Friday, 24 June 2011

My Personal CIH Conference Awards

Harrogate week is to be no more. The traditional venue for the housing sector’s annual networking event has hosted its last Chartered Institute of Housing Conference. Next year it moves to Manchester and we are already planning what Trafford Housing Trust can put on to draw the conference crowds – after all you’ll be so close to us, it would be rude not to. Watch this space – for those of you (like me) who got no Olympic tickets, our do could be the next best thing in 2012!

So what was the last Harrogate like? To celebrate I've drawn up my own end of Conference awards, please note that the judge's decision, as ever, is final and no correspondence will be entered into...
From Harrogate...

My award for best session was definitely from @euanmills talking about how, as an unemployed architect, he galvanised a 10,000 home community in Chapstow Road, Clapton to carry out a local planning process and re-invigorate their own neighbourhood. How many sessions do you go to when you hear about initiatives with catchy titles like “incredible edibles” and “events in the gents”. Creative and energetic, this guy has got Chapstow Road rocking.

The award for best entertainment (in fact the only entertainment I got all week!) was that provided by the PlaceShapers Group - Trafford Housing Trust joined this group this year and the “entertainment” was a modest lunch which included Stuart MacDonald, the editor of Inside Housing Magazine, myself and two other PlaceShaper members talking about how innovative associations are taking their own highly effective paths to the implementation of localism. Hopefully some stories to follow in print soon….

Funniest moment award? Well this tickled me – but as it’s a kind of visual joke, it might not translate well. The Majestic Hotel Bar is the favoured late-night drinking place of the Conference (and a place I managed to avoid this year for the first time I can remember). The stories from that bar are the stuff of legend, as are the stories of the incapacitated trying to leave the bar and cope with the very steep hill it is on. Knowing this, an entrepreneurial Nursing Home right opposite the exit from the Hotel had a large banner advertising “Respite Care” – I’m sure a tempting offer for those who couldn’t face the uphill or downhill journey back to their hotel!

Most embarrassing moment award. Clear winner here. Setting off for my Board meeting back in Trafford on Wednesday afternoon, hitting a wall of traffic, and getting to the meeting 30 minutes late. Nuff said – sorry everyone!

An honourable mention for the best quote goes to IPPR – the Centre-left think tank. They described housing associations as being at something of a cross-roads – a recurring theme of the Conference – but said our unique proposition was that we represented “efficiency without greed”. What it is to have a values-based and not a profit-based motivation, something there is a danger that the sector will lose sight of. We value this heritage, lets hope the politicians do too.

The award for most worrying development was definitely the news that property giant Savills – who describe themselves on their website as “a leading global real estate service provider” – are advising a supermarket on how to become a Registered Provider. For some while now it has been clear that housing associations are facing increased competition from house builders, private landlords, and councils for the scarce resources available to support the development of new homes. But the entry into our market of a supermarket  - send me your guesses which one – poses a threat of an altogether different kind.

Some may have thought Grant Shapps’ announcement that there was to be a further consultation about Housing Associations being subject to Freedom of Information requests was also worrying. While the level of red tape that it might involve us in were we to become subject to the Act could prove troublesome, our values are to be open and honest, and so in a practical sense it would make no real difference to what we do. Manchester.
Recognition for the most inspirational speech is shared by Sarah Webb and Carla Keegans. Sarah’s speech (full text of which can be found here) was a fabulous example of how to make a point to government, while Carla was the winner of the Rising Stars competition. Both spoke from the heart, both made complete sense and both reminded the delegates and the politicians in the Hall that this is a people business we work in and that some of those people need us – together -  to do a better job over solving this country’s housing crisis.

And that just leaves the last category. The award for best question. Unlike one of our Board Members I wasn’t in the hotel bar of the Majestic in the wee small hours chatting to the housing minister about the intricacies of putting policy into practice (you know who you were and well done for being fresh again for your session all about Tenancy Strategies), but I did get a chance to ask him a direct question towards the end of the Conference closing session, so of course the award for best question goes to me! What I asked was why the Affordable Rent system simultaneously provides an incentive for one Government policy – that of increasing supply – while providing a disincentive for another – that of promoting the Big Society. The Minister said he hadn’t made that link before, would reflect on it, and that any new policy would be named after Trafford. Result I think! You can be sure I shall be writing to him to assist his reflections.

