Go Big or Go Home?

Front Cover Photo

Photo – ‘Flats’ – By Andy Doyle 

Is it time to accept that as a sector we need to go big or go home? Well that largely depends on your viewpoint. Long term I believe the sector will reduce in terms of the number of organisations out there, some through choice but for others it will be due to external factors. There are many things to consider when merging, not of all them good. And as has been previously noted many tie into how we as a sector see our future selves as to how we go about evolving our businesses.

Big isn’t automatically beautiful, but small isn’t always pretty either.

A golden opportunity, or a golden goodbye?

For some mergers, partnerships and strategic alliances are needed for growth. These are a bit like your mates who veer from relationship to relationship, never fully stopping to assess whether they are happy in and of themselves/are financially viable. For others it’s about ensuring that they can get a decent goodbye package and sod off to the South of France to sip Pinot Noir in their twilight years. These are your mates who disappear when it is their round, but are happy to soak up the booze from other people’s turns i.e. they are penises (always get your round in folks, to not do so just isn’t cricket). Increasingly getting safety in numbers is the more common reason. Given the recent policy developments it is hard to disagree with such a move. But as Tony Stacey and Tom Murtha quite rightly point out, big doesn’t automatically mean beautiful. Though small isn’t always pretty either, context is everything.

Freedom, within a framework

An Ivory Tower? Or a good vantage point?

One of the arguments against large organisations is that they are too removed from the communities they are expected to serve. I agree with this, but only to a point. Just because you are big doesn’t mean you haven’t got local roots, but it requires faith in your regionally based offices and staff. Many large organisations operate in hubs, drawing together towns, cities and even Local Authorities that have little connection outside of the needs of the business. The key here is to avoid confusing grouped areas for housing management/operational reasons with local connections. Regionally Worcestershire & Herefordshire are next door neighbours with a fair amount of history. However, people in Worcester don’t really care about what is going on in Hereford (and vice versa). Choosing to merge the two together for the customer magazine wouldn’t be wise. Elsewhere you need to ensure that you give your organisation enough flexibility and independence to be adaptable, but without hiving off into different sub-orgs. with distinct cultures of their own. Not so much one nation under god, but one organisation singing from the same darn hymn sheet. Or to quote a colleague on how they manage their staff – freedom, within a framework – is needed.

Stagnation is regression

Size isn’t everything

You can be extremely resourceful and adaptable with a relatively small portfolio. Anyone with even a passing interest in Housing and Technology will no doubt have come across Halton Housing Trust. Whilst not always right and/or perfect, the step-change in their approach to operating must be applauded. As must their openness in sharing their learning/experience. They typify what you need as an organisation. A board and executive team that are open to change, are flexible, adaptable and proactive. Of course there are downsides to being on the small(er) side of things. Policy changes can have a more significant impact (proportion wise) if risk can’t be spread through a (secure) diverse portfolio. Accessing private finance to build can also be tricky, as for getting access to Government grants good luck! For some this has been seen as giving such organisations a free hand. And whilst the sector might not view small HAs as needing to evolve, develop or even build I would challenge that assertion. If you do not grow and/or develop your organisation how can you expect it to survive and thrive? Stagnation is regression. But as long as you are agile, open to new modes of working and developing your business you can thrive.

Substantial rationalisation of organisations is likely

It takes all sorts

Ultimately substantial rationalisation of organisations is likely within the sector particularly at the smaller end of the scale. Whilst niche co-operatives and BME Housing Associations might remain, in the long term a move to a sector below 1,000 organisations is likely. Whilst I try to remind myself that it takes all sorts; for the type of efficient, professional and effective sector that is needed to survive in the long term. For that I can only see smaller number of organisations existing. Time to buckle up.

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Nunquam Securus Via (Never the Easy Way)

I’ve always joked that as a sector that if there was an easy and a hard way of doing things to get the same result, that we pick the harder option every-time. Like someone with an unhealthy set of masochistic tendencies we tend to choose self-flagellation. Though I guess sometimes it’s because we don’t know what we don’t know and find comfort in doing things the way we’ve always done them. It’s time we broke that cycle.

