The Liar, The Witch and The Wardrobe

The latest attack piece on the sector isn’t about the ‘shock’ of Housing Associations not ‘pulling their weight’ in terms of building homes. It is Neo-Liberal fetishism disguised as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Just a Case of History Repeating

Setting aside the deja vu of Channel 4, The Times piece v1.0 and The Spectator‘s look at the sector (the latter managing to significantly undermine its argument by getting their figures very, very wrong).The argument that social landlords should be facto property developers studiously (and deliberately) ignores and conflates the nature of the beast.

As social landlords we don’t just do development or basic ‘bricks and mortar’ work. Many act as welfare states within a welfare state; providing money advice, tenancy support, employment support services, apprenticeships, out-reach programs, oh and of course new housing. Often in the areas where the state has all but decided to fuck off. Those services are essential to the nature of who we are, and what we do and belie the notion we are just required to build homes. Ultimately it is why painting HAs as bumbling builders misses the point. But then again, that is the idea with this type of attack.

No Smoke Without Fire

Though I’ll be damned if I take anything seriously from those nutters at the Tax Payer’s Alliance. Get out more and read a little less Von Hayek and Friedman you loons. I am not going to blindly defend the sector. A number of the points raised by the article are a little too close for comfort. In particular, efficiency and getting value for money is of concern. Whilst claims of inertia over building is an unfair and loaded accusation given the broader context of what we do. We are occasionally too slow to develop and innovate, largely because we’ve never had a pressing need to, apart from when Government Policy changes.

We also have too many chefs in the kitchen. The fact that you can have several social landlords operating in the same street is just utterly bizarre. And although commendable for the work they do, as a small organisation development opportunities are limited. Merging or entering into a Group Structure with a larger set of organisations is probably the best move forward. Frankly if you’re under 5,000 units you will struggle in the next decade. Ultimately, as a sector you can’t own your future if you are a disparate bunch of fiefdoms pulling in different directions. That helps no-one, collapsing down is inevitable, embrace it when and where it works for your organisation.

You’re talking crap mate

As someone who works in Performance its the utter lack of context that befuddles me. Numbers in a vacuum (or in this case a deliberately narrowed tunnel of vision) mean nothing. To measure the worth of an organisation on one isolated variable, to conflate building with performance, is utter bullshit. External policy is underplayed as a influencing factor, all the additional work we do as a sector is ignored in its entirety. In short the overall context is deliberately skewed. Exactly why doesn’t become clear until you look at the end piece tied to the headline. It is a push for the debt of the sector to be wiped, and for HAs to be ‘free’. Presumably at this point being ‘born again’ for-profit organisations they could pay Chief Execs whatever they wanted?

Whilst written with an attachment to the real picture at hand that is tenuous at best, here is the rub of it. The article by The Times holds the crux of the debate as to where we are heading as a sector, it is also a warning shot to the sector from Central Government. Selling off HA debt and giving ‘freedom’ to the sector is the basis of one the Policy Exchange’s their main policy papers on Housing. And whilst I am delighted that Alex Morton is leaving his role Housing Policy Advisor to No10, they still hold a lot of clout. Consequently, lobbying hard to ensure this doesn’t happen will be a key challenge of this Parliament. That’s if the big boys and girls want to. I have a feeling some will be watching the potential for going solo with great interest.

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There’s a Map for That

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Blue Sky GIS – What I Do (2012)

Often one of the most over looked aspects of a housing organisation is the map guy/gal. Having been used for years by Local Authorities it is something the sector is still getting to grips with. I’m lucky enough to sit next to one of the two GIS specialists in our organisation and get a front row view of their work. Whilst we often jokingly refer to them as ‘colourers in chief’ their impact cannot be under-estimated. Depending on your size, geographical spread and ability to use data you have to hand, those what dabble in a bit of cartography can also be a gem for you and your kin.

GIS, what does that entail exactly

G.I.S. itself stands for Geographical Information System (don’t worry, I googled that too). It’s a means by which to use, manipulate, visualise and otherwise demonstrate data. In short a GIS Officer/Analyst/Necromancer is someone au fait with all things Maps and data. They can help identify areas of land to sell off, reduce costs relating to boundary searches/disputes and liaise with Land Registry (not for the faint hearted, you may need a live sacrifice). In addition, they can work with your estates team(s) to more accurately identify and cost areas of work for internal teams and external contractors. Ultimately, they can save you a lot of money.

