Wednesday, 12 December 2012

It's Cold, It's Christmas And It's Callous

Sometimes there are things you have to do that you know you are not going to enjoy. Like reading the latest DWP Impact Assessment for Universal Credit. I read it because I thought it might shed some light on the impact of Universal Credit - after all, the clue is in the title if you look closely enough. Now, with the wet towel unwrapped from around my head and the smelling salts fading into the atmosphere some light is dawning (literally as I write this).

The Assessment itself is a well crafted piece of work - in my quasi-civil service days at the start of my career I would have been proud to have written such a precise piece. Of course, it's not exactly flowing prose but the facts are set out clearly, as is the logic used to produce them. So far, so good. But, there are a number of "buts".

The biggest is that if the headline of more benefit take up, less fraud and more overall cost to the Treasury is true, how come it doesn't feel like that for many households? Some of the answer lies in how averages and totals mask some pretty dramatic cuts - within that headline of "good" news is buried the detail that 1.3 million households will see weekly income drop by more than £100. Some comes from the fact that only financial value is assessed with no attempt to "impact assess" in any social value sense.

Then there's the related fact that DWP appear to have written it from a "producer" perspective. What this policy means for the DWP and the Treasury can be discerned, but for individuals - no chance. It's a real shame that the scope of the Social Value Act doesn't impose a requirement that policy making - as well as contract making - should be subject to a wider test of social and not just economic measurement. How in 2012, with everything that has happened in recent years across the world, can we choose such a narrow definition of success or failure?

But for me the biggest failing of the Impact Assessment is its absence of humanity. As this policy plays out, we must ensure that the real impact is truthfully portrayed. Yes, there will be heartwarming cases where the benefit changes provide a motivation for self-improvement of the kind MPs expect to see. We should not be afraid to report those - they matter for the individuals and society as a whole. But we also need to report factually how for a family losing £300 from their weekly benefit their choices are now between food and heating, we need to show how respiratory illnesses have increased and how child nutrition has suffered.

These human stories will play out across the country in the years to come as the callousness of this policy - encouraging people into work that for many just doesn't exist - becomes apparent. Comms teams across #ukhousing have got a job to do next year.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

My Review Of The Northern Housing Summit 2012

The Northern Housing Summit organised last week by the Northern Housing Consortium #NHCsummit on Twitter was a good do (there's a good Storify from the NHC events team which rounds up a lot of the coverage). Perhaps there was a little too much economic doom and gloom on the first day – but as most commentators don’t think that the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement today will give much cause for jubilation, perhaps those predicting 20 years of hardship have actually got it right. Still, amongst all that doom and gloom there were some bright spots.

A highlight for me was recognition for our ambitious apprentices project as the overall winner of the NHC’s Silver Screen competition, which this year focused on projects working with young people. I’m really proud that this excellent project (more information here) got the recognition it deserved, that the inspired Vicki Duncan got the credit for coming up with the idea and that we were able to take all seven of the fabulous apprentices we employed from the project to the awards dinner.

Among the other events, three really stood out for me. Louise Casey gave a thought-provoking interview about her work as ASB Czarina and she challenged the audience about why, as landlords, we didn’t do more with the few who cause such vile nuisance in the midst of local communities. The phrase “what we permit we promote” sprang to mind – something that at THT we have used regularly to guide the way we deal with staff inside the organisation. But does that extend to our dealings with tenants? My conclusion is that it doesn’t – with them we don’t always “tell it like it is” and make sure that tenants causing real trouble for their neighbours really do understand the urgent need to change their ways.

Also in an interview-style setting, Julia Unwin talked with understanding and compassion about the real statistics behind welfare reform and that how as housing providers we needed to get much closer to individual families in order to understand and help alleviate the challenges that they face. The sad fact is that we are far more likely to know the full details about the physical condition of the fabric of their home, than we do of the social fabric that binds the family that lives in it. How did we reach that stage – an understandable caution about collecting and using personal data and a regulatory regime that cared for process not outcome. Thankfully, the second no longer exists, and we need to do a lot to get over the first!

Finally, Sir David Henshaw was his usual provocative self, taking few prisoners in a wide-ranging review of attitudes in housing and public services. He didn’t see enough of housing organisations being led by their customers, he didn’t see enough innovation and he didn’t see enough engagement with other organisations across the public sector to make maximum use of our combined resources. Moderated with humour and including the NHC Summit equivalent of a pensioners tea-dance this was more thoughtful than that description might suggest – nonetheless, the message was unmistakeable.

When you have three people all telling you much the same thing – you are complacent about your customers – perhaps as a sector we need to listen very carefully to what they are saying. If welfare reform really does end up with rent being paid to tenants, suddenly, they could all become very price and service sensitive and being complacent about a customer who has to want to pay you your rent probably isn’t the most sensible strategy...

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Are You Going To Disrupt Or Be Disrupted?

One of the most notable things about the housing sector is that right now everything is changing. If history has taught us one thing it's that at a time when everything changes there are people who win and people who lose. My conclusion is that those who are going to win are those who are prepared to be disruptive about the business models, about the technology and about the customer orientation that our sector has had in the past.

Let's take the business model first. Housing associations have traditionally had a "have and hold" business model. We own assets that are built using long-term debt raised from banks and grant gained from government. We then hold those assets for ever more using the rental income generated to repay the debt and cover the costs of management and maintenance.

There are some variants - there is an opportunity to increase profit by building housing for sale or shared-ownership and to subsequently recycle those profits to support less financially-viable housing for affordable rent. But the basic model remains as it is since the late 1980s when private finance was first introduced. With two of the three pillars on which that business model is based now gone - long-term debt from banks and significant levels of grant from government - it has to be questioned whether this business model can survive.

When it comes to technology the basics have remained unaltered for even longer. Most IT systems that are available to support housing associations are far better at recording transactions about an individual customer than recording their individual characteristics, hopes and aspirations. And how do these systems help when it comes to showing the impact of housing associations undoubtedly beneficial work on local communities - the whole social value agenda? The answer is that they are entirely inadequate. The technological changes required extend beyond the IT systems in our offices into the technology we use to communicate with our customers in our communities.

