Wednesday, 23 December 2015

That time of year

Anyone else noticed that there just aren’t enough hours in the day (or days in the week, weeks in the year etc)?  It’s the same with money – there’s just not enough to go round.  So I don’t know about you, but I find myself entering the traditional season of goodwill and time of new resolve pretty burned out and feeling more than a bit broke (metaphorically of course).  How will I have come out of it – or more pertinently how will the social housing world have come out of it - by the end of 2016?

As my brief for this blog was that it might be published before or after the festive season, you can view the following list both as what I want for Christmas and, because I’m sure it can’t all happen by then, my New Year’s resolutions.  But if by the year end we had all worked together to make a few simple1 things happen – wouldn’t the world look just a little bit better?

  1. We knew our customers – not just through their data, but through our shared humanity; that their hopes were our hopes;  that we provided a safety net when they are at their most vulnerable and that for those experiencing poverty we stood alongside them to help them escape. Something that would have to involve…
  2. …the replacement of the unworkable and catastrophic cap at LHA levels on rents with something developed between government and the sector which provides a different method of capping the Government’s exposure on benefit payments…
  3. …a cap that would be a good thing, because then the sector could be free to set rents at the levels we feel best suit our market and our purpose, not have government use rent levels as a proxy for controlling benefits.  And we might just find that then, as some went up, others would come down, alleviating hardship for many who find the term affordable rent an oxymoron.
  4. Hospitals with no patients awaiting suitable homes to be discharged to, because housing providers’ pivotal role in resettlement and re-ablement has finally been recognised.  You never know, we might even have Health, Housing and Social Care working together as some kind of trinity, as opposed to being, like Ancient Gaul, divided into three parts, none of which speak the same language.
  5. A strategy for land supply that keeps pace with the growing number of households and an obligation on the owners of that land to develop it in a reasonable timeframe or face financial penalty.  Surely 2016 should see the end to speculative land hoarding?
  6. The meaningful application of the principles of the Social Value Act to the sector’s supply chain so that it is made up of social businesses who share our passion and our values.  I’m particularly looking forward to the point when that applies to somebody in the IT supply chain because…
  7. ….2016 has to be the year when we get the sector out of the technology dark ages, and hook ourselves to IT suppliers who understand the meaning of the apparently difficult concepts of “customer”, “transformation” and “now”.
  8. An end to award dinners.  Nuff said I think, don’t you?
  9. And last on my list of wishes, could we have by the end of 2016 a sector that fully accepts a “profit for purpose” future, confident of our independence from Government, assertive of our right to be heard, proud of the profits we create, and unstinting in our commitment to use those profits in the service of those in greatest need?
Whether you’re suffering from a pre-Christmas burnout or a post New Year hangover, I hope at least one of these thoughts has cheered you up.

  1.  I lied about the simple.
Wishing you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year for 2016

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

False dichotomy

You know that familiar part of radio interviews where some musician is posed contradictory alternatives and asked to choose quickly between them?  “Meat or fish?”; “United or City?”; “books or movies?”.  

picture showing one way signs pointing both left and right
Only two choices?
Of course, the answers are just what passes for entertainment, and while everyone knows that the real world is more complex, nobody is going to be amused by an answer that goes “Well, I love a good novel on a wet Sunday afternoon, but Orange Wednesday’s were fabulous and the cinema seats are so comfortable these days, so can I have both please?”

Celebrities have learned to play the game; it's called “False Dichotomy”.   And so it seems have we. You may have noticed that what passes for a row has broken out in the social housing world. 
Positions are being taken – with reported comments from Genesis and Aster on the one hand and SHOUT supporters on the other; views are being aired and shared; perhaps even destinies are being forged.

Strident headlines proclaiming that market-facing solutions are the only solutions are followed by equally vehement commitments to the values of social housing.  Of course, these respective positions stem from viewing our world through the always distorted lens of our binary-based political system.
Now don’t get me wrong, political parties are very important, especially ones in Government with every prospect of a decade of power.  So, practically, embracing their new agenda is a necessary step to secure organisational survival into the future.

A necessary step, yes.  Because Government holds, and can therefore withdraw, our licence to operate.

However, if the government lens is the only one through which we seek to develop our organisational strategy, then we are in our own minds already public bodies, just as, perhaps, we will be in the eyes of the Office for National Statistics once details of the Right to Buy are known.

And doing what is necessary is not the same as doing what is sufficient and right to develop a clear and lasting strategic direction.   Good strategy is derived from multiple perspectives and has a complexity and nuance that neither plays well into any political narrative nor is easy to portray clearly in the full glare of modern media – social or otherwise.

At Trafford Housing Trust we know we can and must up our game in the media if our great work is to be recognised and valued.

More importantly we have to have the right strategy to work to, one that balances the conflicting interests of current customers and those of would be customers; of those who view social housing as a springboard to something else, and those for whom it is a vital safety net; of those who want the right to buy their own social home and those who want to leave adequate social provision for the next generation. 

