Skills to pay the bills

It is alas that time of the year again when the devout believers make their yearly pilgrimage to the conference of their preferred cult/party. For the most part they are non-events, apart from when the keynote speaker forgets a good chunk of his speech. Or if the party in question is UKIP. When they are in town I like to play the game of how many quasi-xenophobic and/or sexist gaffes can one party make in a day.

Out of Labour’s conference has come the announcement of wanting to push the minimum wage up to £8. This is a step in the right direction. But, when you look at the details, it is not enough. The rising cost of living is a one of the few areas that Labour has scored well in and this is definitely an attempt to score more brownie points with the electorate.  Regrettably, as often there are, the caveats water-down the announcement. Any rise will happen “by the end of the next parliament”. So probably 5 years away. Businesses are already making sucked teeth noises, meaning some loopholes may apply.  It is heartening however to hear a mainstream party recognise that wages are not where they should be and people are feeling the pinch.

Having worked in enough bars, restaurants, pubs, warehouses and factories to ensure I’m never working in such jobs again I can assure you a ‘minimum’ wage is sweet f@*k all. My time on the character-buildingly-low wage was manageable because I was at home or studying at uni. The fact I was on minimum wage, zero-to-very-low hour contracts didn’t matter because my rent payment wasn’t contingent on it. This is not the case for millions of people, who are very much in this situation. You only have to look at the sharp rise of those in work and receiving housing benefit to see the consequences of that.  For many the state is now effectively indirectly subsidising poor pay from private, public and third sector organisations alike.  Whilst work does pay, and often more than a purely benefit-provided income, for many it does not pay enough.  Hell when even the Daily Telegraph is noting that the cost of living is outstripping wage increases something is definitely amiss.

Borrowed Chart 1 – Pay Growth v CPI Inflation

Daily Telegraph (2014)
Daily Telegraph (2014)

I would argue that as social landlords we have a duty to provide a living wage (rather than just a minimum wage) to our employees.  Given all those massive surpluses out there I’m sure we could find a bob or two to cover the uplift in pay required.  More fundamentally it is about bringing home the work we do in the communities we serve.  You cannot espouse the need to support those on low/no income and the vulnerable without ensuring your own staff aren’t being swept aside by the same tide.  Poor pay is just as damaging as no pay and as progressive employers (in my experience only M&S have come close to offering as good employment T&Cs as social landlords) we have a duty that our staff can actually pay their bills.

Don’t be fooled, the minimum wage is just that – a bare minimum, combined with poor terms and conditions it can leave those in work trapped in poverty.  If you have the time I suggest reading the JRF’s contribution on this subject.  As ever it is insightful, thoughtful and to the point.

Whilst a sizeable number of social landlords already pay equivalent to the living wage (as opposed to minimum wage), more need to follow suit.  If not for anything but to show that successful businesses can afford to pay a fair, living wage to their employees.  Charity they say often begins at home, I suggest we take this notion when it comes to pay as well.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

All in it together (for reals)

All told it has been an interesting week as the CIH and NHF have both (finally) taken their gloves off and taken a swing at the monumental balls up that is housing policy in our beloved (possibly soon to be dissolved) country.  As Jules Birch expertly notes the proposals from the CIH pretty much entirely go against the current line of thinking vis a vis housing policy.  Good.  It’s a crock of shite and has been for at least 3 decades.

Apart from sticking the middle finger at Government thinking on housing and the welfare state (albeit in a polite and well thought out manner).  The CIH also makes a number of observations that I have previously noted.  In particular:

  • Current welfare reforms are looking to suppress symptoms rather than address the overall cause of the rise in housing benefit
  • The DCLG and DWP need to pick up the phone and co-ordinate policies a hell of a lot better
  • Iain Duncan Smith is an idiot (OK maybe made that one up, John Major agrees though…kinda)

Brownie points for me aside I have to say that the CIH could have picked a much better week for the release of this report.  With everyone getting their kilts and/or knickers in a twist over whether those north of the border will stay with us or go it alone press coverage will be minimal.  We have less than a year to go before another election hits us (working on the booby traps for unsuspecting candidates as we speak) accidentally burying your hard work in Brave-heart week is not a smart move. Particularly as Ipsos Mori has recently put housing bottom of the things people give a rat’s arse about regarding the general election.  This could have been handled a little bit better.  That being said it is a very well put together report that does something successive Governments have failed to do and has actually joined up a set of thought processes around housing, jobs and the welfare state.  You can read it here.