My top ten of technological innovations I'd like to see caused a few comments and I've been keeping a close watch on the emerging technologies to see what there is that might be relevant to our sector in the future. I'm not saying it is directly relevant but did you know that there is a project in America which is trying to use a 3D printer to create a gun? Clearly, it is a horrific prospect and it puts an onus on us all to find a more socially-useful application of this fantastic technology. If we want to disrupt, instead of being disrupted then we must look to the new technology and how it can help us achieve our aims, but do so in a relevant, ethical way.

And as for our customers, the disruption here will be obvious, as most of them are about to get the biggest wake-up call for a generation. We are about to witness welfare benefit reform sweep through a customer-base not used to having to think about the value-for-money of the home that they are renting. At the same time the "one best way" regime of the centralist Audit Commission, no longer exists. Finally, housing associations have freedom to respond to their customers in a way that they see best, rather than the way that Whitehall sees best. What they do with that freedom remains to be seen.

My take on all this - and it's one I hope to share with colleagues in the National Housing Federation soon - is that as a sector we are ripe for transformational disruption, it lingers over the sector as both a potent opportunity and a potential threat. What makes this all the more pressing is that if we don't do it ourselves, then there are lots of others waiting in the wings who would be more than happy to bring the disruption to us. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

So How Do We Actually #killwonga?

There’s a well-known philosophical conundrum: if a tree falls in an empty wood – does it make a noise? Well, I'm sorry to reveal to any navel-gazers out there who have been pondering this question for a while, but I can reveal that the answer is yes. The reason I can be so sure is that the tree falling is almost certainly heard by representatives from, a website that’s dedicated for people “to discover more about Wonga, the digital finance company.”

Essentially, are much like the sensitive outer strands of a spider’s web which when twanged by some hapless insect create vibrations which summon the spider. In this analogy though, the insects are really off-message mentions of the Wonga brand. You can try it on your own blogs and Twitter accounts. For all I know if you whisper Wonga five times into a mirror they might appear behind you. In my own case they got in touch after my last post to point out that actually,their customers don’t pay anything like the 4,212% representative APRs that they’ve been maligned with. 

Strangely they didn’t respond to my question of whether with £48.5m in profits they could charge substantially lower interest rates and still provide a return for shareholders. Or whether, they might like to enhance their brand with a bit of old-fashioned philanthropy towards the marginalised communities from which they make those profits. It seems that like the tree falling in the empty wood, some things are destined to go without an answer. And answers are most certainly needed - read some of the articles covering this topic if you need convincing.

As pointed out last time, #killwonga is not a vendetta against the company itself – and more of a rallying cry to the burgeoning partnerships between those of us who care about Civil-, Big-, Fair- or simply Our- Society [pick your own least offensive phrase] to look at ways that we could create an innovative and disruptive model that would challenge the Wongas of the world. Our values and our focus on social outcomes above distributable profits means we could be part of something that provided a far lower cost alternative for our communities. They wouldn’t then have to turn to private entities, who are duty-bound to make more and more money. 

This notion feels very much of the zeitgeist. Looking around you can see Bank of DaveMy Home FinanceGrameen Bank – it’s not just a general sense of dissatisfaction following the recession that is causing this. Now more than ever, people are looking at the business model of finance and wondering if it can’t be improved upon. Who knows, perhaps the Civil- Big- Fair- Our-Society thinking really will have an effect on our action. 

So how would the #killwonga project work? My personal preference would be to look at how the micro loans can assist investment and enterprise, rather than (just) trying to alleviate indebtedness. We are ideally placed as housing associations to see when our tenants are in a position to use the money in a way that would benefit them. What’s more we can also plug them into a network of business advice and support. And between us, we probably have some spare cash that would be well suited to a modest return in exchange for a managed risk.  

As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of being central to our communities can just as easily be achieved through the loan to start a business, as it can through building homes. And a fund, at a manageable rate of interest lent on the proviso that those using the funds also accessed business help, could be just the alternative needed for a group of people who have often been disenfranchised because they have poor credit ratings. 

There are people already doing this; #justfinance is the term coined by the Community Development Finance Association in its report earlier this year (you can find it and other really interesting stuff on the Social Finance site). If housing associations are serious about financial inclusion, and if there really is an enlightened self-interest for us that strengthens our business and strengthens our communities it requires that some new conversations to happen - doesn't it?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Kill Wonga: Or How Could Housing Associations Work With Community Organisers?

I might have mentioned previously that my time working on the National Housing Federation has come to an end. I hugely enjoyed the six years I spent with the organisation and I’m sure – in fact, I know – that my work with them is not done and dusted, more of which in a later blog. So, how does one fill the void left by the Fed? You might assume it’s badminton, cycling and the occasional documentary about glacial movement? Well, you’d be wrong – instead it’s off to another organisation who I feel encapsulates an aspect of housing I find fascinating, namely, the Housing Action Charitable Trust, or HACT.

There’s a variety of reasons why the work of HACT attracted me. Going back to my experience in housing in the 1970s and 80s, housing associations were very much "of" community. You only have to look at the organisations like Paddington Churches Housing Association (now Genesis Group for any youngsters reading) and its formation out of the North Kensington Amenity Trust to see that new housing organisations at that time were formed by community activists who wanted things to be different in their area. That’s the soul of housing that I first encountered in my impressionable mid-twenties, and it was a soul that appealed. If all you are doing in housing is putting one brick on another and standing back and saying, that’s a nice piece of Flemish Bond then that’s not the whole story. My passion for housing is that it’s about a sense of place and understanding why places work and why they don’t work. All of which leads me to HACT.

Thus far, I’ve not had a great deal to do but this week I went to a meeting where HACT people were out in force. It was the first meeting of its kind between housing associations and the 2012 version of community activists - the emerging community organiser movement. For those of you not familiar with what this is, look up to see how it is playing out in the UK, or if you want to feel the real 1970's flavour, go to the works of Saul Alinsky (and as a short cut here are some of his most interesting quotes). There was a nervousness about the meeting. Community organisers are, ultimately, about the transfer of power to communities - instilling an urge to action from unlikely places. For many communities, housing associations are actually part of the power structure that needs to give things up. You can see the potential for conflict...