Bring on Manchester and 2012.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Does Housing Get Diversity Wrong?

The ever-controversial “D word” has been heard in the THT offices with indecent regularity of late. In this context the D doesn't refer to death or debt; rather it's something that in certain quarters is considered even more taboo: diversity. Our own diversity discussions centre around the work we're doing to expand our 2006 Race Charter of Commitment to include age, disability, faith, gender and sexual orientation. We're asking our tenants to tell us what their opinions are and so I have been thinking on the issue myself. My worrying conclusion is a gnawing fear that as a sector we've got diversity wrong.

I’ve been working in housing for a very long time and I’ve seen equal opportunities and diversity approached in many ways. The unifying factor of these approaches is that they have so often been working "against the grain". Is that because in people’s minds this is rooted as being something that’s different, something that must be done, rather than something that just happens? My other concern is whether a systematic approach to diversity creates filters that we view our customers through, which, although supposed to help us see and understand people better, actually just serves to obscure that they are an individual, with individual requirements?

Granted, people often identify themselves with different groups, and acknowledging that can help us to understand them, but when we start to develop a one-size fits all approach for everyone in that group, then our customer service becomes less flexible. Before this sounds like a mea culpa, I’m not saying that THT have done anything alarmingly wrong regarding diversity - as an aside I'm very proud of the achievements we've made in this area - it's just that I'm aware that we're part of a sector who perhaps aren't getting it right.

And this isn't just a Trafford issue, or a Northern issue, or even a UK issue. It seems clear that regardless of the area a housing association is based in, the question of diversity will raise issues. For example, an area where the ethnic mix is very low could itself present significant diversity problems, and that's even before diversity strands other than race are considered.

The demographics of Trafford are interesting. Around 10% of the population is non-white indigenous, but that rises to over 30% in some wards in the North of the Borough and represents over 40 different faiths and backgrounds. By comparison in the middle and South of the borough the BME population is as low as 1 or 2%.

This “banded” nature of the Borough raises a particular diversity challenge as we consider the implications of the new affordable housing regime. It seems increasingly likely that we will be able to build around 300 new homes under this programme, which is obviously great news. But the implication of this essential new development is that roughly the same number of our existing properties will, each year, have to be let at the higher rent on fixed length tenancies.

The problem comes when you consider that if a higher proportion of these are to be in the North of the Borough then how do we ensure that this doesn't hit BME households harder, because that would be unfair. And fairness is really the key to the issue. In fact, the reason I wonder whether we've got the issue wrong is a nagging question of whether we sometimes diminish, rather than enhance, the overall fairness through our work on diversity.

Clearly, the thinking on this topic, and these challenges, will continue but I should point out that posting on this topic hasn't happened because I think I'm an expert on the issue. Far from it. It just comes from a gut feeling that I wanted to share and see if anyone else gets a similar impression. 

Friday, 10 June 2011

I Have Great News, But Should I Post It?

One of the things on my diary for this week was to review this very blog that you're reading. It seems amazing that it’s been six months since I was outlining what had happened in 2010 and setting out the aims and objectives for 2011. So far I’ve very much enjoyed writing the posts and getting feedback both here and on Twitter and I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback about the blog on its half anniversary. One issue that was raised is the issue of good news. From my point of view blogs work best when they showcase someone’s honest opinion on a subject. What they shouldn’t do is endlessly trumpet new initiatives and broadcast positive spin – after all, who wants to hear an endless list of someone saying how marvellous they are, we have Westminster for that.

Of course this leaves me in a dilemma when THT do something really impressive, such as the news that has been embargoed up until now of our success in the BITC Awards For Excellence, where (you can add your own drumroll) we were awarded a Big Tick Award in the Work Inclusion category for our Cleanstart programme. I’m not too conflicted about revealing this news though because the balance comes when if I’m not shy about blogging when things don’t go entirely to plan, then you’ll forgive the occasional lapse into rhapsody about the work that the team here do. The Big Tick award is a significant achievement, we are just one of six businesses in the North West to have achieved this and it puts us in the same category as previous award winners like Marks and Spencer.