The NHF for its part has set out its #Homesforbritain campaign.  Which alongside #yestohomes and #SHOUT should keep badge manufacturers busy up and down the country.  Presumably their is a plan for the campaign to be shifted to #Homesforthecountryformallyknownas if the Yes campaign wins the #indyref.  If you are interested in the #Homesforbritain campaign you can go to it here.  The aim is to get housing up the political agenda and into the consciousness of the zombie-like masses that form the electorate.  And lay a platform for a long term set of solutions to our housing crisis.  Not wanting too much then.

Joking aside I support all three campaigns because anything that looks to raise the profile of social housing and increase its supply gets my support.  I just hope we don’t get bogged down in the differences between the campaigns.  All are aiming for the right thing (it’s not like football you can have more than one team…) so give them the time, energy and support they deserve.  If you don’t Nigel Farage will continue to turn up on our TV screens.  No one wants that #justsaying.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Me, my tenant and I

The relationship between a tenant/customer and their housing association is a messy criss-cross of conflicting interactions, some of them highly volatile. Whilst back in t’day the likes of Octavia Hill would rule like a benevolent demon. Kicking out the drunks and upstarts but providing homes to those who desperately needed it at a time when the state was still looking the other way. These days, for better or for worse, the links between us and our residents are a little more nuanced.  Though I have no doubt that housing managers of the modern era would love to be able to do the same as Ms Hill, it is probably for the best they can’t.

Fundamentally the ties between social landlords and those that dwell within their properties are continuously evolving.  Greater levels of commercialism, welfare reforms (both those in effect and those yet to come) and organisations generally getting their act together mean we now know more about our customers than ever before.  At the same time many are looking to get more distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  The sector appears to be favouring a more transactional approach over the traditionally paternalistic (possibly even patronising) one.  Yes we will still provide all the ‘fluffy’ add-ons that come with the territory but as a sector many are looking at being facilitators, enablers rather than providers (irony abounds given that we are RPs).  The result is that we talk of customers, not tenants.  ‘Profit for purpose’, but not surpluses.  We are looking at being more efficient at customer contact, more private sector in our thinking.  Like actually deal with a complaint instead of pretending it didn’t happen or simply stating that they (the customer) should just be grateful that they have a roof over their head.  None of these are bad things in and of themselves.

Can I just ask? I mean, I don’t mind using the term profit (surpluses is a bit woolly for me) but can someone explain to mean when a profit doesn’t have a purpose?  ‘Profit for purpose’ is a singularly ridiculous phrase.  I appreciate that normally the purpose of profit is to make rich people richer and we want to keep a distance from that but cut out the bullshit bingo please.

So what does this transactional, stand-off approach mean then?  Inexorably it means a shift to fewer neighbourhood offices, less physical contact and a greater use of technology.  An approach that can currently be best described as digital by best hope rather than by default.  The sector has long talked about moving to a more digital mode of operation, alas for the most part it has been exactly that, talk.  For the cynic in me this is partly because many organisations aren’t entirely IT competent themselves.  However a few hardy souls are at least attempting to bring on this brave new world and show us what it might look like.  Halton Housing Trust are beginning a pilot to see how customers/residents/’them lot’ fare with a digital only approach (with some caveats).  Needless to say this has been picked up chewed over and overly dramatised by the press (housing and non-housing alike) and some residents.

Although it is interesting in its own right, and you bet your bottom dollar I will be keeping a keen interest in the results.  It has been the response to Halton’s work that has most intrigued me.  I am genuinely saddened by how knee-jerk and ill informed a number of the responses to Halton’s approach have been.  It is symptomatic of a deeply conservative approach that the sector takes to pretty much anything.  Getting movement on things in housing is like trying to steer a particularly grumpy cat i.e. tricky and likely to result in a higher than socially acceptable amount of pain (for you, not the cat, that bastard won’t even notice what’s going on).  I have always been of the opinion that it is better to try a different approach and fail (i.e. learn something) then repeat past failures.  To carry on doing the same thing and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity (see below, it genuinely is).  As our relationship changes, so too must our approach, otherwise we will be found wanting.

