to tenants in around a week's time I hope that our readers feel we've reported accurately on our performance on these basic services - what we've done to improve and what our plans are for next year. I also hope they take a moment to reflect on the dedicated front-line staff – our caretakers, plumbers, joiners, gardeners, care staff, and phone answerers – who day in day out, make their service what it is.

As it happens, I've just started on my round of “breakfasts” (which I've talked about before) and over the next six weeks I will meet with all our front-line staff and hear first hand from them what I can do to make their jobs easier and more rewarding. I love these breakfasts as it's a real chance to check the health of the organisation. I also get a sense of achievement from the stories people tell me and some surprises about the things that matter to them. We meet in work teams – generally small groups of seven to 15 and yesterday's meeting was with seven of our TrustCall staff, and I was duly surprised. Before the meeting, I'd never have thought that one of the things that would make the biggest difference to what they do would be cargo-pant style trousers rather than suit-style ones!

This morning, I'm off to meet our Social Enterprise Team – lads straight out of prison who we give six months' work to and then move into other jobs in our organisation, or with partners. It was one of those lads last year who gave me a real breakfast highlight, when he described his job with us as being his “light at the end of a dark tunnel.” Pretty humbling stuff and enough to make you realise that for this country, now, its another set of basics that really matters – a decent home, a job, and respect for one another.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Consulting With Customers

I’m confronted with a familiar blogging problem this week: do I risk censure from the comments and spend the next 600 words revelling in THT’s triple success, which comprised of the Health and Well Being Award, the Customer Service Excellence Award and the all-important Gold Award from the Investors in People? I’ll risk your wrath and hope you’ll allow me a paragraph of pride in my staff who have ensured that of the 24,163 organisations (give or take) we are noted as being in the top 1.38% (I can go to more decimal places if you wish). It’s a testament to the continued hard work of our staff and the managers who work to ensure that they are supported.

This week has been unusual as not only have I managed to get a year older, I’ve also been away at the National Housing Federation’s Annual Conference (have a look at the hashtag #nhfannual11 for all the Twitter gossip and reporting from the event). I’ll be rounding up my thoughts on the conference for the blog next week, but this week I wanted to report back on the Customer Day that went on at THT just before I left.

I feel events like our annual Customer Day are essential to establishing and building relationships with our tenants. We are a service provider and we need as much feedback – both positive and negative – as possible to ensure that our customers get the very best service that we can provide. The Customer Day is a chance for interested parties to come and review the annual report, ask questions and learn more about the work we do.

Although no Housing Association ever really struggles to get opinions from tenants, getting them to come and consult with us has proven to be more of a challenge. Last year we had over 100 tenants at the Customer Day but this year, somewhat disappointingly it was just over 80. When you consider that we invite every single THT tenant to the Customer Day, you could argue that it’s a small percentage. I think this puts the incentive back onto us to come up with increasingly interesting and innovative ways of eliciting feedback. A few options we’re already looking at for next year involve fun days, teaming up with other local Housing providers and the always-intriguing possibilities of social media. As ever if you have any thoughts about encouraging this vital participation then let me know.

One of the main jobs that the Customer Day attendees had to do this year was to review the Big Day In… long-list and decide on which projects will be undertaken on October 5th. The Big Day In… is an initiative where we’re attempting to put our commitment to our communities into action. We appealed for ideas everywhere from our Facebook page to speaking directly to tenants for nominations of what people would like to see THT staff doing. The ground rules were simply that any projects had to be achievable in a short space of time and benefit our communities. The response was amazing with over 70 ideas suggested and the breadth and ingenuity of some of them show that crowd-sourcing ideas can produce some great results.

The next step for these winning ideas (full list below) is that between the 10th September and 5th October the top 20 projects will be planned out and on the 5th October they will be carried out by THT staff and, yes, that does include me and the whole Senior Management Team. It was interesting to see that alongside the clear-up projects which identified known and new grotspots, there were also some really innovative projects such as establishing a farmer’s market in front of the new Lostock units to sell local produce to the community.

