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
In the early part of this century even before the halcyon days when there was a Tenants Services Authority ( who remembers them?), the customer or tenant or leaseholder were King and Queen. Landlords were keen to find out what their service users thought of them!
I spent a lot of time training both residents and landlords in the fine art of Mystery Shopping and getting them to ask meaningful questions that would actually deliver real opinions. Fast forward to today and very few landlords are using this tool or even worse are using a version that is so antiseptic it tells them nothing.
Why is this happening? I have a few theories.
Good Mystery Shopping actually tells you.in real time, what your customers are experiencing. This can often at first be unpalatable. I spent many a feed back session, gently explaining that the written testimonies were what residents were actually getting when they phoned the call centre/used online services/visited the office. With support most landlords could learn to use this as a tool for improvement. Over time staff change and the skills atrophy so the strength and opportunity that ‘shopping’ offered got lost.
As the housing sector has become increasingly deregulated then there has been an associated reduction in the time and money dedicated to seeking resident’s views. Good Mystery shopping which resulted in change was real plus point for audit and could lead to better satisfaction ratings. Neither of these two carry anything like the importance they used to.
Almost always the first thing to go with cuts (or the rent reduction which is the same) is any form of resident involvement. Unfortunately, Mystery Shopping was seen all too often as an involvement tool. In reality, Mystery Shopping is cheap and effective quality assurance and service improvement.
Landlords, don’t be shy find out what your customers think by testing your service! With the increasing move into new sectors Mystery shopping offers real feedback. Some of the targeted ‘shops’ we have developed include:
- The experience of new home owners, share owners and tenants when they move into new homes
- How was the regeneration for you – learning lessons for new developments
- Channel Changing – our experience of moving it all online
Any Mystery Shopping needs to be bespoke to the landlord and residents and will tell you how it really is!
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.
I heard on the grapevine of a relatively new TMO where an investigation is underway because of suspected fraud by the Manager and contractors. Whilst this could happen to a Council and to a Housing Association it is much more upsetting where residents have put their trust in a new resident led vision for their estate.
Tenant Management is one of the most underused yet most successful tools. At this time, we are seeing a very low number of projects going through the ‘Right to Manage’ route, which is a real pity given that many of the traditional avenues for resident control are closing down. In a universe where funds for resident involvement are being hit by Local Authority cuts and residents of Housing Associations are looking at their landlords becoming ever bigger via mergers, giving residents more control is looking less likely.
Tenant Management offers the opportunity for residents to set the standards for the services they receive, to spend their rent and service charges in the way they want and to build a truly local vision. To get to the point where your landlord and the Government agrees that you are competent residents have to go through nearly 2 years of planning and development and be subject to external assessment. However, things can still go wrong.
There are a number of key things that residents can do with support from there advisor to minimise the chances of this type of thing happening:
- Way before going live, agree the exact report arrangements that you expect your TMO manager to adhere to. Set these up and do trial runs with the advisor to check on the data
- During your recruitment make sure you take up all references, that you set clear probationary targets and you appoint against a JD that is clear about experience required
- Once a quarter board members should undertake a ‘verification’ exercise to look at the raw information behind the reports. By setting up a scrutiny sub group who can focus on specific areas you pick up on any concerns
- When agreeing your procurement policy and procedure make sure you put in place checks and balances. Residents should be involved at all stages, agree clear schedules of work with clear prices and have a system in place to agree an variations in cost that involves board sign off
- Verify: before and after pictures from contractors Joint spot checks with the board and the staff of works completed
- Once a year do a 100% doorknock to pick up on any issues
As board members of a TMO residents should not be sitting looking over a managers shoulder, this is not good for either party. Instead, put in place procedures and checks and make sure they are carried out!