Diary of A Wimpy Kid

Following what can only be described as a remarkable General Election the UKHousing sector must take stock and build on the solid work over the last year.

The Winner Takes it All (or not)

To say this General Election has put a spanner in the works would be putting it mildly. Shout out to YouGov for having the balls to stick by that poll. I don’t think many people would have predicted a Tory minority Government, especially one being propped up by the DUP. For the social housing sector this has already had some serious consequences. In Gavin Barwell we had a housing minister who at least gave some support and hope to the sector. It is a sorry state of affairs when we’re happy with a minister who wasn’t total shit. But at least Barwell (mostly) fought our corner and, Affordable Rents aside, I agreed with a lot of the work he did.

The Long and Winding Road

Many challenges still face both the social housing sector and the UKhousing market more broadly. Barwell’s admission that the ‘new generation of council housing’ was going to be at (non) Affordable Rent levels is deeply worrying. As is the LHA Cap, particularly given that the stay of execution is only temporary, the minimal amount of Capital Funding available, as well as the slow and painful roll out of Universal Credit. Without a significant increase in genuinely social housing in this country Housing Associations will more and more focus on those who can afford to pay their rent without Housing Benefit. This is simply because the accumulative cuts to welfare support and the alterations to those who can access it are making it increasingly risky to rent to the unrentables.

As grant is (even further) replaced by private sector loans and cross-subsidising, so is exposure to risk increased. Risk that, again, is best served by renting to those off Housing Benefit and in secure work. It is a pretty horrific catch 22. For one to build more social housing, greater levels of private finance are needed, but to fund that higher levels of rent/proof of financial stability is required. Those at the bottom will ultimately miss out as dollar signs push organisational priorities.

We’re not at a Crossroads, but times are a-changing

Many have used the term ‘crossroads’ to describe where the sector is at. I hate that phrase for a number of reasons:

  1. Because it reminds of this God-awful pop group from the early 2000s
  2. Because it doesn’t reflect the gradual change in focus for the sector, or the pressures currently facing it
  3. Because we’ve been using private funding and cross-subsidising builds as a sector for decades

However, what we are seeing is a parallel split in the sector, largely across a couple of issues. Firstly in terms of the primary focus of building – home ownership and affordable rent over social rent – secondly in terms of who we’ll let to.

I bet you think this song is about you

Many in the sector are giving significant consideration to excluding the very people we should be renting our homes to. The logic to be more selective in who we rent to is perfectly sound, and as organisations we have a legitimate need to ensure financial stability and security. But that doesn’t make these thought processes anymore horrific. Smaller, more community focused organisations will (probably) continue to rent to the unrentables. However for the bigger boys and girls this, in the long run, may prove to be too problematic. Some may claim this is not the case, but looking at the tenure split of the Affordable Homes Building Programme figures and such an assertion has merit.

I am not one for melodrama, but just as the country is entering uncharted, and hazardous waters over Brexit. So too is the sector. Hopefully over the coming months we’ll get a better idea of how May (or her replacement) will deal with the bloody nose the electorate has given the Conservative Party. That we haven’t yet had a Housing Minister announced when most of the posts have been re-filled by the incumbent is not a great sign. But let’s face it, we’ve always been on the periphery. Whoever it is will need to make the best of this clusterfuck and to take housing seriously. For our part we’ll need to deliver the housing this country, and not just our profit margins, needs.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Matt BiddulphCouncil Estate (2008)

 

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A Little Goes A Long Way

As UKHousingFast approaches, it is time for all of us to reflect and consider the world from a different point of view. And maybe, just maybe, start to change the world for the better.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with UKHousingFast for a number of years, it is such a simple, yet rewarding, concept. For one day fast, skip lunch or breakfast, the same way that millions of others do. Some for their religious beliefs, some to lose weight, some because they have no choice but to go hungry. You can take from it what you want, and more importantly give to it what you feel you can give. It is in many ways a personal, but also very connected, form of introspection. One, despite my love of food, I’m happy to take part in. And in supporting the Trussell Trust this year’s event will be helping out a charity that is doing vital work for those at the sharp end.

A Little Story 

I’m one of 4 lads, lads that can eat a lot. We were lucky to grow up in a household where love and, fortunately, food was plentiful. I’ve never had to skip a meal or worry about the electricity getting cut off. Yes hand-me-downs were de-rigour but the only word I would use to describe my upbringing is comfortable. So it was a bit of a shock when shortly after move number 2 (of 4 in a 24 month period) me and the lady-friend came up against the reality of in-work poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, bills were paid, food was eaten but we only had pounds left over at the end of every month (better than some, but not a great state of affairs). For a 6 month period the word most often said to friends was ‘No’ because saying ‘Yes’ meant doing stuff we simply couldn’t afford. At one point, to try to help us budget even more tightly I devised a spreadsheet to cost up all our outgoing and incoming cash. I used to look at that spreadsheet so often the lady-friend would joke that our money problems wouldn’t magically improve simply by looking at it.

