Friday, 16 December 2011

The Most Popular Posts of 2011 - Part Two

A warm welcome to 2012
For the final post of a momentous 2011, I thought you might be interested to know what the most popular posts of 2011 were. Last week featured the 10th - 6th most popular and this week is the final countdown.

Best wishes to all for the festive season and wishing you an exciting and prosperous 2012. I'm almost certain the Mayans had it all wrong. We'll see...

5) Introducing Abodes Singles
A blog post introducing our innovative new product that seeks to connect single homeless people with properties, something that can be tricky to do.

4) Will This Be The Era Of Consumer-Led Public Services?
How will the huge changes in public services manifest be represented and (a common theme on this blog) how can we create a new measure of success that moves us on from purely financial metrics?

Well, do we? It would seem given a later post on this blog that the answer is no. I'll report back in 2012 to let you know how our pilot scheme is going. 

Inspired by a radio programme about pencils (read the blog and it does makes sense) I've been thinking about how we can create innovative products and services in housing. 

Do you tweet? Facebook? Are you beginning to wonder whether to invest time in Google+? If you're wondering about the value of social media for social housing organisations then have a read of this. It would seem that many of you are, as it's been the most popular post of the year. 

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Most Popular Posts Of 2011 - Part One

If you're wondering what could account for the smell of burning candles and the off-key singing it's because this blog has officially reached its first birthday. Although the blog list on the sidebar insists that the first post was actually in January, that's because it was the first one published - there was plenty of writing and mistakes to be made behind the scenes before that.

The blog has been an interesting challenge in looking at new ways of communicating with different groups, and assessing which of the new media tools on offer actually give housing professionals something new and useful. I think in the New Year I'll perhaps be able to round up some more insightful thoughts on what I've picked up from the experience of blogging and tweeting.

Many thanks to each and every one of the 12,000 or so of you who have read the blog in 2011 and, as ever, if you have any feedback or thoughts then I'm always interested to read your comments and do my best to respond. To finish off the year I thought I'd give you the run down of the most popular (or at least the most read) posts of the year on the blog.

10th - Does Housing Get Diversity Wrong? Looking at the specific challenges of addressing diversity in an area like Trafford and how housing approaches the issue.

9th - Supporting Community Action In Trafford With the challenge of the Big Society ringing in our ears, how are we addressing the issue across our own borough? As requested in the comments an update to this is in the works...

8th - Changes to the Board An important update on the mechanics of THT and how the changes would impact on the organisation and its customers.

7th - The Past And Future For Housing Inspired by Remembrance Sunday and my reading list I dug out the crystal ball and tried to look at a possible future for the housing sector.

6th - What Do Housing Associations actually do? Here's 964,339 Answers Revealing the research done for our contribution to the neighbourhood audit and looking at the wider (and often unspoken) work that housing associations do.

Find out the most popular next week, along with some of the search terms used to reach the blog!

Friday, 2 December 2011

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love VAT

When I was younger, there were always two things that I just couldn't be bothered to understand: Pensions and VAT. Obviously, as the years have taken their toll, I've found my interest in pensions has naturally increased, but I've still never managed to get that exercised about VAT. So it was amusing to me that George Osborne's statement this week had something interesting to say on both these topics - things that may yet turn out to have real organisational significance for Housing Associations.

Naturally, it was Osborne’s mention of pensions that grabbed the headlines. The three main points were that people would have to work longer before they got their state pension, that public sector pensions would be lower than historically has been the case and finally that pension funds would be investing in large infrastructure projects. Of these, the first two were merely re-statements of very clear trends that had been well trailed. But the news that pension funds will increase the scale of their direct funding of our roads, railways and hospitals of the future (you’ll notice that housing wasn't on that list) is more engaging.

Given that we now have six, not four, years of planned public sector retrenchment (or "cuts" as we’ve grown to know and love them) and that the banks are now in the business of building balance sheets rather than advancing long-term capital, we perhaps should be saying, "thank goodness someone is prepared to invest." That said, I'm sure it won't replace the cut public expenditure, I'm sure that over the lifetime of this parliament that infrastructure will depreciate by more than the additional investment made; but nonetheless in the current climate any new source of private capital must be greeted with enthusiasm. Now all we need to work on is getting that kind of institutional backing into affordable housing.

So the pensions may have been the lead story, but (and this is a sentence I never thought I’d write) it’s VAT that is the exciting part. Specifically, the catchily-titled "cost-sharing exemption", through which organisations that are exempt from VAT (like most Housing Associations are for the majority of their activities) can share activities without having to charge the other organisation VAT on those activities. With VAT now at a record 20%, that's no small saving and I predict it will have two impacts within our sector.

Firstly, it will reduce the imperative to merge as that will no longer be necessary to avoid paying VAT on services provided between organisations. Secondly, it will increase the imperative to collaborate in cost-sharing arrangements with other exempt organisations, as by doing so there is the potential to avoid 100% of the VAT that would otherwise be payable. I know that a lot of the detail of this has yet to be worked through and it may well be some time before we see how the exemption gets put to use, but let’s imagine for a second what might it offer.

Of course, the "scale-brigade" will immediately leap to shared back office services. If only their passion for agglomeration was matched by the level of evidence that it really does generate efficiencies! Interestingly, some press reports claim that it is an exemption specifically for back office services - whereas the HMRC Guidance says only that "the services supplied by the group to its members must be ‘directly necessary’ for the members’ exempt and/or non-taxable supplies." While back office sharing might benefit from this exemption, there has to be plenty of scope within it for organisations to be much more creative than simply creating call-handling factories, where any theoretical cost-per-call benefits are wiped out by increased call volumes - because the factories focus on the cost of each call, not solving the reasons for the call in the first place.

Could there, for instance be a route here to mutual specialisation, where two Housing Associations form a cost-sharing vehicle with the aim of Housing Association Number 1 becoming an expert in say Development, while Housing Association Number 2 becomes the expert in Maintenance? Could there, too, be a route to much better neighbourhood management, with Housing Associations with dispersed and fragmented stock in a given geographical area being able to appoint on-the-spot managing agents without incurring the current 20% VAT penalty? And, in a sector that is notoriously insular, is this the mechanism through which the Housing Association world can return to its roots and its values and re-establish productive, creative and VAT-free partnerships with Community and Voluntary Sector organisations?

There’s no denying that it’s been a week of unremittingly grim economic news, however, I can’t help but wonder what my younger self would have made of the fact that it's VAT that got me smiling again.