One of the things we hear from residents who are facing the demolition of their existing social housing is the fear that a new build home will not are not as well built as their old home. It takes a lot to allay this fear including and many visits to new build schemes.
I was saddened to read the article by John Harris in the Guardian on 11th April about Housing Associations facing a storm of complaints about new homes. There has been a lot of articles both in the press and on the news about the Orchard Village scheme, which has got to the point where the housing association (Clarion) is buying back new build properties. I was also aware about the problems with Solomons Passage as one of my friends (a tenant) has been decanted so they can knock down the building that is 7 years old. This article implies that the problem may be wider.
So what is going wrong?
Working on large schemes I always say to residents and officers that a contractor will only be as good as the contract management applied to them. Lets be clear, developers and builders are in this to make money, whilst they do think about their reputations their primary focus is to make a profit. It requires good contract management by the client i.e. the housing provider to ensure that corners are not cut and that specifications are kept to. Quality control, checking, checking and independent testing are key.
We have seen an increase in building by social housing providers and this has not been matched by an increase in the right staff within Housing Associations and Councils who oversee new build from cradle to grave. At least one association I have worked with has seen their new build properties increase from just over 100 units in 5 years to nearer 5000 over the next 5 years. Whilst the teams overseeing the work have increased, its not proportionate and more crucially emphasis has had to be placed on slowly developing skill in house which is a very steep learning curve. All too often the focus is on design rather than good structural quality. Nice pretty apartments with lovely work surfaces may sell but are they liveable and sustainable, apparently not in some cases.
It is crucial that good technical advice is sourced BUT over reliance on external technical consultants is part of the problem. On the schemes mentioned where were the Clerk of Works and the Employers Agent?
Going forward there are a few options for social housing providers to think about balancing:
- Building up internal technical expertise not just project management and design
- Earlier involvement by those teams that pick up problems – the repairs and major works teams
- Accepting you don’t have the skills and passing the risk on to someone who specialises in building and will ensure they don’t carry a large defects cost
- Stop trying to be everything you do not necessarily have the skills to build on a large scale and manage social housing- something may have to give
- A good clerk of works is worth their weight in copper piping but the spec they inspect against must be right in the first place
Above all else, learn from your mistakes! A lot of landlords would not get away with this if they were working in the open market.