That’s cool, show me the money

You’re not going to be making it rain à la Floyd Mayweather in a strip club, but you will need to drop a dollar or two. GIS specialists don’t grow on trees, but they are available. Though it depends on your organisation’s size, structure and what you want to achieve as to how much you need to spend. It’s worth noting that having just one person who is a specialist, at least at the start, is not a wise move. At the initial phase you will need to smash through a lot of set up work. Like clearing out your old eccentric uncle’s garage when he dies there will be a lot of crap to sort in the beginning.

So what do I get out of it?

So you’ve taken the plunge and gone in on GIS for your organisation. Easy part done, time to justify your shopping spree. First port of call – visualising information en masse. Let’s face it data is boring. Whilst some of us can see the patterns a bit like Neo in the Matrix, for the average Joe/Joetta having some way of displaying lots of factual tit bits is better than loads of figures on a spreadsheet. Mapping that stuff (where appropriate) can help. Showing stock/population density is a good start (nothing says stock rationalisation like seeing one property miles from any other stock), highlighting areas where arrears are above average, locations/concentrations of ASB cases are all things that can be plonked on a map. Mrs Jones threatening legal action over encroachment on her property? No worries, use boundary information and a bit of software that is accurate to within 3 inches to show she is chatting bollocks/right [delete whichever is appropriate]. Got to map and locate all trees you are liable for (yes, this is a thing check it out here if you don’t believe me, sexy stuff eh?). No worries. Go out, survey the sods, get it logged, map it. Viola! All your botanically based public liabilities neatly mapped.

The possibilities aren’t endless, but there’s a lot of them. You can also get to a stage where most staff members can use a watered down version of GIS to self-serve, freeing up your specialists for the more complex stuff. Of course that largely depends on your data being up to scratch, but I’ll leave that potential horror story well alone for today.

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The Estate We’re In

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London at Night (Churchill Gardens) by Scott Wylle

For many Estate Services is the weird and wonderful offshoot of the more glamorous Responsive Repairs and Planned Maintenance aspects of a landlord service provision. Perennially unpopular with a vocal minority because it is often paid/charged for in addition to rent, if you get this badboy right you are doing very well indeed.

A bit like our sector, part of the issue is the incredibly diverse nature of the beast. Internal cleaning of communal areas, litter picking, grounds maintenance (communal gardening to you and me), in some cases waste collection and disposal plus a host of other bits and pieces fall into ‘estates’. Also, as a rule we don’t always help ourselves. Larger organisations can potentially have distinct variations in what should in effect be the same service provision. From internal to external teams, differing service level agreements (SLAs) depending on location. Estates split between different providers, estates overseen by caretakers as opposed to ground maintenance teams. Think of all the different ways of managing an estate and a Housing Association over 10,000 units spread out across more than 2 counties will no doubt use each and every last one of them.

What can be Done?

The first thing to do is know who is doing what and where. Considering estates don’t move (a lot like stock, but that is a whole different kettle of fish) you would be amazed at the confusion over who EXACTLY does WHAT, WHEN and WHERE. To resolve this issue I would suggest your estates team sits down with your GIS team, stock up on coffee and donuts and no-one leaves until everything is agreed, NO-ONE. If you haven’t already rationalise the ways in which the service is being provided. Variations on a theme, not a box of Celebrations here kids. Variety isn’t always the spice of life, not when you’ve got to manage micro-SLAs at any-rate.

Next communicate with your customers. It is a common, repeated mantra of mine. Treat your customers like adults and they will respond as such. A significant number of customers won’t see the boys and girls out and about as they will be at work so manage expectations. Clearly state the Grounds Maintenance ‘seasons’ i.e. that in Winter the grass won’t be cut as often as in Summer. Point out that no the service will not do your lawn, unless you want to pay for it. Bulky waste clearance is not part of the job description. Arrange on your own to get your old sofa to the tip. Even if it’s a bulk text with a hyper-link to information on your website, that is better than no communication. Or worse still, flyers left in communal hallways.

So far, so basic, what else?

Make more information available online, and to your contact centre. As a sector we have this existential angst over getting people online. Quite often the brutal truth is that people don’t use the online offer of Housing Associations because it is crap. But, allowing someone to put in their post code on your website and have it bring up live, useful info like the below might help resolve that. It sure as hell beats the patronising waffle or PAY YOUR RENT NOW malark that makes up most of the content of the sector’s websites.

  • Who is responsible for the various bits of estates services in their area
  • A breakdown of what the service charge pays for
  • When different ‘seasons’ of ground maintenance start
  • What work is actually undertaken in those seasons
  • A map (copyright permitting) of the areas covered
  • Who is responsible for tree maintenance

So there you have it, a quick look at the ins and outs, and potential solutions to Estate Services. Who said housing isn’t sexy?

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