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.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Introducing Abodes Singles

The concept of shelter is considered a fundamental driver of the human animal. It is one of the most basic of needs  – it doesn’t matter what race, class or football team you support – we all need a home. That said, the specific wishlists and requirements of what that home should be vary massively and create the wealth of diversity you see in the housing offering. Its not a one-size-fits-all product and housing organisations often find themselves trying to assess what a specific group’s particular requirements are and how we can best meet them. One example of this is the scheme that THT has developed called Abodes Singles, which recently won £35,000 of funding from Crisis.

The aim of the scheme is to help young, single, homeless people find a home. Traditionally, these are people who have not been well looked after by the housing sector. This isn’t through any prejudice necessarily, just a utilitarian desire to help the highest number of people.

The economy exists that if a two bedroom flat can be filled with a family of two adults and two children then that property is doing more good than if it was filled with a single adult. Clearly, this isn’t a moral judgement, it’s a question of numbers – but that is to overlook the fact that young, single people often find themselves at the thin end of the wedge when it comes to finding somewhere to live.

Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis summed the situation up nicely: "Most single homeless people have little chance of acquiring public sector accommodation and finding a flat in the private rented sector can be a complex and expensive option. They need advice and help, but in many areas of the country, these specialist services are simply not there." Regular readers of the blog will know that one of the things that I love is innovation. In its simplest form this can be described as new approaches to existing problems and that’s exactly what Abodes Singles does.

The way that the scheme works is that THT will partner with private landlords. Between us we select and find good quality and affordable properties. With our size and influence we can then attach public sector services such as lettings, management and rent loss cover to these private sector properties. This makes it a far more attractive proposition to private sector landlords and brings them into the scheme. We then take these properties out into the marketplace and match them with suitable tenants, who might have found them too expensive in the private marketplace. It’s a great example of how public private initiatives with charity involvement can create new solutions. It’s almost enough to make you think that the Big Society could work after all...

But don’t take my word for it. Make your own judgements. This is the story of how Jeremy* came to be the first young person we helped through this project and what it means for him.

Jeremy came to Abodes Singles from a referral made by Trafford Council's Aftercare Team. He has been known to services since he was three-years-old, when he accidently locked himself and his dog out of the family home and was unable to wake his Mum. A concerned neighbour contacted the Police and Jeremy's social service journey began.

Jeremy stayed with mum until he was ten-years-old when social services felt greater intervention was needed. Separated from his sisters, Jeremy and his brother moved from foster family to foster family as they couldn’t settle throughout the year. Eventually Jeremy’s paternal grandmother said that he could go to live with her when he was 12 years old so that things could be more stable.
When Jeremy was 15 his grandmother sadly passed away and he went to live with his stepfather, however this did not last too long. Relationships were hard and this pressure was too much for everyone to take, and for the past few years now Jeremy has been sleeping on friends' sofas and floors.
Jeremy is slowly re-building his relationship with his mum and they get on better then ever, but he explains that he never wanted to put pressure on her by moving back home as he doesn’t want her to become ill again. 
Now he’s all packed and just before he moves into his own new home, Jeremy says that it feels weird yet really exciting. He says he can’t wait to cook in his own kitchen and finally have somewhere to call his own. Since accepting the property he has already applied for a job close to his new flat and is looking into applying to the Prince’s Trust.

He now says that his plans for the future are to enjoy his new home, continue to look for a job and to learn to drive now that he has somewhere safe and stable to study.
Landlords and supporting agencies wishing to learn more about the opportunities available through Abodes Singles can contact Holly Wrigley at Trafford Housing Trust on 0300 777 7777 or email her on

*Details have been changed to preserve anonymity.