As you’ve probably guessed from previous posts I have no love for the vast majority of what this Government (or its immediate predecessor) has done Housing Policy, or Welfare Policy-wise. Though in the interest of balance, the Blair/Brown Governments were pretty crap as well, they tolerated social housing, but Policy was just as fragmented back then as it is now.  Of particular concern, more recent initiatives/areas of Policy that aren’t utterly counterproductive (e.g. the principle of Universal Credit), have been swamped by an utter shite-storm of ideologically driven reforms (e.g. the reality of Universal Credit). Belief has repeatedly trumped evidence and as a man of science, not faith, I can only feel concern when that occurs. But this be the land, time and space we currently occupy. Howling to the wind won’t make a damned bit of difference. Don’t get me wrong, I have howled to the moon and back, anyone who has read even a couple of my blogs will know I don’t tend to hold back on passion, or swearing. But ultimately I’m not looking to change policy (not through this blog at any rate), just highlight to people what the sector does, where it is heading and the current policy climate.

However, as a sector, we need to do more and whilst some are attempting to do just that (Homes for Britain and SHOUT come to mind) we need to be a bit smarter in how we go about things. This Government does not care about how much we invest in communities, it doesn’t care that we are acting as a welfare state within a welfare state for many of our customers. It’s not getting politically battered for that. Where it is getting hurt is in the number of homes being built and the affordability of them. It’s why they are so pissed at our surpluses not (in their opinion) getting put to good use (i.e. being used to build homes). It doesn’t help that our go-to line is “give us money and we will build homes for poor people who can’t afford it and/or aren’t economically active”. That may play well with progressives, but to the conservative with both a small and big ‘C’ it’s like mocking their favourite brand of humus. They take personal offense to the very idea. If you haven’t already I would strongly recommend reading the Policy Exchange‘s various attempts at writing about housing. Whilst a similar experience to eating quinoa (i.e. utterly unfulfilling, and slightly perplexing) it will give you an insight into how this Government is thinking. It is no good brushing up on your French when the other person speaks Russian.

Ultimately, we still haven’t mastered the art of influencing the opinion of the public, or for that of Government (at least no consistently). Unless you state your argument repeatedly, simply and in as many places as possible you are not going to get anywhere. I am as guilty as the next chap in terms of entering into overly technical arguments, it muddies the water. Whilst this may result in a moral victory, it won’t stick in the minds of the general population. What David Cameron is a master at is sound bites, take his”bunch of migrants” statement for example. Stink caused, fuss created, message received and understood. As a sector we need to have just as clear (if less repugnant) message, and stick to it. You might look a bit like Ed Miliband but the message will get through. Just got to herd the bunch of cats that this sector is and we’ll be tout sweet.

Problem solved, well probably not as shown today by Jeremy Hunt, just because you have public opinion, evidence and a professional body on your side, it doesn’t prevent the Government from just going ahead and doing what it wants regardless. Still, no harm in trying.

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Hey you! Old Patronising Person, shut up.

So, Edwina Currie is alive. Who knew? Not me, alas her latest interjection into the world is as misguided as it is baffling. Called Hey Youngsters! No pension? No Home? No wonder. Look at you! The article is a middle class, public school going, Daily Mail believing wet dream. A ladies what lunch brigade tirade at the perceived ills of the ‘yoof’ of today. In short, it is 100% bollocks. Tell me Edwina, what the fudge is a gadfly way? I’m not as up with street parlance as I once was, so you will have to explain that to me, perhaps over a glass of Pinot Grigio at Les Chalets de la Serraz, so I can show you who skis in the French Alps (spoiler: it ain’t me and my mates).

It was odd reading your piece as I really couldn’t decide whether it was unintentional satire or an interesting insight into how far removed your ilk are from the travails of modern day lives for those of us under 30 and not living off a trust fund. I refuse to take seriously the opinion of anyone who found John Major sexually alluring. So you are immediately on the backfoot opinion-wise. But enough of your life choices, lets have a look at some of your arguments.

Firstly Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks!? What on God’s green Earth is a Manolo Blahniks? What do you think people under 30 spend their money on? Let me give you a hint, it’s rent for the most part. In the past year alone rents have risen by nearly 12%, and are set to rise further, potentially overtaking increases in house prices. Given that the majority of under 30s who aren’t living at their parent’s house (presumably getting moist over John Lewis’ latest magazine update by your logic) rent privately, we are unduly affected by such changes. This means an ever increasing proportion of income is being taken up by rent, and other household bills. Not by Lou-fucking-boutins purchases (I’m more of a Next man myself, their jeans are cracking value for money).