Cleanstart is an initiative that I am very proud of. I’ve spoken before about the values that drive our work and it seems to me that Cleanstart exemplifies the fact that we are serious about actually doing something with those values, as opposed to just talking about them. We’ve made a commitment to be at the heart of our neighbourhoods and part of that is about creating communities that are safe and clean, which people choose to live in. That also means that we have to help the people in those neighbourhoods through employment opportunities when it’s possible and that includes the group of ex-offenders that Cleanstart is targeted at. It's especially important when you consider that according to the Social Exclusion Unit, stable employment reduces re-offending rates by between 30 and 50%.

The way the scheme works is that on release priority prolific offenders are referred to Cleanstart and employed on six month contracts. Cleanstart’s main service is to clear and clean empty properties so that new tenants can move in and properties don’t become a target for anti-social behaviour. Alongside that it also offers garden clearance and removal services. One of the major benefits is that participants have a bespoke training programme worked out for them at the beginning which gives them vocational skills and qualifications. At the end of the six month programme we then work with partners to get them into long-term employment.

Statistics never really tell the full picture but here’s three I’m particularly proud of to finish this week’s blog:

-    Cleanstart has enabled us to reduce our void clearance costs by £20,000.
-    Greater Manchester Police have calculated that it has saved the taxpayer £3 million in the costs of crime.
-    22 ex-offenders have completed the programme and to date – 54% of them have moved into permanent employment and only 2 of the 22 have re-offended.

Well done to all the Cleanstart participants and the team responsible for making it so successful. For my own part I promise there will be an embargo in this blog on any mention of awards, celebrations and victories for at least seven days, starting now…

Friday, 3 June 2011

Taking Care Of Getting Older

Demand for modern, purpose-built facilities like Newhaven is increasing.
It’s been said before that these are interesting times for social housing but if there's one area undergoing the greatest degree of change it would have to be sheltered housing. The effects of an ageing population and a changing expectation of what care and support people want and need are fast creating a range of challenges in the sector that require some brave new thinking. The general impression I get from other providers is that many are waiting until the waters have calmed before making decisions about how they will operate. Our approach is slightly different and it’s based on a view that although it’s a very confusing situation we believe we have to be in the sector working out what the new opportunities are and consequently getting there first.

The upshot is that we need to have an incredibly clear picture of not only what's going on in general terms with sheltered housing on a broader scale, but we need to find out what's going on with the sheltered schemes that we operate – but how on earth do you do that? Well, it's actually pretty simple, you go and ask and then you listen. Our sheltered housing schemes have been in a review process since last May. This has given us a very good idea of exactly what it is that our partners and our customers actually want – as ever, it's fascinating to see how these things differ from what you might imagine as you sit in a boardroom, which highlights the golden rule about assumptions making an ass out of you and m…actually, maybe that only works with assume.

The opening of facilities like Newhaven which are custom-built to the sort of requirements outlined by customers, have grown out of this listening process. As well as opening new facilities though, we have to look at whether we need to close some existing schemes which is why we decided to take a more in-depth look at three of our current schemes Wellgreen Lodge, Waterside Court and Palace Road.

These were highlighted in the review as being likely to lose a significant amount of money. For example, Wellgreen was predicted to make a loss of £830,000, Waterside £997,000 and Palace £826,000. That only tells one side of the story though – there are reasons why these residences are not profitable – whether it's local competition, location away from local facilities or simply because they offer a type of care that customers are less interested in. When we review different schemes, it can be a stressful situation for the people living in them. As a result we try and do this as sensitively as possible and make sure that at every step we tell people what we're doing, why we're doing it and what decisions are being made.

So what have we decided? Well, working with the residents at Wellgreen has helped us look again at the finances of the scheme to see how we can increase income and reduce some of the costs. As it stands feedback from what customers have told us has led to a decision not to do anything with Wellgreen Lodge. Waterside Court is more complex because the issue is that it is not attracting people to move in. Mindful of the impact of any decision we could make at the scheme we are continuing to look for a longer term solution to address this. We have told the residents that we don’t expect to make any changes for at least 12 months. In the meantime these developments will be left and we will be looking to implement the suggestions for improvements that we had.

The property at Palace Road is slightly different in that the council currently own land next to the site, which we can use to develop a new scheme of the type that our customers are saying they’re more interested in. The current tenants of Palace Road have been told about the findings of the review and we are now starting to work with them to listen to what they want to do next. As always we will do our absolute upmost to make sure that any relocations are made as smoothly as possible and that we do what we can to reduce the impact of the decision. As ever if you have thoughts or comments to add then feel free to tweet THT or add a comment below.