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.