In practice, it worked extremely well - for those of us in the room, although I can though imagine a few housing association CEOs having apoplexy at the concepts! We found we had much more in common with each other than we might have thought and the Minister for the Third Sector Nick Hurd @nickhurdmp was encouraging of our collective endeavour. Jess Steele from Locality (found at @LocalityJess) and Tony Stacey from the PlaceShapers Group of housing associations @TonyStacey (and the fact that they're all on Twitter proves they must be good guys) spoke warmly about the links that needed to be re-made between two halves of what is essentially the same movement. As the afternoon progressed and the conversations flowed, we were able to conceive of a different world.

In that world, no longer do housing associations have an agenda about "what's best" to be imposed on some hapless and needy community. That deficit model of regeneration that has let us down for 30 years - "as a community you'd be fine if only you had a [insert flavour of month] and we can get it for you" - would be replaced by some deep questioning and some real listening about what it is that the people living in areas want. It builds on the unique assets already present within communities, using their hopes and fears, their loves and their hates as a starting point. For even the most disillusioned and disenfranchised can be impelled to action when these strongest of emotions are engaged. It starts small and local, and may never get to any different scale. Its messy, uncomfortable, and by the way, given recent revelations about the scandals of our press, also provides a much more direct and reliable method for "telling truth to power".

But we also realised that it wasn't going to be easy. For housing associations it requires a quantum leap in engagement and involvement. We will have to get past an approach that too often relies on tick box consultation; quick and dirty surveys; involvement of the usual suspects. We will have to let go, stop knowing all the answers and become curious and questioning instead. And our default "broadcast" mode will have to be retuned to one of "listening". We will also need new metrics - regular readers wouldn't expect me to miss the chance to bang the drum again for the pressing need for a good metric for social return on investment. We need this or else how do real community outcomes get measured, how does attribution of outcome get dealt with and how do we build an evidence base that this approach of community organising works to scratch the itch that other regeneration initiatives have left behind? Tough asks - especially at times when the world is about to get a whole load tougher because of welfare reform.

As to the title, I have nothing personally against those who run Wonga; I know that many people survive because of payday loans that they and others provide. But nobody who is already on the breadline can thrive with 2,120% APR loans. Might "Kill Wonga" just give us the first common campaign between housing associations and community organisers?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

How Technology Can Re-invent Housing Part Two

The future?
Following the first part of the rundown on how new technology could influence housing this week's post compiles a top five - although really there's no "order" as such. In fact, if you look at any sensible list of technologies likely to become commonplace in the next fifty years you'll very quickly see how every industry is likely to be radically altered by the incoming tech. There are game-changing technologies emerging every year - whether you know it or not, change is coming.

Even if you take one example like programmable matter you very quickly see that we are talking about an entirely different way of life - a time when buildings can be re-arranged at the flick of a programmer's keyboard. At that point you see that housing must once again return to the sometimes overlooked and perhaps old-fashioned notion that it's not only the bricks and mortar buildings that matter to our organisations, but the communities we help to shape.

5) A workable application of Augmented Reality
The reason I say a workable application is because if you've got a smartphone you can already download applications that are notionally augmented reality. They overlay information from a database over the real world. Some of the more interesting ones are the star maps that allow you to fake a deep and learned knowledge of the various stars in the sky. For augmented reality to really shape our lives though it needs to be in a much more practical form than holding a smartphone up to the night sky.

Google's Project Glass is probably the best vision of how things could come to pass. In that eventuality - augmented reality is less about housing, and more about how humans as a species can get smarter. If your every glance can be recorded, tagged and searched - what does that do to customer engagement? How does it change the way we deliver information? Moreover - what does it do to our brains?

4) Enhance health in communities
Further to last week's talk of the internet of things, we should probably accept that more of our appliances are going to start offering up information about us. While this has to be approached with the concept of user privacy as a paramount concern, it does offer us a tantalising view of how life could be when our stuff gets smarter. One application of this is in achieving health goals. How about getting an X-box style achievement for using the stairs five times rather than the lift? Or a series of networked pedometers that provide a real-time visualisation of who in a community is winning a race?

3) Teleport staff so we don’t need to have a fleet of vehicles
Travelling is one of the least efficient aspects of running any organisation, we need to utilise all of the technology available to reduce employee miles. Whether it's through a sensible policy of teleworking, video conferencing and smarter logistics - there's a huge amount we can do to save money and the environment.

2) Measure happiness in the community
This is potentially far-fetched but the theory is sound, I think! For a few years now Google has been tracking the movement of flu outbreaks by measuring volumes of flu-related searches and then plotting that across maps ( This idea of using real-time information on what people are saying is fascinating (although again raises the spectre of privacy issues).

Let's say you could also plug in the information that people were adding to social media networks as well. Then if you could filter those terabytes of information through an algorithm that was sensitive to emotions you could theoretically build up a very detailed model of our communities' levels of happiness. That's a mind-blowing tool when you think about setting up alerts from such a system - where you could get alerts about higher-than-average mentions of ASB. I wouldn't be surprised if you could even start to model crime patterns with a tool like that. What's more you would have another metric that would show you precisely where needed work in terms of emotional support.  

1) Enhance community conversations
THT have been on Facebook and Twitter for over two years now and in that time we've seen just how useful these technologies can be in giving us a platform to host and participate in discussions with our communities. It's not just a case of providing somewhere for these discussions to go on - it's also getting the technology to deliver something more useful from these discussions. We could use keyword extraction to find what's really important to our tenants and alert us to possible problems. Perhaps it's when this sort of conversation is allied with augmented reality that it will really allow us an in-depth and real-time insight into the communities we want to support.

Incidentally, I started thinking about this stuff because it looks like THT is about to be in the market for a new IT system. So I started thinking about what I would want in order to position us for what is coming. A quick look at the systems on the market and I'm struck by how far behind the technology leading (let alone bleeding) edge any of them are. As a sector, are we well served by the products out there? Emphatically not. It's time to up our demands - any willing suppliers out there with a compelling 21st Century offer? You know where to find me....

As a bonus thought, isn't it about time someone thought about a realistic option for cloning? Never mind being in two places at once, I need at least four of me if I'm going to have a chance of keeping up...

