A guide to recognising your saints

For those slightly out of the loop Right to Buy is basically the sector’s kryptonite (the green version, not the red one, no-one is going to go BS-mental on Metropolis just yet).  It raises passion, anger, worry and acts as a unifier to a sector so often at odds with itself.  Though funnily enough, like green kryptonite it does severely weaken us.

The reaction of the sector to the potential rolling out of Right to Buy has been fairly standard (i.e. we all went a bit cray cray, myself included).  But what has been surprising is that all these emotions appear to be coming from people outside of the sector as well.  Media that has usually at best been ambivalent, and often borderline hostile, have come out against the move (here’s looking at the Daily Telegraph).  Hell even the general public is a little bit unimpressed (hats off to YouGov for that poll), not even those who considered themselves pro-Tory.  Commentators, ‘experts’, housing insiders and a whole host of politicians have come out against it.  Embarrassingly for the Conservatives, so did they, well at least to members of the Coalition in 2013.  Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

In terms of popular policies Right to Buy is up there with the best.  But a counter attack via the Daily ‘racist in public so you don’t have to’ Mail (fyi still one of Russell Howard’s best jokes) has highlighted how negatively the policy has been received this time round.  But as Colin Wiles notes even at the Daily Fail not everyone is on board.  Peter Hitchens providing some unflattering comments on the policy (that being said I still always prefered his late brother, Chris).  Either way you know things are getting nasty when pay gets involved.  I could make snide comments about Conservative MPs, duck ponds and public money.  But I’m above all that.  Actually I’m not, what an utterly moronic set of circumstances.

So what does this all mean?  Well the answer, is partly provided by Julia Unwin and the guys and gals over at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Julia et al quite rightly point that the debate over housing has long been skewed to home ownership. And that arguably the most efficient way of helping to alleviate poverty and provide stability and security (social housing) is ignored.  Right to Buy, rent to buy, the promise of buckets more housing (to buy) are all geared around a political consensus that buying votes is preferable to renting.  Consequently each party is keen to show that they will provide the best opportunity people to purchase their own home.  Sadly for all the fluff and bluster little has been put forward as to how to increase supply as well as actually deal with an acute affordability issue.  Though the boys in blue fare particularly poorly and the public is definitely not convinced.  Especially those who rent, with the Tories polling badly around housing policies.  On a side note a majority of the public appears to back greater borrowing to build more affordable housing.

Elsewhere the BBC Panorama programme the Great Housing Benefit Scandal showed that for once a TV could tactfully highlight the plight of ordinary people on benefits.  Showing the suffering of folks like you and me (only they are poor, apparently that makes them different) at the hands of sub-quality housing as opposed to being some glitzy Jeremy Kyle look at the poor people hate-fest.  It also did a very good job at showing some of the sorry excuses of landlords out there.  Before the National Landlords Association gets its knickers in a twist I doubt any of those highlighted in the show were paid up members.  Good private sector landlords do exist.  But it is hardly surprising when a few rogue private landlords put profit before both the quality of the housing they provide and the unfortunate souls who reside in their dwellings.

So where does this all leave us?  Well frankly in exactly the same place we always have been.  A country with a housing market that is fundamentally failing to meet the needs of the suckers who live in it.  I will leave you with a quote from a mate of mine, it neatly sums up the situation for a lot of people.

“I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my little boy. I’m fed up of moving all the time.”

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

The Importance of Being Earnest

Social landlords have often been left open to the charge of being too quiet on the issues that affect their customer base. In the interest of self-preservation it may now be necessary to become a bit more vocal.

The social housing sector is often caught between a rock and a hard place. We operate in, provide homes for and work with, those on the margins of society. However we are also compelled to work within a highly political context. Not only dealing with whims of Central Government, contradictory policies from different departments. But also muppets who have epiphanies on inner city housing estates in Glasgow (who then go and miss the point of said epiphany). And that is before the minefield of dealing with a myriad set of Local Authorities and councillors with their own agendas. As a consequence we tend to be a bit vanilla in our criticisms of Government.

A couple of pieces caught my eye earlier this week.  The first involving Isabel Hardman and how we as a sector can get more of an influence in westminster.  Noting that moaning about a policy and then using it isn’t the best move.  And that as a sector we have an image problem with the ‘Right’.  The second was from Hannah Fearn noting that too much power lies with social landlords and not enough for their tenants.  Whilst I don’t agree with all her points I am firmly with her on the statement that we should serve best our tenants, not Government.  Key to both these pieces is that they reinforce the problem for our sector.  In an attempt to be all things to all people (politically speaking) we become not much of anything.  Or worse still, we piss off all sides.

The current set of welfare reforms have never been about just getting people into work. They are cost cutting measures, part of a long-term move to reduce state support and intervention. In short, they are a neo-liberal wet dream. The problem with such fantasies is that they are often only workable for the people who dream them up. It always narks me that those who make ‘tough decisions’ have probably never really had to make a tough choice in their personal life. Well I guess if you include the horrific decisions to be made over chilli humus or quiche then maybe, but you get the point.

