Friday, 29 April 2011

Can You Be Innovative In Housing?

Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent (source)
Housing is a very simple business. I realise that’s a pretty dangerous statement for the CEO of a Housing Association to make and I would issue a few caveats, but in general my point is that the fundamental business of the housing world hasn’t changed much since the days of Octavia Hill. For anyone new to the business of housing (or anyone who wants a refresher) housing works like this: you build property, you offer those properties to people, you collect rent from those people, you keep the housing stock in good condition, you use the rent to build more houses and do other good things in your community.What could be simpler?

One issue with this is that when your main business is relatively straight-forward there’s the danger that you think you know how its done and miss the opportunities and progress that arises from innovation. I’ve been thinking on this issue more than usual lately as we’re hosting Progress 2011 on May 10th (its already fully booked, but watch the blog for posts afterwards). The theme of the day is “Necessity is the mother of invention” and we’ll be looking at how the current environment with all the associated flux and change is making our “simple” business of housing more complex than its been for years.

There's a mix of viewpoints on this but my feeling is that we have to be positive and identify the benefits and opportunities that arise from any given situation. After all, it’s all too easy to bemoan the difficulties that are created by powers out of our control, but why should we invest energy into complaining about things we can’t change when we can put that energy into making the best of the opportunities that this change is bringing. After all, as the wise t-shirt slogan goes – “When life gives you lemons, keep them because, hey, free lemons!”.

One of the biggest positives you can take out of the current situation is that we can feel the dead hand of regulation being lifted from our shoulders. There is currently a philosophy at the top that believes we should be less restrained by rules and more in touch with our customers. So for the first time in my 30+ years in the sector, there’s a real chance we will be left to get on with running the business that we know, in the way that meets our customers’ needs – that’s got to be a positive. In my experience extra regulation simply increases the need to comply. You end up with a culture that is obsessed with compliance: league tables and pointless trophies that exist just to show that you can follow regulation. Sweep that away and there’s an excitingly blank canvas. Onto that we can project new thoughts, express new ideas, in short we are being encouraged to innovate.

And what happens if we all start being creative and innovative? I was wondering this same thing about housing whilst listening to an excellent recent BBC documentary on pencil manufacturers in Germany who are still, after 200 years, competing to see who can innovate to produce the sharpest lead (honestly, it’s more interesting than that initially sounds! Listen Again on the iPlayer). Well, hopefully we start doing new things, things that are exciting, things that are a bit adventurous, things that are useful, things that are wanted by our customers, things we didn't know were possible. It’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes, but as long as we acknowledge that they are mistakes, learn from them and move on, that’s ok too.

Then we begin to see a real differentiation between the services we offer to communities, some challenging ideas, some technological leaps forward, perhaps into a culture that really embraces the possibilities of social media. There is ultimately the creation of an industry that Octavia Hill might not recognise if she were alive today. We forget sometimes that as a woman who helped to create the National Trust, protect public land at the expense of private development and provide shelter for the country’s poor, Hill was invested in some fairly dangerous new thinking herself and that’s an attitude towards change, campaigning and innovation we should seek to emulate.

Let me end on a question – what do you do that’s innovative? When was the last time you or your business tried something different? How did it work out?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

When Social Housing And Social Networking Collide

It seems the zeitgeist has been at large this week. I’ve been planning a post on social housing and social networking and lo and behold, within a few days it’s raised on both UK Housing and then Inside Housing! Both articles present intriguing points regarding the main social networks of today – Facebook and Twitter. As Trafford Housing Trust doesn’t currently make use of Facebook (although there are plans afoot and I’d be interested in any other experiences people have), my thoughts are primarily about the pros and cons of Twitter.

The first, rather obvious, point to make is that Twitter is vast. 200 million users issuing nearly 1 billion tweets per week. When I was a kid I used to walk home from school and one of the things I used to imagine was what it would be like if I could hear all of the conversations in all of the houses! And now Twitter gives you something of an insight into exactly that, with everyone from ministers, @grantshapps, partners, @TMBChousing, media @InsideHousingEd and organisations like @HCA_UK issuing 140 character, bite-sized comments. Personally, I’ve found it fascinating for following trains of thought and researching on topics from the Big Society, technology trends and international issues in housing. 

From Trafford Housing Trust’s point of view I can see that potentially this is an excellent medium for interacting with tenants. As with many Housing Associations we find that reaching the younger demographic of customers hard and Twitter clearly provides some kind of path to those users. 47% of users are under the age of 34 (Facebook is 64% for comparison).