Monday, 5 November 2012

Amy Cuddy Talk On TED

I watched this fascinating talk from Amy Cuddy at TED and thought I'd share it.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

How Technology Can Re-invent Housing - Part One

If I were to generate one of those word clouds that you can usually find in a blog's sidebar, then I'm fairly sure that looming over everything would be one word: innovation. I have a (hopefully healthy) obsession with looking at innovation and new ways of doing things. In part this is because the change in the housing industry means we are forced to find new ways of achieving our objectives. Another element though is simply that I am a fan of new technologies and software, as the various gadgets I carry with me at all times will demonstrate. 

Recently I've been looking at some of the emerging technologies to try and imagine how they might shape the housing world in years to come - some amateur futurology if you like. I thought I'd share some of my thinking so far in a countdown post this week and next, as ever it would be interesting to hear your own ideas. 
It's worth pointing out that a) predicting the future isn't easy and I make no guarantees! b) a lot of these technologies are available to us for free or at very low cost. This isn't a future where you have to spend half your budget on a killer piece of technology, which if it fails to deliver takes your margins with it. This is a future where experimentation and innovation should be a natural part of our work. In this way we can mimic the lean start-up's mantra of build, measure, learn, pivot and potentially that new approach will become the norm...

10) Sense repairs before they are required
One of the many exciting developments is the so-called internet of things, this is the point when it's not just people that are wired up over the internet but appliances and "things" are also allowed to communicate as well. This could be achieved by any number of simple RFID devices, they don't need to be complicated. What would be the point of that? Well, how about a smart plumbing system that ran regular diagnostic tests on itself and emailed a technician when it felt that its performance was beginning to slip? You could equally apply this to central heating, green energy solutions, you name it.

9) Protect the vulnerable 
Some of our tenants are vulnerable, which means that services like TrustCall are a vital add on to what we do. Add the internet of things to homes and we could have a number of factors which provided early warning for anything amiss. How about a fridge that alerted a warden if it wasn't opened for a few days - or a front door which told a nominated person if a tenant was displaying an aversion to going outdoors? This could feed vital information to healthcare providers which could be part of a tailored long-term care solution.
8) Think of the possibilities of If This Then That is a site which claims to allows you to "put the internet to work for you". It works by monitoring dozens of different sites and allowing you to set conditional rules for when specified things happen. The site is built around the rule IF x happens THEN make y happen. The site is integrated with many major social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but also more mainstream information sites such as weather and news providers. It offers an unlimited number of applications. A full rundown of the recipes (the name the site gives to the rule sets) created by other users can be found here -

Off the top of my head you could very easily create an early weather-warning system for elderly tenants where they were texted, emailed or called if the weather forecast in their area showed ice (equally the same rule recipe could ensure that maintenance were warned about clearing ice). Other applications could be a community-curated online website where every time someone uploaded a photo to Instagram or Facebook and tagged the location then it automatically posted to a Trafford-centric WordPress blog. How about every time your organisation is mentioned on any of the social networks, an email is sent to a customer care team who respond in kind to see if they can help? 

Add in that IFTTT also connects to WeMo and you have the possibilities of a truly smart home - a home that starts heating up and putting the lights on when your GPS enabled phone tells your WeMo devices that you're entering your postcode? It sounds impossibly futuristic, but you could have it set up within 10 minutes.

7) 3D print new building components on site
3D printing is an outrageously exciting technology. This video gives a basic introduction if you've not yet seen how good it could be. There are no end of applications for this technology in housing but one that immediately springs to mind is if our maintenance teams had access to a 3D printer. In this way they could simply print any parts that they needed, rather than returning to base and ordering the part. This would represent a huge saving in time, energy and money. 

6) 3D Printing buildings
It sounds ridiculous but it's already being done. After all, if you can print the individual components needed to repair a building, why not just print the building itself?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Home Truths (With A Small PS)

The party conference season saw the economic arguments in favour of building more homes gain significant traction, and Trafford - in common with most of the NW of England - is a part of the world where unemployment is still rising despite the national figures indicating an overall fall. So this economic argument is a powerful one. Building homes boosts jobs on site and through the supply chain and, keeping as it does most of the spend within the domestic economy, creates further jobs up and down the supply chain, profits for distribution and tax revenues for the Government. But housing is also about meeting the inexorably rising demand for homes in this country. It shouldn't need the NHFs annual "Home Truths" publication to remind us, and politicians, of this. 

So what do this year's figures tell us? Rates of new house building are way below the rates of new household formation. Put another way, overall, demand for housing is rising. This shows in increased waiting lists, more homelessness acceptances, lower mortgage take up and higher rent levels in the private rented sector which in turn lead to more working families being eligible for housing benefit. With rent taking a higher proportion of disposable income comes, for me, the most telling phrase in the NHFs report: "Aspiration is stopped in its tracks".

I've been cautiously welcoming of the recent approach from government - what's not to like about a further £300m mini-round of the Affordable Homes programme and the prospect of a £10bn loan guarantee fund? But Minister - there is more that can be done; and it doesn't need to cost the government anything, there are three steps the Government could take that would ease the housing situation without needing funds throwing at them.

Firstly, please start to get tough with other departments that won't release their unused public land to provide sites for the new homes we so desperately need. Secondly, please give us certainty about our income stream in the medium term - we are doing our budgets now for 2013/14 and the current rent formula runs out the following year in 2015. Either tell us what the new arrangements beyond that date will be, or, even better, give us the freedom to set (within some form of local cap) our own rents in the light of local markets. Thirdly, echoing Jake Berry's call in The Spectator can we have some kind of land tax that encourages reluctant developers with land to build it out rather than just to sit on it.

And my PS? To be covered another time - but is anyone else intrigued by what's going on in local government at the moment? Civic leaders have woken up to the fact that outsourcing services is not the answer, that big is not always beautiful. When the leader of Britain's second city comes out and says as much, others really should start to listen. Who knows where this will lead - could merger mania within our own sector be the next conventional wisdom to bite the dust? Cosmopolitan anyone?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Strivers, Skivers and Trafford Treasures

On the one hand strivers, on the other, skivers.
This isn't particularly topical, it's not even an especially new slant on an old problem, but I believe it is important. We are at real risk of ignoring some inconvenient truths. From time immemorial, attempts have been made to classify, to categorise and to divide: whether into sheep and goats, or saints and sinners, deserving and undeserving poor, or, in the latest version, David Cameron's "skivers and strivers".