Yet despite the impact the reforms have on our customer base we have always been too focused on the direct impact of the changes on our bottom line and not openly angry about indirect ones.  At least not uniformly. For me this is all the more bizarre because from a housing point of view we are paying for these reforms (and associated cuts in budgets for Local Authorities) 3 times over. 1) In higher rent arrears as more draconian sanctions cut benefits for a larger group of people, who then can’t pay us. 2) Because we then have to pay for interventions to help assist those having to deal with the fall out of ‘tough decisions’. 3) We then have to pay for schemes that provide a service formerly under the auspices of local authority but jettisoned due to budget cuts. As a sector we appear to have failed to be convinced by the moral argument to publicly oppose the reforms, at least en masse. Maybe a financial one will do the trick?

There are a few that have been systematically quantifying the impact of the reforms and being very vocal about their impact.  Real Life Reform, the JRF and the LSE have all produced research pieces showing the detrimental impact of the reforms.  SHOUT have also been very active in promoting the case for more social housing and the negative impact of the current Government’s policies. But as a sector we have more often than not done the equivalent of tutting, going “too bad” and moved on.  The consequence? Just look at the figures.  The number of social homes is at its lowest for years. Capital grant is at its lowest point for decades. The number of households relying on food banks is rising, as is the number of working households claiming HB. We have gone through 3 (or is it 4?) housing ministers since 2010. Frankly that paints a picture of being crap at influencing.

The Benefit Cap and right to buy policies are popular but when people learn more about the ins and outs of many of the welfare reforms support falls (as G.I Joe always said, knowing is half the battle…). We have a Government that relies on soundbite policies delivered to an uninformed public to drive through its agenda. It is part of our duty to address this imbalance when those policies affect us and the communities we ultimately serve. But maybe that’s just me being a bit naive.

Regardless of who wins the next general election we need to look at our approach to influencing.  We need to be better at understanding how housing influences (and is influenced by) changes in other policies areas.  We need to be better at supporting our tenancy base in its battles against the unintended (and intended) consequences of poor policy decisions.  We must accept the fact that in the game of politics passivity is not an option.

You can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

big_data_0
Pic borrowed from the lovely people at ITPro

Big Data maybe the buzzword of the day, but it is in the small data where real nuggets of gold can be found.  Working in a team that heavily uses data, figures, numbers and spreadsheets you often get flashbacks to school days.  Where the pretty girl would only speak to you when she needed help with algebra (don’t worry the joke was on her, I sucked at algebra).  It’s not so much that data/performance figures are forgotten about, you can bet your bottom dollar the whole world and its pet gofer will be chasing you up at quarter and year-end.  But most see it as someone else’s business/job, an add-on to theirs, nothing more.

Part of my current role is to get people to use data, not just more often but more effectively.  I luckily avoid most of the negotiations with operationally focused managers looking to hit targets by ‘trimming the fat’.  What I tend to delve into is providing support on bespoke requests.  These can range from the disturbingly detailed “I need to know the locations of all ASB cases committed by left-handed tenants with a distinct love of the writings of Nietzsche”.  To more simple pieces like “I want to see changes in customer satisfaction in relation to repairs over a period of x years”.

OK I made up the first one but it neatly highlights the occasionally left-field requests that you get.  And the general lack of understanding of the data that an organisation holds.  Indeed the most often used phrase the team I operate in is Why?  Not to be deliberately pernickety or condescending but because a lot of the time the requests that come in are continuously evolving ones.  Someone has had a spark of something, somewhere and we need help to draw out what is required.  Sometimes it is just to say, no you don’t need that information on a sodding map.

Of course ensuring the data we use/keep is up to date and correct is a whole industry in itself, something I have lamented long and hard about before.  But as a provider of social housing we have at our disposal a fair whack of information.  Good job we’re not on the side of evil then…

Typically the data held by a housing association can be split into 3 parts.  The household, the property and the tenancy. Crucially this is information either held by an organisation in perpetuity as it relates to their assets (x number of bedrooms in x number of properties), is data given to us by the customer (date of birth, email etc – FYI you still need to be able to justify why you have this info, otherwise the Information Commissioner will be so far up your booty they will be able to tickle your tonsils) or tenancy management data (Mrs Jones has been mooning next door again).

The key facet to these data sets is trust.  The rest of the organisation needs to trust that the data you are providing is sound (and that is before you get to the tenants themselves!) and that it can aid them in the day-to-day roles they undertake.  Simple things like mapping out arrears cases or ASB issues can help prioritise workloads/staffing levels.  Looking at the areas with the most possession orders against levels of deprivation and customer segmentation data (if you have it) can also help.  But mostly it is about drawing out the data so that it is something useful.  Because let’s face it, figures on their own are dull, dull, dull.  And that is coming from a guy who sits and uses spreadsheets for 90% of his day*.

Big data projects for housing are on the horizon, but as this is social housing that horizon is a long way in the distance.  In the meantime, if you aren’t already, look at the small data and use it a bit more wisely.

*The other 10% of the time is spent being awesome and doing other work related things.

If you are inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.