Einstein QuoteFace it lads and ladies, change is coming.  You don’t nip down to your local British Gas office to make a payment, you don’t drive up to Salford to sort out your TV licence with the BBC.  Why should we expect customers do this with us? In some circumstances physical contact with customers is a necessity (ASB springs immediately to mind) but the vast majority of interactions needn’t require a phone call let alone an office visit.  If you want to be more stand-offish then you need to give customers the tools do so.  As a sector we better get cracking on making this happening.  Hopefully Halton will provide some invaluable insight into how to do just that.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

One more time, with feeling

It’s nearly two years to the day that my old dear dropped dead.  Having only very recently spoken to her, and not too long after she had been given the all clear following a battle with cancer, it was a bit of a shock.  I’m not one for crying, or showing much emotion apart from anger, that day I shed bucket loads.  Regressing back to the scared pre-teen kid, uncertain of what the hell would happen next.  My parents had been planning how to spend their semi-retirement, a camper-van purchase (much to my embarrassment) was in the pipeline.  This was not how it was supposed to be.

The old bat had many, many positive facets, often described by mates as a whirlwind I simply referred to her as ‘momma Goodrich’.  Despite being a white middle class woman under 5’5″ she always seemed to have the presence of a powerful Afro-American matriarch.  Being the mum of 4 lads this was probably a good thing. What I will remember her most for is her compassion and her energy.  I’ve never met anyone who has come close to her relentless drive and passion.  Never have I met anyone so willing to help others.  Her faith, deep and strong but not rigid (she saw the Bible as a moral guide, not a set in stone rulebook) played a role, but she was forever helping those who needed it.  I’ve lost count of the people she helped with HR matters (her speciality), how many of my friends she pointed in the right direction over CVs or disciplinary action.

In stark contrast, what we have seen time and time again since the election of the Coalition Government is policies that lack this most basic facet of human nature, of compassion, of empathy.  A couple of weeks ago David Cameron lauded a ‘family test’ to be used when devising legislation.  It was a quite frankly breathtaking statement, completely and utterly ignoring the irony of the fact that many of the policies enacted under his stewardship have done so much to undermine the family.  The bedroom tax and the benefit cap have had severe repercussions for families up and down the country.  But because they are not the Tory core the Blue Brigade don’t give a crap.  Austerity hits the poor hardest, the most vulnerable hardest.  Those most likely not to vote, hardest.  And in the run up to a general election those at the bottom who don’t vote, don’t count.

The Guardian (yes I read the Guardian, no I don’t wear socks with sandals) recently published an article highlighting the difficulties facing local authorities in undertaking their statutory duties around homelessness.  Central Government and Local Government cuts are meaning already overworked, unfunded staff are feeling the squeeze even further.  And bizarrely Councils are having to shed out so much wonga housing homeless people that it makes more financial sense to buy property and then let it out.  The scale of the increase in homelessness is equally striking, equally horrific.  Other reports highlight the increase in food-banks and the rise in cases of rickets and malnutrition.  We are a developed country in the 21st Century, how the fuck is malnutrition an issue!?

Austerity is fine and well on paper, on the balance-sheet, in Whitehall.  Unfortunately, like any ideology, when it hits a little thing called life everything goes out the proverbial window.  We have a cabinet of which 36% went to private schools, 59% were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge.  They are a group of people who’s only idea of what being poor is comes from gogglebox tv programmes like Benefit Street.  Compassion doesn’t enter into the equation because they can’t get their head round the fundamental situation.  Worse is yet to come, 60% of the austerity measures aren’t due to hit until post 2015.  This is not going to get better any time soon.  But you can make small differences with small bits of compassion.  Simple things, buy the big issue, invest time, money and effort into organisations like Shelter, Crisis, Refuge.  Write to your local MP, be vocal in your criticism.  Hell, even write a blog.  Do not sit idle.  Compassion is a proactive trait as much as a positive one.  As Michala Rudman stated in her blog for #UKHousingFast, do all the good you can, by all the means you can.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.