Now I'm as big a fan of digital as anyone, and, of course, digital is powered by binary "off/on" logic. I want to see digital expand into even the most unlikely corners of what housing organisations do (look out for that topic on the blog in future...), but even I don't want to extend that binary logic into a classification of human society. "Strivers and skivers" is so dangerous because it is on the surface so appealing. It's a message that seems easy to understand: we all know what a striver looks like - we house many of the hard-working families that the term conjures up. They are the people who put back into society, the ones who play by the rules. And yes, we also house some people who are skivers. 

But look at examples and this all gets more complex, more difficult. Let's take Family A: both adults work, but despite two incomes they still need to claim tax credits and housing benefit. Striver or benefit-dependent skiver? (By the way, living wage campaign anyone? - we've signed up to it and you could too). Or how about Family B: single mum, not working because the last of her four children from two different fathers isn't yet a year old - classic skiver material eh? Now add in the fact that she is the pillar of her local community, volunteering her time to organise events for children, helping out whenever she can, being an active citizen and living the Big Society ideal. Not so straightforward now is it? And that's before we add in the feral rich and the tax-avoiding corporations - where do they sit in world of only strivers and skivers?

All this was thrown into stark focus for me last week when we held our annual Trafford Treasures awards night, recognising the people in our local community who do things not because they have to, not for money, but just because they want to. These are the people who really put back into their society despite the fact that some of them would probably fall into the tabloid definition of skiver.  Real people with complex lives, doing their best to find their way in a turbulent world.

The night was full of heart-warming stories - an 11-year-old raising more than £1,000 for cancer charities in memory of those in his family who have died from the disease; a new allotment group committed to a green lifestyle and healthy eating; a volunteer in our sheltered schemes and a young mum who is turning a once-troubled estate into a great place for everyone. It's always a fabulous night, but this year one winner really stuck in my mind. An ex-international boxer, now on kidney dialysis, but still putting in his stint training local youngsters in his sport. As the night drew to a close, with a beaming smile and the strongest handshake I've been given for a long time, this man, Winston, said to me, "your recognition has inspired me to keep on helping those youngsters - I will keep going now."    

It reminded me that another Winston once said: "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Thank you to all those who give their time so generously.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

My Secret To Productivity: Trains

I don’t want to alarm anyone but today’s post is brought to you from the web app version of Write or Die (tagline: "putting the prod in productivity"). This ingenious application is a way of suspending the sword of Damocles over your own head, as the site describes:
Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.
Productivity in action
In order to try it out I’ve given myself the target of writing 500 words in the next 20 minutes and I’ve set it on the punishment level labelled "Kamikaze". According to the app if I stray over my self-allotted time I’ll find all of my hard work starting to delete itself and an audible punishment. Better get on with it then.

Although Write or Die is one way of focusing the mind, the modern worker really has no choice but to accept that distraction is part of office life. It’s one of the ironies of the workplace that often they’re not terribly conducive places to work. Between telephones (mobile and landline), faxes, emails, the internet, more email and colleagues it’s a wonder that anything gets done at all.

Almost as if to prove the point I’ve just had to take a phone call which has left me with five minutes before the Kamikaze punishment is unleashed…

Now I like a good interruption as much as the next butterfly-minded future-orientated CEO. But after a while that leads to my desk looking, as our cleaner tells me, like a deep litter bedding system for a small rodent. So what to do with all that "stuff"?

For me one of the most productive places to work is on the train. It’s one of the many things that I’ll miss about leaving the National Housing Federation. Once on the train,I would colonise a table and spread the six inch high bundle of papers removed from my desk the previous night across one side. My mission was that I had to have read and worked through all of the papers by the time I got to London. My own two hour spring clean. If running is essential for clearing the mind and allowing fresh thoughts to percolate, then a train journey is perfect for pushing aside thought and allowing laser-focused productivity.

What methods do you have for increasing your own productivity? I'm happy to share any brain hacks that you have discovered. I wouldn’t suggest you try the Kamikaze setting of Write or Die – I won't spoil it but I will tell you that it’s not a pleasant conclusion…

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Homes For Britain? Yes, Please.

I've recently left the board of the National Housing Federation after serving my six years there. I'll go into that in a bit more detail in a later post, but I think it's worth noting that the recent political activity of the Federation has been more vigorous and more successful than at any time since I've been on the board. The latest initiative is the Homes For Britain campaign which, well, why should I explain what it when there's a handy handsome video to do that for me:

The scale of the campaign is impressive with the Federation working in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Housing, Crisis, The Home Builders Federation, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Residential Landlords Association to lobby on the issue at this important political juncture as the various party conferences get under way.

You won't be surprised to know that I agree with the campaign's premise. Who wouldn't? There is a desperate need for new houses across the country (although as I pointed out in an earlier blog - equating need with demand is a schoolboy error). It's also become something of a mantra that building houses is almost a by-product of kick-starting the economy. If you haven't yet chanted "Building 100,000 new homes adds 1% to the GDP" yet today then I implore you to do so, it helps if you face Westminster I hear.   Interestingly, that’s just the number of new affordable homes Ed Balls has said a Labour government would build – all with the proceeds of the 4G sale.

It's important to see though that homes are not all we need to stimulate the economy – particularly not here in the North. Did anybody else notice the figures on the impact so far of the Regional Growth Fund? Projects approved at £200,000 per job created! Our new social enterprise – the furniture recycling project Rainbow – has created three jobs for a little over one quarter of that sum! This fund was supposed to be used to create (and protect) jobs, but it looks to me like it's being saved for a rainy day. When social enterprises and other not-for-profit sectors could be thriving on this fund you can’t help but weep when you read conclusions such as this from the Public Accounts committee.