Another one that caught the eye was the I Love Stretford project which sought to show before and after photos of the area and promote civic pride. It would be terrific if we could capture some of the energy and vitality of the I Love Manchester campaign and help Stretford hold its head up high. Finally, the most voted-for idea was to teach basic DIY skills to local people; a classic example of the “give a man a fish” philosophy. The hope is that with an introduction to these skills, tenants might feel more comfortable undertaking basic DIY work (not that they can’t turn to us if they need help anyway) and who knows where exposure to a new skill might lead…

Top 20 Projects Voted For By Tenants

  1. Learning Basic DIY
  2. Skip day and Community Clean Up
  3. Moorside Road fence painting
  4. Farmers Market in Lostock
  5. All our yesterdays history project
  6. Story time children's centre
  7. Shopping services for the elderly
  8. Jet-washing grotspots in Old Trafford
  9. Clear ginnels in Broadheath
  10. I love Stretford
  11. Building Bridges reading project
  12. garden clearance Granary Way
  13. Welcome to Stretford House floral display
  14. Shrewsbury St Community centre
  15. School Road/Lester St yard planters
  16. Grass and hedge cutting knock on
  17. Clear ginnels in Oldfield Brow
  18. Garden clearing Manor Ave
  19. Baguley Lane and Croft Road clean-up
  20. 120 minute property makeover

Friday, 9 September 2011

National Housing Federation Update, Plus Job Offer!

Yesterday was spent mainly dealing with business on behalf of the National Housing Federation. There were a few elements to the day and with the Annual Conference starting in Birmingham next week, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the local and some national issues that the Fed is currently working on.

First, I should declare my prejudice: I’ve been closely involved with the Fed for over 30 years and it is one of my deep-seated beliefs that an organisation like the Fed needs to exist, and that Housing Associations, on whose behalf it speaks so eloquently and campaigns so effectively, should all be members. Now more than ever we need a strong trade body to make sure that neither active policy decisions, nor unintended consequences cause harm to our businesses and the communities that benefit from what we do. There's more information on how to join here.

My first Fed task was to review our contribution to the Neighbourhood Audit. This is the second such audit – a collection of national statistical evidence that shows just how much housing associations contribute to local places through vital community work. You can find the 2008 results here. That survey showed that Housing Associations annually invest at least £435 million in this work, made-up of £272 million of their own funds and an additional £163 million from other sources.

This work benefits around one in ten of the population. This is one of the great untold stories of Housing Associations and deserves equal focus in the minds of ministers, along with the current obsession on new supply. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the national picture has changed in this survey – will “austerity” have bitten into this vitally important work, at exactly the time when we need more of it, not less?

For THT, the picture regarding investment in communities has stayed the same, something that probably won’t surprise regular readers. Our commitment to social, economic and environmental regeneration remains as strong as ever, with yet again, well over £1m invested in these activities last year – much of it through budgets allocated by local people, not my staff.

I then spent most of the day at the NHF Regional Committee. These regional forums are the essence of what the Fed does really well, providing a focus for lobbying, policy development and good practice sharing at a regional level. Their work is increasingly important – as the national agenda turns ever more starkly to issues around the supply of new housing, there is a risk that the differing and more complex needs of those regions that are furthest away from those southern-centric discussions do not get heard in the London-dominated conversations that matter.

The most intriguing part of the day was hearing from the Chairs of all the Regional Interest Groups (there are about a dozen of them covering every topic you could imagine) about their work over the previous 12 months – and their hopes for the work of the Fed in the next year. These Regional Interest Groups exist to support members and with up to 30 Fed members involved in each one, that support goes pretty deep into the Housing Associations of the North West – so if you are reading this and you aren’t part of one, you should be!

Of course the NHF’s national lobbying is a vital part of what we do and as part of the Regional Committee we got a really comprehensive update on the progress of lobbying around the localism bill, the NHS changes, the welfare reform bill, and the other ancillary legislation now wending its way through the Parliamentary process. An area of intense lobbying has been around the Welfare Reform bill’s proposals to end the direct payment of housing benefit. This is something that few tenants and almost no landlords see the point of and was there the slightest indication yesterday that DWP may be subtly changing its stance?

We will have to wait and see, but lets hope so. Then the lobbying can move onto the other nonsense of benefit reductions for those “under-occupying” their home. This seems to be penalising disabled people who need an extra bedroom, separated parents who need space for their children to come and stay at weekends and holidays. Essentially, it flies in the face of wisdom gained from down the years about how to make sensible allocation decisions. Good luck on this one everyone!

There was more - we learned at the Regional Committee about the Fed's internal Strategic Review (Housing Association readers you will be getting your questionnaire on this shortly - please make sure you help by giving us your views), we discussed the way the Affordable Homes programme is playing out with colleagues from the HCA, and we planned some future events where NW members can get together.