On the moving job bollocks you espoused. Yes you are right, many people have left behind the ‘stay with one employer all your life’ mantra and move jobs frequently. But this is not always through choice. If you haven’t noticed there has been a recession that has been painfully slow in sorting itself out. When the markets go tits up employers tend to be a bit more cautious in terms of hiring. Particularly when you are lower down the food chain (as most young people are) this results in fixed term contracts, zero hour contracts and in general being treated like cattle. Consequently, you tend to move job a lot more often, whether you like it or not. I myself, after graduating with a masters in 2012, only got my first permanent contract in 2015. At one point my ladyfriend was made redundant twice in a 6 month period. Between us we have had around 8 different positions in 5 different companies in 6 different cities/towns over the last 4 years. Trust me, neither of us wanted that.

I fully agree with you on contributions being a necessity in terms of paying for the welfare state. Having had jobs of one type or another since I was 18 I can assure you I’ve been more than paying my way in terms of taxes and national insurance (although I earned so little at one point I didn’t pay any tax, sorry). The same can be said of my mates. We must be a terrible shame for your misconceived visions of the youth of today. Paying our way, saving sensibly. Instead of passing the courvoisier we’re sharing the latest deals banks are offering on interest rates.

So in short, shut up Edwina or at least have the decency to do a Portillo and go make inane TV programs about Trains and/or Railways. I’ve got more pressing things to worry about than a patronising old muppet telling me that if I just rolled my sleeves up and graft everything will be OK, because I stopped believing in fairy-tales a long time ago. Your argument is as whimsical as having a Prime Minister that believes a house worth £250,000 (or £450,000 if you live in London) is affordable, trust me when I say it really goddamn isn’t.

*Update* I’ve edited some of this blog because 1 – spelling mistakes 2- a few points were, in hindsight, a bit close to the edge. Personal insults shouldn’t really be undertaken in any part of life. There’s enough crap out there without me adding to it.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here

The Communication Conundrum

One of the most mystifying elements of working in/for/with a social landlord is the masochistic tendencies our beloved sector has in relation to customer communications. In particular it is the largely futile practices of customer newsletters that earn my general ire. Even then it’s not the actual concept that bothers me, it’s the lousy execution.

Other than an exercise to keep already busy comms people tied up, unless there is a strategic reason for doing newsletters, brochures or e-shots there is no point in producing them. One of my favourite quotes of all time is largely attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hooper and is beautifully displayed below. This often seems to be the case for the constant stream of irrelevant items that get sent out to our customers. The frustrating thing is these attempts at engaging with our customer base are largely not worth the effort because they are a shotgun approach as opposed to a targeted one. With our efforts consigned to the dustbin as soon as they are delivered. But, with a bit of refinement, they could deliver a number of business objectives.

Taken from Fighting “We’ve Always Done It This Way” in Workplaces & Baseball by Mark Graban (2014).
Taken from Fighting “We’ve Always Done It This Way” in Workplaces & Baseball by Mark Graban (2014).

To understand my point I will give you an example. I’m one of those sad people who spends their spare time in a big building full of sweaty people repetitively lifting, and then putting down, heavy objects. To help my body recover I regular order whey protein supplements. I’ve used the same supplier for years for a number of reasons;

  1. It’s cheap
  2. They regularly have offers I can use to make my purchases a little bit cheaper
  3. They email me, but only about relevent bits/offers (spoiler alert, this is the key bit)

Whilst some social landlords are heavily concentrated in particular geographical locations (you lucky guys and girls), increasingly many housing providers are not. If you are insistent on sending out information, you need to make sure it is relevant. To do that you need to pay better attention to your data. Sending out newsletters filled with job seminars/workshops to your over 70s population is probably not going to yield great results. Similarly hitting up your u35 population with your next nit-wear/crochet classes isn’t probably going to be a hit either. Although you can never account for hipsters, who just may well love that type of thing.