So, before this post tailspins into negativity, a wholesale hurrah for Homes For Britain, I support it 100%, I follow the Twitter account (as should you, you can find it here @homesforbritain) and I do think it's an impressive campaign. I'll only add the caveat that it would be nice to think that other, equally vociferous campaigns, with a view to telling the story of the contribution of not-for-profits to local economies, will be hot on its heels.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Social Care 2012: What Needs To Be Done

For those of you reading this familiar only with the insularity of the housing world, you may be thinking that the new housing minister is the most important change in the Government's recent reshuffle. Perhaps you are right and, as an aside, it's worth noting that Prisk set a welcome change of tone both in public and private at last week's NHF Conference. But allow me to venture that it is actually the new health and social care ministerial team (and their successors) who will have the most profound effect on the world of housing and housing associations - at least if you provide a large scale, generic landlord service meeting the needs of the old and vulnerable.

If you aren't on the same page as me about this yet, perhaps we should wait while you go and have a quick read of this report from the King's Fund. At THT we know that our tenants, in ordinary homes as well as sheltered housing, will get less and less able to cope in their existing accommodation; as they age, their vulnerabilities increase and as cuts to commissioner's budgets result in fewer services delivered in a meaner fashion we are left in whole or in part with the responsibility for their care. We are currently equipped with a set of tools that are woefully inadequate for shouldering this burden. Clearly then we must do something - the question is what? Here's my prescription:

1. We must engage: be the ones to reach out to those health and social care professionals who are now devising the emergent systems, using the language that they speak, to evidence the contribution that housing can make. We can't sit outside the discussions that are now shaping the landscape of care and support bemoaning that "they won't talk to us", but rather articulate the compelling case about the extent of the help we can offer. The language of well-being has much to offer here: our evidence must show how it is that housing organisations can help people in communities to stay connected, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. Of course, as I have covered in previous blogs, having better metrics for assessing the social value of what we do would help here.

2. We must innovate: be prepared to devise a new, people-centred, system of care and support, rejecting the time-constrained, profit driven model of the private sector providers and imitated so often by those non-profits who should know better. There are new models starting to emerge - Southwark Circle combines statutory, voluntary effort with significant self-help within a membership-based organisation devoted to solving life's everyday problems. Models such as this start from a driver of basic humanity - centred on value to the carers and cared for, and not to shareholders.

3. We must invest: be robust with our regulator and our housing minister that value for money is about creating decent lives, and that building new homes, important though it is, isn't the only game in town. If commissioners (currently) are not prepared to meet the full cost of these new innovative models of care and support does that really matter? Most housing associations could choose to cross-subsidise the service from other parts of the business - something most of us have been doing with development for many years.

Do this and we might, just might, have a response to the care and support crisis which will otherwise engulf us and our residents. There is an urgent discussion to be had about social care in 2012; how soon that discussion becomes an argument and at what point that argument becomes an outcry is yet to be seen.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Social Care 2012: The Role Of Housing Associations

My last two blogs (part one and part two) both highlighted examples of what happens for some people in social care when the different organisations delivering their care fail to communicate properly. Whilst visiting one of our sheltered schemes last week I saw and heard first hand the impact of this. One of the recurring themes running through the stories was that the contribution of the housing provider went unheard or ignored.

TrustCall is one way we make a positive contribition to social care
Part of me thinks that this is because all too often we can be seen as "just the landlord" who is only interested in carrying out repairs and ensuring people pay the rent. I suspect it’s this “bricks and mortar” stereotyping that means fellow professionals can miss what we can offer. Consequently, this week I thought I would let you know about some the things that housing associations do that make me believe that we have something tangible to offer in the realm of social care.

We are developing our independent living offer in Trafford. Though a range of services we can help meet a real diversity of needs for our customers. Our sheltered scheme managers are the eyes and ears of the organisation. Several of them have care or nursing backgrounds and the majority have lived and worked in the local community for many years. Through day-to-day long-term contact with older people, and with the benefit of well-developed observational skills they are ideally placed to spot changes in their residents and prompt them to contact health and care professionals when appropriate.

They play an active part in supporting residents when they experience a change in their circumstances and, subsequently, their needs change. They can help people settle into the scheme and local community. Scheme managers can be a conduit to connect residents with the local community and vice versa. The diversity of activities and events provide a range of benefits for those that take part and can help combat isolation, depression as well as building skills in the local community. There is a popular misconception that activities in sheltered schemes are all about cake and bingo, however the reality is somewhat different. With our links to Trafford Leisure Trust we run exercise classes, we promote inter-generational activities though links to schools – for instance, one of our schemes hosts a weekly youth club.

One service we provide that really makes a tangible difference to people's lives is TrustCall. We are the main provider of telecare in Trafford. Staff at TrustCall are often the first person someone contacts in an emergency. We answer over 11,000 calls and send out an emergency response to 100 people each month. Very often telecare is used to facilitate a discharge from hospital and the monitoring and responses we provide help maintain the independence of people with dementia, stroke victims, diabetes and a range of other disabilities. Every day my staff are out in our neighbourhoods responding to a variety of needs of older and vulnerable people.

What else do we do that brings us into the world of health and social care? Well, we also employ a qualified occupational therapist. Not only can she assess what adaptations our residents might need she is a great help when we are looking to develop new or existing buildings and can ensure that we address the needs of people with disabilities. The assessments she carries out are used by our asset team to install adaptations that help to keep people independent. Put this together with our contract to fit minor adaptations such a grab rails, lever taps and you get the picture of an organisation at the front line delivering low-level preventative and responsive services for vulnerable people that help keep them independent. And this is before I've even talked about some of the health promotion work of our youth team or the work supported though community panels.

Despite protesting that we're not just about bricks and mortar, it’s not surprising that as a landlord our contribution is also about the buildings that people call home. The positive impact on someone’s wellbeing of a warm, accessible, secure and well-maintained home cannot be overstated. However our buildings have the scope to offer more. With a range of communal facilities including lounges, kitchens, offices and laundries there is scope for us to work more closely to develop real community-based services such as mini GP surgeries, a base for community matrons, a meeting point for local carers, treatment rooms for chiropody, physiotherapy, hairdressing and beauty treatments. All of our schemes provide access to the internet to help combat digital exclusion amongst older people.