We know our strategy has to change if it is to remain relevant.  The questions we are asking are: how should it honour our heritage, respect our own values, acknowledge our context, articulate our charitable intent and paint a compelling vision of the future.  We know these can’t be answered satisfactorily by the false dichotomy posed by “social housing or market housing?”
Let’s all stop pretending that it can and move towards a positive debate about the essential part for both within any sustainable ‘one nation’ approach to housing in the UK.  

Monday, 22 June 2015

Living Rent - only half an answer

There is much to commend the work that Savills, the National Housing Federation and JRF have put into devising a better rent model than the hotchpotch nonsense we have now of Affordable Rent (AR) and Social Rent (SR). 

Without doubt, any rent regime that relates to the market value of property (as both AR and SR do in their different ways) when the intended occupant, by definition, is somebody unable to compete in the market, is bound to be flawed. So the reliance on a proportion of income alone as the key influencer of rent charged is a logical and progressive move.
Whether it is also an ambitious one is more questionable.  Its title promises the assumption challenging approach of the “Living Wage” campaign, but it feels more like a shift along the existing approach rather than a new approach entirely.  With the new circumstances that austerity, lack of funds for new supply and welfare reform seem to demand, I wonder if it goes far enough.

Firstly, while expressly stated as not being obligatory, it gives housing associations an "undemanding" methodology to establish their own rent levels.  By default, I suspect many will choose to use it.  But in so doing they are abrogating to others the essential task of ensuring that the price point they charge is specific to the product they provide to their customer. Despite the heavy-handed years of "one best way" type regulation, not all housing associations provide the same quality product or the same quality service. Differentiation across the sector on these things is set to increase further in the absence of the audit commission enforcement and with consumer regulation predicated only on a no “serious detriment” test. Suggesting a standard methodology across whole geographies runs counter to the direction the sector is taking and will inhibit its ability to demonstrate real value to customers.

Secondly, it relies on a continuation of the notion of a "rent envelope", enshrining yet again a legitimacy for Government to control rent; something that no longer exists now rent levels and benefit levels have been decoupled for many customers. Government's interest is in controlling benefits, and that is exactly how the local housing allowance system works in the private sector. PRS landlords are free to charge whatever rent they choose and make a series of calculations in order to determine what that should be. The time has come for housing associations to be treated in the same way - for maximum benefit levels to somehow be prescribed by government - but for freedom over actual rent levels to rest with Boards of what are after all independent organisations.
We are a living wage employer logo

The "Living Wage" works - and at THT we are fully signed up members of the campaign, even paying it to staff within our domiciliary care business -  by setting a floor, below which nobody's pay falls. Mature employers then decide their own pay and reward structures around that baseline.

The Living Rent will operate differently, becoming a target not a starting point. Are housing associations so immature that we need our hands to be held in this way?  Or is the fear that free to charge rents at levels of their choice, some would forget their values and tighten the screw further on the already poor. Either way, it's poor governance at the root of the problem. Organisations with good governance, based on a sound set of anti-poverty values, must have the freedom to set their own rents and be held to account for the rent choices they make

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Singularity

You might not have heard of The Singularity - nor had I until I happened across a Radio 4 programme that explained all.  It’s got a cracking little website all of its own that you can find here:  

The Singularity - when AI overtakes human intelligence
So why is The Singularity important for #ukhousing? Well, it marks the point in time when, according to experts, Artificial Intelligence will overtake human intelligence and when that happens, everything changes.  Far off?  Science fiction?  Maybe, but there are some very smart people at Google, IBM and elsewhere who are absolutely convinced that super-intelligence that exceeds that of the human is inevitable, because of the exponential rate of increase in computing power.  

BigData & FabLab

At a time when digital headlines in #ukhousing seem characterised only by negativity to tenant tablets and drones and when much of the other digital stuff, such as BigData and the growing FabLab movement is passing us by, it’s not a popular thing to say that digital transformation is a necessary part of any successful housing association business model.  But being unpopular doesn't mean it’s wrong!  And that's not incremental change, but massive, continuous transformational change.  How else are we going to keep pace with the expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy group of customers?  How else will we will be able to bring medical and social care advances to the old, sick and vulnerable who we house?  How else will we help equip tenants for a jobs market in which entry-level jobs have been fully automated?  

If you are more concerned with the present than the future; if regulatory pressure on value for money is the monkey you need to get off your back; if falling rent collection because of welfare reform is threatening your business model; and if the rising cost of bricks and the labour to turn them into buildings is curtailing your ability to develop new homes, the answer still lies in transformation.  In a different world, where no Government is coming over the hill to rescue associations; where tenants are simply going to get more demanding and discerning before they pay their rent; doing what we’ve always done isn’t going to cut it. 

Some of these thoughts and ideas will be topic of the session in London next month where HACT and the northern housing consortium are coming together to discuss “Next Generation Solutions”.  You can find the full programme at and I hope to see you there.

Oh, and in case you wondered, Ray Kurzweil Director of Engineering at Google who is working on machine intelligence and the use of natural language to drive computers and the man credited with coining the concept of the Singularity, projects that it occurs sometime between 2029 and 2045.  Will you be ready?  Will your organisation be ready?