And what is the job offer mentioned in the title of this blog post? Well, currently I’m lucky to be one of the members of the NHF’s Board – the national body that has ultimate responsibility for the work of the Fed. My term comes to an end next year and when I leave, there will be no members of that Board based any further North than Stoke. A recruitment process for my replacement will take place next year – probably around May time. So if, like me, you believe that there is a distinctly different agenda around the North, if you believe that a Southern-dominated board would find it harder to understand and represent that agenda, then dust off your CV and think about applying – you really could make a difference. If you want to know more about what would be involved, please get in touch.

Friday, 2 September 2011

200 More Affordable Homes For Trafford

To put it lightly there’s been quite a bit of discussion this week about how, as a nation, we aren’t building enough homes to satisfy demand (more/Orr views here). For a couple of days, the National Housing Federation report on the housing crisis got air time, print coverage and - perhaps most remarkably of all - even drew the unlikely phrase "I agree" from the lips of the Housing Minister. Perfect timing then to drop a brick of good news into the pool of despond with our announcement that we will be building 200 more affordable homes in our borough, an area where there is desperate demand for such properties.

You might think this blog would be a fairly straight-forward, celebratory piece. However, as much as I’d be happy to give the press release view, one of the reasons I started this blog is to give some insight into what goes on behind the headlines. In which case, although I’m greatly pleased by the announcement of new homes, I should point out that before accepting the conditions of the catchily-named Affordable Homes Development Framework there has been six significant months of deliberations and debate.

A bit of background first – the Affordable Homes' initiative, was formally announced last year in the Comprehensive Spending Review and it was, by all accounts, a last-minute addition. Scurrilous rumour has it that it was only after our naval battleship capacity was downgraded that the capital to fund the programme was found. Before that development there was precisely no provision for new housing in the review. Consequently, THT working in partnership with colleagues in other Housing Associations and with Trafford Council, applied for funding and we were successful in securing £4.335m of Government funding towards the cost of building the new homes in Trafford. So far, so simple; so where’s the complication? As you might have guessed it’s in how these things are paid for…

The balance of the costs, £17m, will be met from increased borrowing and to make sure we can repay that extra debt we need to change the way rents are set when some of our homes are let to new tenants. We will now be able to charge an “Affordable Rent”, representing up to 80% of the market rent, on selected properties. This will not affect the rent that existing tenants pay in their current property, but for those moving into one of our properties for the first time, the rent they will pay will be higher.

It was on this point that the soul-searching has begun. I have personally struggled with the question of whether it’s right that the new properties should be charged at higher rents in order to pay for new development. In the end, my conclusion was that in the case of Trafford this was the right thing to do. My Board was clear about the need to address the acute shortage of affordable housing in Trafford and the ever-increasing housing needs, evidenced by a Housing Register of some 10,000 applicants.

However, this need to increase rents to Affordable Rent levels caused much debate, particularly around the issues of fairness (some neighbouring and similar properties will have different rents) and affordability for people on low incomes. Ultimately, with the knowledge that rents would be below market levels, that the most vulnerable who want a home from us will see no change, with assurances that the housing benefits system will address the affordability issues and with the Government’s promise that Welfare Reform will ensure that nobody is worse off if they take up employment, the board believed that if we are to make progress with key missions – such as the Old Trafford Masterplan and the provision of Extra-Care schemes in the area – then we had to take this route.

It seems absurd to greet the announcement of 200 new homes, the places where 200 families can thrive, with anything but joy. Clearly, if it were that simple it wouldn’t have taken six months to decide! In the long-term there are other issues to address, namely that although 200 is a decent number we still have a 10,000 strong waiting list. Perhaps my gravest concern though is that in the long-term this form of house building just isn’t sustainable. As I write, plans are afoot to create the successor to the affordable housing regime and I hope that it recognises the legitimate place of public funding for regeneration so that in time we can add more and more zeroes to the number of new houses we’re announcing.

Friday, 26 August 2011

We Love MCR - So How Do We Heal It?

What gets measured gets done. It's an old saying, and not one that I wholly believe, but it came to my mind as I sat in Manchester with a small group of other Business in the Community members chewing over the implications of the recent looting and riots.

Incidentally, I make no apology for keeping this subject alive. Thanks to the swift work of local authorities and the civic-minded majority, only the most damaged spots remain burned-out or boarded-up from the riots, but this doesn't mean that the impact of these (potentially) crowd-sourced, flash mobs has disappeared.