This isn't supposed to read like a list of achievements - although I am proud of the work that we do - it's more to show that these are just some of the examples from a housing association that qualifies us to be an equal partner in conversations about health and social care in our neighbourhoods. Our services are not immune to the current crisis affecting social care funding, however the opportunity to create a hub for neighbourhood-based care for a range of partners is still there. I'd love to hear about other ways that housing associations are getting involved in social care and in my next blog I will offer some thoughts on how we might jointly respond to the challenges we are all facing.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Social Care 2012: Why It Matters

Two weeks ago I launched a series of blogs on social care, explaining I wanted to look at this issue from a political, professional and personal perspective - today's post sees the recent personal glimpses I've had of the impact of social care. There is a real interface between someone’s health and social care needs. As a local housing provider working closely with our customers in their homes and neighbourhoods we often have a real understanding of their needs. This week I want to use a couple of examples to highlight that perhaps not that much has changed since I told you about Freda’s story in an earlier blog. The two people that I am going to tell you about highlight what happens on the ground and are real life case studies where if the voice of the housing professional had been heard and responded to, then a different outcome could have been achieved.

Let me start with James who lived in one of our sheltered schemes. James was suffering from terminal leukaemia and was taken to hospital on Sunday because he had not eaten. His clear preference was to be able to come home as soon as possible as he was worried about catching infections in hospital so he was discharged that day with the promise of a care package on Monday that would involve his GP, district nurse, Macmillan nurses and a rapid response team. James’s family contacted our scheme manager on the Monday morning concerned that nobody had yet turned up.

What followed was a maze of bureaucracy as the scheme manager contacted various organisations in an increasingly desperate attempt to resolve the situation. James needed his medication and the support of a nursing and care team and whilst he would have received this in hospital his wish was to receive this in his own home so he could be in familiar surroundings with people he knew. His GP did not have any information about the case, the District Nurse did not appear to have a record of the case and agreed to visit the following day, the MacMillan nurses needed a referral from the District nurse before they could respond and the social work assessment team had the wrong address and could not confirm what they planned to do next.

Unfortunately, the scheme manager could not get anyone else to visit that day. Nobody seemed to accept the urgency of the situation or accept the opinion of a fellow professional concerned for the health of one of her residents. James was left with one of his friends overnight. The morning James was taken to hospital in an ambulance where he later died. James’s family and friends felt very stressed and let down by the situation and felt that if only what had been promised had been delivered James would have been able to die with care and dignity in his own home. If some other professionals had listened and reacted to the voice from housing perhaps this could have happened.

May’s story is equally sad. Twelve months ago May was a confident outgoing person, always socialising, and ready to pass on a bit of gossip. Today she is unrecognisable from that lady: staying in bed, unwilling to get up, frightened to go out and totally dependant on her daughter. She has had a series of hospital admissions, some quite prolonged and some of the care she has received when coming out of hospital has sometimes failed to address the most basic of needs. Her first set of carers kept preparing her solid food when she was unable to eat solid food following her treatment. She is suffering from incontinence, yet her bed was unmade and soiled bedding was left on the floor. With time slots for care being strictly adhered too the carers are unable to get her out of bed. Again with the scheme manager on site each day able to observe the effectiveness of care being delivered there is scope to involve a housing partner in this process to try and find a solution that better meets May’s needs.

I think the key to both May and James' stories is that care is often seen as a dichotomy between the carers and the cared for, but that overlooks a simple truth - namely that the carers are different people and don't present themselves to the cared for as a united team - often this is because they're not.

Bemoaning the fact that multi-agency work often means that people fall through the gaps is certainly nothing novel, but it seems to me that we have reached a crisis point. In an earlier blog I spoke about the fact that there was a real appetite for improving the way different groups try and work together. However, we can be as eager as we like, but without real investment and support from a Governmental level, the gaps we try to fill will simply prove impossibly wide.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Welcome Minister, Here's What You Need To Fix

When asked to describe the greatest obstacle to political success, Harold Macmillan famously replied, "events, dear boy, events". And it is events that have temporarily changed my timesale for the next part of the social care series; as how could I not make some comment on yesterday's reshuffle? By no means as dramatic as another feature of Macmillan's time in office - the 1962 reshuffle when seven cabinet ministers were culled - it nonetheless changes the landscape in which housing associations operate.

Mark Prisk, soon to be @markpriskMP
Before the reshuffle, blogs were already predicting the move to Party Chairman of the now departed Housing Minister Grant Shapps. It is fashionable to decry his period of tenure, although Jules Birch rightly points out that he has done some things to celebrate. To Jules' list, I'd add finding a way to run some kind of Affordable Homes Programme in November 2010 when his Department out-argued MoD, sunk their aircraft carrier and gained Treasury approval for the money for at least some kind of new homes.

If there really is a £10bn construction boost then that too is some kind of legacy (although how much closer does relying on a Government guarantee take us housing associations to the "Public Body" status and all that goes with it?). I will also miss his set piece performances - whilst substance was sometimes a little light and even occasionally distasteful, I had to admire the easy charm with which he deflected and disarmed his critics - no doubt the very telegenic skills that have seen him elevated to his new role and a seat in Cabinet.

Mark Prisk (his site has a blog of sorts where we learn that he was born in Cornwall, sings in the parliament choir and has voted to protect green belt land) inherits the brief after a spell as Minister of State for Business and Enterprise. So it's true, housing policy is no more about who gets housed, but about who gets employed. His website seems most proud of his role there in cutting red tape, so those like me hoping that a new housing minister might finally realise the need to regulate the private rented sector look set to be disappointed.

Top of his agenda has to be to build more homes, but it will be interesting to see how he does this. Shapps' faith in the private sector meant that while housing associations were squeezed so that their balance sheet strength was under-used to build fewer homes, the developers' profits were plumped to incentivise them to build more - only they didn't, preferring to sit back and wait for even more "plumping". Prisk might usefully look again at whether this dogmatic approach needs to be replaced by a much more practical one.

Next he will need to look carefully at how we provide for those whose housing needs are out of the mainstream. Building specialist housing, or extra-care, or tailored homes for those with the worst disabilities creates no more jobs, but does take more cash - so if value for money is to be measured as "jobs per pound", these sectors are in danger of losing out.

