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.