I was at a workshop on building new homes and we got to a contentious point about what was being planned. I asked the room (mainly architects and regenerators) if they would take the same action / design they were planning if this was not social housing. There was silence in response because most recognised the likely answer was no. I then asked if they personally would live next door to or above the facility they were planning and again the answer was silence.
Why oh why do Councils and Housing providers still persist in designing things into new social housing and estates that they would not dream of placing on a ‘private’ estates? The answer clearly comes down the fact that this would result in a reduction in sale price whereas it is not seen as an issue in social housing. All too often there is still this unconscious perception that it does not matter with social housing because ‘they’ don’t own the property.
I grew up on a council estate and am all too familiar with the snobbery and patronising behaviour that can be directed at social housing. Anybody who knows me will be aware of my complete antipathy for murals and mosaics which were the universal panacea for all ‘deprivation’ ills between the 1970’s and 1990’s. ‘These poor people are deprived, lets give them a mural (and let them eat cake too)’. Don’t get me wrong I am big supporter of public art, but I’m talking quality and well thought out work, not something bad that marks you out as a ‘deprived’ area. How many murals and mosaics do you see on new ‘private’ estates …mmm… none! I like graffiti and a nice Gaudi mosaic but not as a marker and I mean you too Banksy.
All too often on mixed new build estates I hear the term ‘tenure blind’ but it never is, the quality of the work surfaces, tiles and finishes is always just that bit cheaper in the social units.
A few things to consider:
- Rent covers all costs in the same way as a mortgage does so stop treating different tenures differently
- If it is not alright where you live why do you think it will be alright in ‘social housing’
- By putting a different financial value on social housing you are also putting a lower social value
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.
Well, not per se. It’s the words and what they imply.
I was walking past a well respected community building last night and noticed a sign saying ‘Council Community Involvement unit’. This made me realise how much the word involvement implies a really unbalanced power relationship.
Don’t think so? Can you imagine a Community or Resident Control Unit? No council or housing association would countenance that combination of words because they imply either residents in charge or more likely being controlled. A very wise man once said that language structures reality. The use of the tepid ‘involvement’ real suggests that any organisation is being rather gracious and letting you be ‘involved’. Given that residents of a council or housing association, by the fact they live there, are already involved this seems just a wee bit paternal (or possibly patronising).
Of course, this is being simplistic because what most organisations probably intend with the word involvement is involvement in decision making and shaping services. However, this still does not signpost a more equal relationship. For quite awhile organisations played with the idea of a ‘menu’ of involvement. Maybe we should take this further with a little chilli like warning symbol to imply how much power you are given:
Resident Survey – 1 Chilli (you maybe listened to)
Mystery Shopping – 2 Chilli (they can’t really ignore the comments)
Scrutiny Panel- 3 Chilli ( you get to ask the awkward questions)
So what’s the suggestion for a better approach. Well, it would help if your landlord or service provider could be honest about what you really can have power over, what you can have a say on and what you can comment on. By being upfront this can at least open the dialogue on where the influence / control line sits. Are you viewed as a customer, a shareholder or an owner? See language does imply different power levels!
And yes I know we use involvement on the website, it’s the current jargon. Let’s change it.
Consulting residents, service users and communities is second nature to us, we do it daily in our work. Yet increasingly the landlord organisations, architects and developers we come across seem to be reticent in engaging with the recipients of housing and regeneration services. It’s not rocket science, people are much more able to accept and support decisions (however difficult) if they have been party to the discussions leading to them.
Recent proposed landlord mergers appeared to have been led by the business case or a corporate vision with very little regard for the impact upon residents who ultimately pay for the service. As Carl Brown observes in Inside Housing, the National Housing Federation’s voluntary merger code failed to refer to a role for tenants. Following the collapse of the high profile mergers, twelve landlords are exploring an alternative code which we await with interest.
Statutory ballots always carry the risk that residents will reject a strong and coherent proposal, however with this as a true test of opinion landlords were diligent about involving residents in the details of the decision and providing reassurances. How else were so many voluntary stock transfers and regeneration schemes achieved in relatively short timescales? Residents have much to offer when developing options for saving money or improving service delivery.
On a smaller scale, several times over the past year we have been asked to mediate where a resident has raised a serious and formal complaint with their landlord regarding a decision that has been taken which affects their home. Without exception, these complaints have arisen because residents have felt dis-empowered by a seemingly high-handed attitude from their landlord. In each case, consultation has been one-way; telling and not listening, imposing a solution without a discussion regarding the alternatives. Housing staff were well-meaning and professional but had failed to take the residents along as they developed proposals. Once a meaningful discussion was imperative, compromise and consensus was achieved – a successful outcome.
Sadly, consultation techniques are not taught to project managers, housing officers, architects and employers agents when clearly the people demonstrating excellence have these skills in spades. The traditional consultation meeting is now only one tool in the kit to engage people, when people are time poor, less formal events, capturing views through conversation and social media provide an opportunity to hear what residents say. three things:
- Resident consultation is not a new thing and it works.
- Listen as well as talk.
- Top-down approaches or imposed solutions are fraught with difficulty and often fail.