For those affected - the businesses that were destroyed, the people who lost their homes, the emergency services, the courts and even those who find themselves being processed by unexpectedly swift and harsh justice - the memory and impact of the wide-ranging and willful destruction is still fresh. But as the riots slip down the news agenda and gradually fall off the front pages, does this mean that we are losing the momentum to make the changes that could stop similar riots?

I hope not, not least because sustained public pressure is vital if we are to make a real difference. In my opinion there are three main changes to be made if we are to reduce the chances of such an obscene drama being played out again in our communities.

First, and this is why organisations like BiTC are so important, we need more enlightened capitalism to create community well-being, as well as individual wealth. As Raksha Pattni, Regional Director for BiTC, put it: "healthy high streets need healthy back streets." This means we need employers who make their staff feel proud of their work, rather than make it feel like a drudge. We need employers who take risks by employing people who otherwise would have no stake in society. We need employers who make volunteering part of their culture, so that wealth and well-being can be more widely distributed. And, vitally, the more the public and the public sector commissioners can recognise these enlightened businesses and buy from them, the greater the overall movement in the spirit-level bubble that measures fairness and engagement.

Second, the media cannot forget the part they play. The lionising of the lifestyles of the feral rich across acres of newsprint and billions of pixels has set the aspirational level of the disengaged of our generation. When yachts are bought from the billions that are sheltered from tax in off-shore accounts*, looting a pair of trainers hardly even registers as small change - it can't be wrong can it? It's essential that the government don't see their role as waging a war on the less wealthy members of society - it has to be a war against wrong-doing in all its many forms. A smashed window is a crime whether it was broken by a member of a street gang or the Bullingdon Club.

And, finally, for the politicians. As Deborah Orr in this week's Guardian explained by quoting Tony Blair, both main political parties "miss the point". We need more than the mantras of "erradicate social deprivation" from the left, or "take personal responsibility" from the right. The evidence base that either works is at best sparse. In fact, there is very little evidence of what does work - and for one striking reason. There is no agreement on how to measure "what works". Social return, happiness, well-being have all been floated and found wanting.

So here's a challenge to the bankers out there who want redemption and something more meaningful to put on their corporate-social-responsibility statement: use your team of mathematicians and analysts not to create new esoteric financial instruments that nobody understands and fewer want, but to give us an agreed, universal measure of social value. Then businesses, politicians and society can have a true barometer of success and prosperity - and, who knows, perhaps it might even get reported in the media.

*but - credit to HMRC - not in Swiss accounts

Friday, 19 August 2011

Common Sense Versus The Door Mat (Round 2)

Remember the door mats? A few months ago I wrote an innocent-enough post about the humble door mat and how it had been thrust centre-stage in a row about fire safety. The essence of it was that communal areas in buildings were having to be stripped of any and all personalisation (including welcome mats) and I questioned the sanity of it all. The reaction to the post was sizeable and showed that the majority of people would rather see some common sense exercised, than have to follow an endless series of nit-picking legislation to the absolute letter. At the time I said that we were committed to finding a better way and, by Jove, we might have something.

The come in/go away door mat.
Before this begins to sound like I'm taking umbrage at having to follow fire safety it’s worth remembering the tragic Lakanal House fire in Southwark. Not only does it serve as a vivid and terrifying reminder of why fire safety is something that we have to pursue doggedly (even when people say that we’re being a bit of a bore), it is also – hopefully – going to be the catalyst for change. A new report into the fire has produced some new guidance for landlords which sets out two basic options.

The first is the one that the fire service would rather see us pursue, which is one of zero tolerance. That’s what we’ve always followed and what caused the fuss over the door mats. The second option is to pursue what’s being termed a “managed approach”. Judging from feedback from the last post I would say that this is the preferred option for tenants and certainly was for the tenant who pursued his complaint about this subject right through to our final stage with the involvement of our Board. Under this option it’s possible, under certain conditions, to have pictures, doormats, even bikes and prams in areas that are not likely to cause an obstruction.

The simplest (and therefore most economic option) would be to keep to what we are doing now (even if it means donning hard-hats when we enforce it with tenants) and say that it’s just not possible to keep anything in the common areas. After all, this is what the fire service say they would prefer and they are the experts. However, working with our excellent team of caretakers we want to trial the managed approach and see just how workable it is.