And finally, of course, he needs to get a Twitter account (as of ten minutes ago @MarkPriskMP is available); or how else will the rest of us get to smile at his debates with the likes of @LaraOyedele.

Welcome Minister, we look forward to building new homes with you.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Social Care 2012: Where We Are

Over the next four posts I want to take a deeper look at the issue of social care. I'm hoping to include thoughts and views from others on Twitter, comments and email, so please feel free to add your own opinions, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my views. I've been inspired to write in-depth on the topic because I believe that it is time to make social care personal.

You might think that personal experience is no basis on which to make (or even suggest) public policy. Policy absolutely must be based on research and evidence, on rigour and analysis. Debate about desired outcomes must be couched in what's best for society as a whole - mustn't it? Well, it's an argument that I understand, but when it comes to issues around social care, I can't help but feel that the focus on research and analysis is just serving to dehumanise what is at root a very human issue.

For me there are three main factors - professional, political and personal - that are driving the rising importance of social care. Firstly, at a professional level, the absence of housing organisations from the centre ground of social care debate continues to flummux me. From housing ministers (from all parts of the political spectrum), through the support organisations of the CIH and NHF, to (most) individual housing associations, the issue of the supply of new homes has way greater prominence than the issue of care and support for people living in existing ones. Yet, by any statistical analysis, the reverse should be true - while we argue about whether 150,000 or 250,000 new homes are needed each year to solve the supply crisis, there are in excess of 500,000 households receiving home-based social care each year.

Another factor that exists at a professional level, too, is that it saddens me that we continue not to learn the lessons of what makes a difference. Experience tells us that prevention is better for the person and cheaper for the provider than crisis intervention can ever be. History has revealed how "just in time" social care remains a pernicious bean-counter's myth. We need new voices in these debates and new partnerships need to be forged to make change happen.

Even then, there's no guarantee the new approach will stick: last year, I shared "Freda's story" which brought together police, social care and housing people in response to just such a crisis, we were united in our outrage that "the system" had failed Freda. Now, the chief superintendent and the main social work contact who were involved in that case have both moved on and so the energy and ability to create change inevitably dissipates.

Politically, I watch, hopeful but not expectant that some consensus will emerge about how the demographic forecasts and the financial ones can be reconciled to create a better social care system. But the facts are stark and there is no easy answer. More old people will rely on the taxes from fewer working people to fund their needs in old age; more old people will have less by way of family support - 20% of women born in 1964 are childless compared with half that number from a generation before; and medical advances mean that more old people will live to be very old, with a consequential impact on care levels and budgets.

Finally, at the personal level I have had three direct, and quite different, experiences of social care in the last 12 months. I've seen quality residential care, so I know it can be made to work. I've also witnessed the effect of the benign neglect of institutional incarceration; and I've seen the not-so-benign neglect of a profit-driven domiciliary care provider and the consequential hospital readmission of a sick and vulnerable old woman.

Over the next four posts, with your input, I'd like to address social care from these different angles, share what I've learned and experienced on the topic and suggest some ways forward, because the one thing that we all agree on when it comes to social care is that we can't go on like we are - can we?

Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter or to me directly by email

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Blindingly Obvious Blog Post

This week's blog was supposed to be the first in a four part series covering some thoughts on social care that were going to be better planned than the normal, slightly random, series of blogs that readers get. But, with questions of housing and housing supply competing right up there with Julian Assange for the domination of the post-Olympics, pre-Paralympics news agenda it seems as if topicality should trump considered opinion.

So what has the last week brought us? First there was the news that the Office of Fair Trading wasn't going to interfere in the merger process between two large North-West based associations. For those at Arena and Harvest, (now the rather curiously named "Your Housing Group") this is clearly good news, and for the rest of us it brings the relief that the swinging pendulum of regulation is not increasing its interference in our affairs.

Then on the same day, the Financial Times runs a front page piece about the Government, possibly, looking to underwrite housing association bonds. Wow! Good news if that can happen - it's "blindingly obvious" (for those not familiar with the relevance of this term, hang on) that if our borrowing costs can be cut - and long dated Government Gilts trade at 2.5%, well below our average cost of capital - then we can build more houses for the same rent. So I look forward to some announcement soon...

And then there was Boris news. It seems as if the housing market in London might not present quite such easy investment options for affordable housing as the Mayoral Office might have hoped. Sites at affordable prices and with planning consent seem to be a bit thin on the ground; there's talk of allocations not being able to be spent "down south". Could it be that the HCA will need to move resources away from London if the full National Affordable Housing Programme is to be spent? If so, @grantshapps, there are plenty of oven-ready sites up here in the North-West, so please direct it to us, so we can do our bit to get Britain building again.

You might think it was "blindingly obvious" to do that rather than let the money slip away from housing, just as you might think it was "blindingly obvious" that these areas never needed the Government's support for their affordable programmes anyway. And my source for that? Nothing other than the real turkey of the week - the report from the Policy Exchange suggesting that all social housing property which has a value above the regional median for house prices should be sold, not re-let, when it becomes vacant. The maths is compelling - sell a big house in Westminster, and build 10 small ones, without grant, in a place with below average house prices, and presumably that was why @grantshapps was quoted all over the press as saying the idea was "blindingly obvious" (see here, here and here for coverage).

I can actually think of some very good business reasons why selling property when it becomes empty is a good idea: cash would keep coming in and if it was genuinely only high value property that was sold, receipts would exceed cost of replacement supply; our reputation as a landlord would be one who only ever let newly-built homes (attractive to any prospective customer); our life-cycle repair costs would be substantially lower - Decent Homes repair thresholds and the associated expenditure would become irrelevant as only a tiny minority of tenancies would last 20 years. The bean-counters would be very happy indeed.

But, as @IsabelHardman at the Spectator said, it "would see a gradual shift towards a Parisian model of the social housing ringing a city in only the cheaper areas. Those areas are the ones with poorer job prospects, which increases the risk of tenants who are unemployed remaining so." As we've seen with so many other financially driven ventures into social policy - from A4E to G4S - understanding maths is no pathway to understanding real value for the tax payer. Not so "blindingly obvious" after all perhaps?