However, what you can do is look at all customers who reported repairs on boilers/water-pipes last year and make sure any communications they get include tips on how not to shock their boiler into action this winter. Similarly, all of those households who have reported mould/damp/condensation issues can get a handy guide to reducing the impact of those aforementioned issues. Crucially you can do this electronically by either A) emailing said comms out or B) texting with a hyperlink. Both are reliant on smartphones/computer access. Both won’t hit all customers but this approach will save you a lot of money (which you can then use to still hit that small group who have neither via post).

Probably the most apt example of the power of targeted comms I can use is the fact that there’s a person in the south of England who now has a job because of a targeted text out by my organisation. The text literally cost pennies, the results, if not life changing, were life helping.

In sum by doing the above you can:

  1. Save money by reducing postal mail outs (if you haven’t already)
  2. Increase interest in your ‘message’ by providing relevant targeted comms
  3. Change someone’s life for the better

But for god’s sake, don’t just carry on doing the same old thing. Because trust me, it needs to change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Why Social Housing Matters

The timely release of homelessness figures is a reminder for both the sector and Central Government why social housing is badly needed. And why Right to Buy, whatever its guise, is wrong.

Amongst all the glitz and glamour of the NHF’s annual conference you might be forgiven for missing one of the key datasets still released by the DCLG. The quarterly Statutory Homelessness update dropped today and the figures, like so many relating to housing in this country, do not make great reading. The number of households in temporary accommodation is up 12% on the same period last year. Some 66,980 individuals or households are currently reliant on this emergency form of housing.

The lack of security associated with assured shorthold tenancies (AST) is also laid bare. Around 30% of all households accepted by local authorities as being owed a homelessness duty had lost their ‘settled’ home due the ending of an AST. When looking at long-term trends of households accepted as homeless by local authorities the below chart, shameless ripped from the DCLG data release, further worrying trends are evident. After a massive reduction between 2006 and 2010 in both households in temporary accommodation and those being accepted as homeless there has been a steady increase. The former creeping closer to mid-financial crash levels.

Homeless FiguresThese figures only relate to ‘official’ homelessness, rough sleeping and ‘hidden’ homelessness are not counted here. However a research piece by Crisis and friends, released in February this year, shows that both these forms of homeless are also increasing sharply.

As earnings further decouple from housing prices, as the consequences (intended or otherwise) of changes to in work benefits begin to pinch, as parts of our economy continue to under-perform the above numbers will rise further. Yet we are on the cusp of either being forced to, or ‘voluntarily‘ give up swathes of housing designed to help those very people. Why? Because ideology, not evidence or pragmatism is holding court for this Government and the housing market.

I noted a little while back that having a voluntary right to buy is a win-win for the Government, and in many instances for housing associations. It is not a win for local authorities who retain social housing stock. What decent assets they have will likely be forced to sell off to fund replacement properties for social landlords. I cannot fathom how on any level, except a business one, Housing Associations can sign up to such a deal. The sector has spouted the mantra social hearts, business heads. Yet, in leaving local authorities up an estuary without the proverbial wooden implement we are certainly not following our social values.

The part that angers me the most is that every single bit of evidence has so far shown that right to buy properties are not replaced at anywhere near the level they are lost at. For local authorities, hands tied behind their backs by funding and finance rules, how are they meant to replace their stock? The simple answer is they’re not. We look like we have survived this attack by Government, but only by throwing council owned social housing under a bus. This leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth. By agreeing to ‘voluntary’ right to buy the Government also neatly avoids a messy confrontation with the social housing sector, the House of Commons and the house of Lords. It is a fight that we could well win. Yet we sit back and go for a slow death.

As social landlords we are uniquely positioned to provide housing of all tenures to meet the varying needs of those lower down the food chain. Affordable (i.e Intermediate Market Rent), Shared Ownership, Private rent. All of these have a part to play. But we must secure social rent, truly social rent as the base on which to build. That is non negotiable.

Rant over.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

S is for Social

Housing Association decides to make the most of its historical mission to help the most disenfranchised by totally abandoning its raison d’être.

So I’m a little late to the game. Sadly life events are getting in the way of blogging as much as before. However the beauty of being a perennially pissed off chap (Churchie Chats, you ain’t got shit on me grump-wise) is that eventual something will bring the Wrath of Khan Me into focus.