The plan is to trial the managed option at Stretford House and train our caretakers for that building to exercise their skill and judgement to make sure that these areas are primarily kept safe and that they are also attractive and useful spaces for tenants. This needs our tenants and the caretakers to work together – we’ll give it a go, but if it leads to too many things being put into the shared areas, or they start to get used for storing things that might make any fire worse, we’ll need to go back to zero-tolerance. I’m not going to jump the gun because we’ve yet to see how this works in practice, but this looks like it might be one of those rare victories for common sense.

I thought that was worthy of shouting from the rooftop – but good old ‘elf and safety might have said I’d damage someone’s eardrums, so I thought I’d blog it instead!

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Right Response To Rioters

What a week. What would have been a normally busy week, suddenly morphed into an abnormally busy week with the development of the London riots, which spread across to Manchester and Salford on Tuesday night. As planned we kept well linked in to Trafford Council's Emergency Planning Team and convened an emergency meeting to discuss and publish our response to the riots. The accepted "wisdom" that social housing tenants are all rioters-in-waiting is, of course, facile nonsense, but we do know that some Trafford residents (not necessarily our tenants) were involved, even though the rioting was all outside our Borough.
Greater Manchester Police's Most Wanted from their Flickr profile

Consequently, we had to have a clear view of what approach we were going to take. The decision was actually relatively straight-forward. We have stringent anti-social behaviour policies in place and it’s clear that this week's rioting is about as anti-social as it gets. So any of our tenants who were rioting should have realised they potentially ran the risk of losing their home. Quite a price to pay for some free trainers.

It’s a rather throwaway phrase “losing your home”, which somehow makes it seem like an act of carelessness, but like all housing providers, we see eviction as the absolute last resort. After all, it simply creates a different sort of housing problem that then needs solving. As I watched news of the riots breaking across Twitter one thing that struck me is that there have been two groups faced with losing their homes this week: the vandals and the victims. It’s been tragic to watch the news footage of the innocent victims coming to terms with losing their businesses and their homes.

It was Jacque Allen, who is now the Executive Director at Dales Housing who I first heard refer to the housing sector as the fourth emergency service. When we see real-life dramas like the riots played out on TV, the truth of this statement doesn’t always become apparent. Largely, it’s the frontline services that we see who deal with the immediate impact of an emergency. However, it's when the fires have been put out, the ambulances have taken the injured to hospital and the police have re-established control of the streets that the lost homes quickly become a major concern.

I’ve referenced Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, but a cursory look is all that's needed to see that shelter is one of the fundamental human needs and every bit as essential as air, food, sleep and drink. Remove any of those fundamentals and things start to become perilous very quickly. So, who do you reach out to when suddenly the house that you took for granted for so many years is suddenly taken away from you?

For the last six years THT have run the Homelessness and Temporary Accommodation services for Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council and our staff have been the ones responsible for hearing people’s tragic stories and healing the situations. Given the occasionally turbulent past of the North West, we have been fortunate that in those six years there have been no major incidents that have really put the excellent training of the service to the test. At times like these when riots spread through the country, these sort of services stand on high alert.

In many ways it’s a real shame that this team's work is done in the darkness and not seen by the television cameras or wider society. They should probably have a similar sort of uniform or identifying factor to mark them out as heroes, just like the other emergency services. You can probably tell, but I’m endlessly proud of their work and extremely pleased to know that the values that are embedded in everything THT does, are also at work in that team too. I would like to say a public and personal thank-you for their work and achievements both in preventing and addressing homelessness, and in giving personal, practical and emotional support to homeless people and their families as they become resettled.

The work of this team will shortly be transferred to Salford Council from September 2nd and I wish them all the best, especially as it seems likely that the handover will happen at such a fraught and turbulent time. I hope that they never have to prove their training at Salford either.

It seems wrong to strike such a depressing note and not at least introduce a silver lining. If you are on Twitter then have a look at the #riotcleanup hashtag, because it goes some way to restoring your faith in human (and British) nature. The @riotcleanup account has co-ordinated the clean-up efforts of ordinary members of the public who want to scrub away the dirty work of the rioters. The riotcleanup account jumped to 87k followers in a matter of hours and its numbers are growing by the second. It seems that for every rioter there are 20 more people who have been moved to help support the work of the housing sector and help the victims put their lives back together. There are even efforts afoot to raise money for individualsdamaged by the riots.

As communities begin the work of repairing their homes and businesses, it’s essential that we keep these more positive facts in mind, as well as the many incredible things done by the younger generation, so that we don’t write-off an entire generation as simply vandals in hoods.