Another opportunity is that it allows organisations to open themselves up and provide a level of interaction and accountability that hasn’t been possible before. On this level there has been some excellent examples, such as Greater Manchester Police’s exercise in tweeting every contact they had over 24 hours. In fact my very first tweets were sent when I was shadowing our 24/7 staff on duty overnight. When we want to show customers what's really going on behind the scenes I think micro-blogging allows you to build up a very detailed picture, with relative ease.

One final thing that I can absolutely see it being useful for is recruitment. After all if someone can impress you in 140 characters, then it's likely that they will have mastered the ability to be succinct, which is preferable to someone who generates a twenty page report any time you ask them a question.

Clearly there are some negative issues as well – one being that it potentially creates more work for us all! Even here there are pros and cons, let me give you an example. Early morning a couple of weeks ago @wearehomegroup tweeted that they were piloting the Tenant Cashback proposals. I said we were interested and by the time I reached the office a loose reference group had been formed to discuss the implementation. How many emails would that have taken to arrange? How would you have even found out about it in the first place? So although it gives you greater access to get involved, the corollary is that you might get involved in more things!

I think the single biggest challenge though is that modern communication methods require a modern attitude to communicating. If someone tweets a question, or comments on a blog post they are expecting a response as soon as possible, it's not something that can (or should) go through a seven stage approval process. That is by no means impossible but it's not something that we are used to and it requires an organisation that is light on its feet and able to react and respond quickly. This consequently speeds everything else up – it makes you wonder if the five year plans, so beloved of our regulators, might ultimately be toast.

One of the necessary consequences of this “hurry up” is that the line between business and private lives are blurred. Understandably, some are resistant to that. My take is that my Blackberry has helped me integrate work and home life. Recently I was able to work on holiday and I felt better for that than if I’d had absolutely no contact. I'm not saying that I advocate an always on approach to work, but that there are some interesting questions regarding the work-life re-balancing.

For all the challenges and change it brings, I openly declare myself to be a fan of social networking. Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that in five years' time everyone is going to be using it (or the next version of it, FourSquare has obvious social housing implications) and that those who have started investigating it will be five years further down the line and more advanced. I remember doing a bond deal in the 1980s when you would get a 68 page document faxed to you and thinking it was terrific because you didn’t have to wait until the next day to receive it in the post, how slow does that seem now? We have a commitment to responsibly investigate what new technologies can do, because there’s a good chance they can make us more efficient and surely that’s #ineveryonesinterest?

Needless to say I'm interested in any thoughts and will try and respond as quickly as possible! You can follow me or talk to me on Twitter @TeamTHT.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Holiday Photos

I've been on holiday for the last couple of weeks, so as I catch up with the backlog of emails and messages I thought I'd share some holiday snaps. Normal service will resume next week...

Read more about the opening of Newhaven here.

In case you needed clarification - what I missed was work, as opposed to the view of the Washway Road, as interesting as that can be!

Friday, 8 April 2011

Do We Really Have To Clamp Down on Welcome Mats?

The welcome mat is surely one of the clearest symbols of a homely environment. The idea that guests are warmly welcomed into a building is stamped on a mat and placed right at the front of the building, effectively telling the world that this is somewhere civilised. They’re also useful for wiping your feet on. So why on earth would any organisation be clamping down on them and asking residents to get rid of the welcome mat?

Not so welcome after all?
Well, the first point to note is that Trafford Housing Trust is really not against the welcome mat in and of itself – it’s what it represents, especially when you add in the danger of fire that it becomes an issue. Recently, we’ve been reviewing the situation with regard to personal property and communal areas and asking tenants to remove any personal items that may have been added – such as the seemingly-innocent welcome mat.

This is not something that we’re doing with any degree of joy in our hearts and the reaction from tenants has made it clear that it’s not a popular course of action. I can completely understand that tenants want to personalise these communal areas and make them both more comfortable and more useful as areas. Throughout our properties we’ve had all manner of chairs, tables, pictures and mats brought in and the effect works – it takes what can be a rather institutional sort of space and transforms them into something much more human.