You Can Go Your Own Way, But we don’t have to like it

If you have haven’t noticed Genesis under Neil Hadden, their Chief Executive, has made the decision to move away from social/affordable rent i.e. abandon the fundamental purpose of being a Housing Association. Apparently poor people are no longer his organisation’s problem, well those who can’t afford home ownership at any rate. More specifically he stated:

“We are not able, or being asked, to provide affordable and social rented accommodation to people who should be looking to the market to solve their own problems. I do think [the Budget] is a watershed in all sorts of ways.”(Inside Housing 30/07/15).

In stating that we (as Housing Associations) are not being asked to provide social rented accommodation Mr Hadden is correct. But then again we weren’t in the 1960s, or the 1970s, when LSVTs came along in the 80s and 90s again this wasn’t a Government backed program, well not at first. Back then groups of individuals and organisations identified a real burning need within the communities they lived and sought to do something about it. No-one asked them to, they just did it. That situation hasn’t changed to this day. No-one asks for social housing, but there is one hell of a need for it.

That quibble aside, no worries Genesis, I’m all up for supporting new entrepreneurs. I’m sure we can set up a Crowd-Funding page for you to get you all set up in your brave new world, hell I’ve even sorted out your new organisation’s name ‘REvelations’ – the first E will be backwards, ‘cos that is apparently what all the cool kids do these days. The pay-back is that you give us your social (and affordable) rent houses, your historic grant and charitable status and you can kindly jog off into the sunset.

Jokes aside I do have some sympathy with Genesis, after all the sector, following years of relatively easy-going and achieving fuck all influence in Central Government, has been seeing some rough times recently. This could be an attempt at wrestling back some control/autonomy in interesting times. However, I don’t believe throwing in the towel is the answer, especially when you help to fund the research piece which has facilitated tougher times coming about (tut, tut). But as Tom Murtha has noted (I must get that chap to do my Lotto numbers) mission creep and now outright jumping ship will be the long-term death of social housing. Just a cursory look at the figures of Social, actual Social housing new builds and you can see Tom’s point.

However, for all the ills of providing housing other than Social rent I fundamentally believe a diverse portfolio is needed and that social and Low Cost Home Ownership products can co-exist. Not everyone wants to rent, not everyone wants to own. Not everyone can afford to do either privately. This means there is an opportunity here for Housing Associations to assist those at the bottom end of the money scale to fulfill their housing pathway of choice. It also means that if you ain’t building or expanding, time to go sister.

The Elephant in the Room

What this sorry state of affairs does reinforce is the monumental diaspora that is the Social Housing sector. A bit like the Labour Party there are those that would love Hippy-Esk communes (hard lefties), those who want Co-op housing (moderately hard lefties), those focused on social care, those just on General Needs (Centre Lefties), and those who are selling their souls to Tony Blair the devil (Centre Right/Genesis*). Our message/purpose is lost in a haze of BS and mission statements. A culling/merging of organisations is required. Handily a lot of first generation housing chaps and chapesses are coming up for retirement in senior positions. That should help the process a bit…

Wrapping it Up

I can understand why Genesis are looking to move the way they are, I just believe it is fundamentally wrong. No doubt the reaction of myself and a number of other in the sector will be seen as nothing more than the “depressingly predictable howls of protest” by Mr Hadden. But that is the joy of this sector, you can present a bad new idea and we can poo poo it.

*I of course speak in jest here.

An open letter to everyone who voted Conservative yesterday and why you should hesitate before you pat yourself on the back.

Yea, nails it.

Wilsher 's Blog

To everyone who voted conservative yesterday,

I hope you’re happy. Actually that’s a lie, I really don’t. But before you sit smugly down and give yourself a big pat on the back I’d like to ask you a few questions.

Do you think you haven’t benefitted from the system you are currently trying to break down? As a child, did you ever go to hospital? Have you had an education? Did you ever use a library? Have you ever been on a bus? If so, you have benefited from a system which subsidises facilities with taxes. And now you have, you are willing to take it away from everyone after you. Correct me if I’m wrong but that doesn’t seem very fair. You cannot have socialism and a support system when you need it but then be unwilling to support it for other people.

Now if you are someone who…

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