That’s why it’s not an easy decision to remove these items. However, the fact is that fire safety is something that any social landlord has to be extremely hardline about. Not only is there a raft of legislation that enforces us to take these things safely (including the Housing Act 2004, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994 and the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1998), but there have been horrific recent reminders about just how bad things can get when it comes to fire – such as the the fire at Lakanal House, where six people, including three children were killed and many more were injured. We recently had a fire in one of our buildings - where fortunately no one was killed - but it underlines the need to have the absolute gold standards when it comes to protecting tenants’ lives.

For anyone who is potentially rolling their eyes and muttering something along the lines of, “it’s health and safety gone mad…” then to an extent I agree with you. After all, common sense would say: what harm could a welcome mat possibly do? The answer is that it could potentially kill you. Firstly, the idea of having items that are flammable in communal areas increases the risk of fire in the first place. It also increases the chance that any evacuation would be thwarted by fire in a communal area. Secondly, during a fire a room can rapidly fill with smoke, which reduces visibility. The other potential danger of the welcome mat is that it becomes a trip hazard. 

Quite possibly, there will be some who would still say that despite these concerns, the benefits of personalisation mean it’s worth a degree of risk. After all, you can’t make life risk-free. I’m sure this is a discussion we will be having many times with tenants and although I can see both sides of the argument and continue to look for creative ways around the situation (please feel free to suggest any ideas you may have for creating safe but personalised communal areas); ultimately when it comes to fire and tenants, "risk" is the very worst kind of four-letter word.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Changes To The Board

For Trafford Housing Trust 2011 has been characterised by big news events so far. There’s been the launch of new developments, breaking into the top 25 companies to work for with The Sunday Times and as we come into April we have another significant change this time to the structure of our board. Without going into too much detail the board’s role at THT is to set the strategy for the business, and then it's the management team’s responsibility to deliver it. So the board have a key role in shaping the organisation. Consequently, how the board works and who is on it is a vital consideration.

To give you an idea of the scale of this news, this is a project that I’ve personally worked on for over twelve months now and it represents what I think is a significant step in the right direction. I’ve talked before about the values of openness and honesty that sit at the heart of THT and as you might expect the changes are something that we have consulted extensively with tenants about. Around 2/3rds of tenants were for the changes and 1/3rd were against.

So what are the changes that are happening and why do I think they’re important?

The changes:

1) The board is reducing in size from 15 to 10 members and the constitution of the board is changing too. Instead of the existing make-up of five tenants, five councillors and five independent members we are moving to four independents, three councillors and three tenants.

2) The board members will be paid. Currently only our chairman is paid, but under the new arrangement the board members will also be paid - around £5,000 per year.

The reasoning behind these changes:

As it stands the board has had a higher number of councillors because of the origins of THT and the transfer promises we’ve had the responsibility to fill. As this transfer has now been completed it stands to reason that the role of the council would be reduced on the board. By no means is this to say that we are pushing the council away though! The best indication I can give of this is that one of the new board members is the current leader of Trafford Council, Matt Colledge. I’m thrilled that Matt has joined the board as I think it ensures we can maintain our history of having an excellent working relationship with the council. We also have two new tenant board members joining us John Verbickas, from Sale and Robert King from Urmston.

Another reason behind the reduction in board numbers is that tenants are increasingly giving feedback and guidance to THT through the Tenants’ Quality and Insight Panel (or QIP as it’s known). Here there are up to ten tenant members and the mission of the QIP is to look at everything from a tenants’ point of view and make sure tenants’ feelings and issues are put to the fore. I think this has been hugely influential in strengthening the tenant voice in the organisation.

On the issue of payment, it’s largely about catching up with the rest of the world. Over a third of Housing Association organisations already pay their boards. To address one obvious concern - the level of remuneration is set by an external body, so there’s no danger that the board would choose their own pay scale! Frankly, I think one of the best arguments for paying the board members is that you need to have a professional relationship. They are paid for their time, their attendance at meetings, their ambassadorial role outside The Trust and their input. Paying people means that it’s more likely people can honour those responsibilities.

Overall I feel that the new structure of the board gives us a far more flexible and streamlined management position and the best chance of driving THT forward and getting the absolute maximum for our customers. I would like to thank those members of the board who have worked so hard and are now leaving us: Beverley Winn, Mike Cordingley, Bernard Sharp and Edward Kelson. I would also like to say a special thank-you to our vice-chair Kai Hughes, I hope to see all of them again soon and thank them for their work during an exciting time of development for the organisation.

Although the majority of tenants are behind the proposals I fully understand that some people have reservations. If that affects you then please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer any questions.