A little goes a long way

Despite how tough it was, I remember the kindness of family and friends. My brothers clubbed together to pay for my gym membership for 3 months. For my birthday all my mates surprised me at my home with a party (organised by the lady-friend), the very mates I hadn’t been able to visit for ages. It’s those things that stick with you. That period in our lives serves as a constant reminder for how close things can get to going side-ways out of no fault of one’s own. It is a large part of why I’m more than happy to get involved in UKHousingFast. We were lucky, our problems were temporary, for many they aren’t.

Whatever your own particular reasons for getting involved I hope you get as much out of it as I have. Whether you fast, donate, or simply raise awareness, it all goes to supporting a great charity. Don’t forget to tweet, blog and generally promote the day as much as possible – it’s 14th June 2017. Looking forward to my end of fast meal already.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here. You can find UKHousingFast here and follow them on Twitter here.

 

 

Wherever I May Roam

As work/life balance becomes an increasingly important consideration for employees the role of the traditional office setting is changing. Remote working and flexible working have reduced the need to have an organisation’s workers based in an office. The challenge for organisations is to adapt their culture, as much as their IT infrastructure, to get the best of both worlds.

Most people could work from Timbuktu provided they had a reliable internet connection and a phone with a good international dialling plan

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step

One of the most significant stumbling blocks regarding remote/flexible working for organisations is not the physical infrastructure, although that can always be improved, but the culture of the business. Far too many see working from home, or at least away from the office, as something to be avoided at all costs. It is reflective of a failure to have a grown up relationship with your staff and the ability to be adaptable in the workplace. Most people could work from Timbuktu provided they had a reliable internet connection and a phone with a good international dialling plan. In all likelihood they’d be doing their job just as well as if they were sat in an office in Milton Keynes.

Personally I’ve always been a fan of treating staff as grown ups until they prove otherwise. Yes there will always be those that take the piss, but a happy workforce is a productive one. And if as an employer you can help ease part of the day to day stress inducing clusterfuck that is life by allowing staff to work from home or pick up their kids from school, why the hell not give it a try? If you’re unsure as to the benefits, here’s a link to a blog I quickly Googled to pad out this paragraph. It’s actually quite useful. Elsewhere here’s a good piece on why offering flexible working also helps.

Getting away from walk-in traffic is occasionally invaluable

A Word of Caution

Working remotely is not all plain sailing. Working from home or in a different office to your usual one will always require a small amount of adjustment. Even if it’s just for basic things like knowing where the non decaf coffee is kept (honestly who drinks coffee without the caffeine content). It is also important not to underestimate the value of relationships built up by face to face contact. Different personality types will cope better than others.

What helped me during the few weeks this year when I had no office to call home (it was undergoing a refurb) was the fact that I’d been working from home 1 day every 1-2 weeks for the last year. Whilst forcing myself to get away from walk-in traffic is occasionally invaluable for ‘admin days’ or mini projects, it also meant there was less of a shock for me on day one as I had already sorted my routine. It meant that my line manager and I also knew what to expect. For every diligent worker there will be one who ends up eating ice-cream in their PJ’s watching Jeremy Kyle rather than working. Easing people into such changes, as well as setting up clear boundaries/expectations, is therefore a must.

That’s a Wrap

As with many aspects of modern work there have been many improvements made to make our jobs easier. As employers it is also important to try and create a working environment that facilitates productive workers. For some this means office based working. For others it means 2 days a week at home so they can pick up the kids on time. Sticking rigidly to one way of working is simply nonsensical, backward and will ultimately have a negative impact on your organisation. Evolve a little, the results may surprise you.

Photo Credit – Michal Scuglik – Abandoned Office (2011)

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Warm Smiles Don’t Make You Welcome Here

Housing Associations are increasingly trapped by their own ambitions and whilst Mr Hilditch is right to highlight mission creep, the sector’s problems go deeper than simply chasing dollar signs. It still does not understand how to deliver good customer service based on the needs of its end users. Continued failure to address this issue will further erode credibility in the sector and ultimately the very values it claims to uphold.

Customer Service

For those blissfully detached from the internet over the last couple of weeks the power of failing in the very basics of customer service was beautifully highlighted by United Airlines. A fee paying passenger was physically, and very forcefully removed, (getting injured in the process) on a flight that was overbooked. Whilst initially unrepentant and largely unapologetic. Sharp drops in the company’s share prices, alongside a massive social media backlash forced the CEO Oscar Munoz to apologise. It is an extreme case, but highlights that get customer service wrong in the private sector and you will, literally, pay the price. And that’s before the inevitable lawsuit.

For me this is where a large number of the problems with the sector lie. The main focus of a business, social or otherwise, should be to ensure that the customer gets a good service. That comes from a culture that accepts and embraces customer service as a necessity. Something that social housing orgs, without the type of competition seen in the private sector, have struggled to come to terms with.

The Power of the Market, but Beware of the Dark Side

Some of the most popular apps have been developed out of a perceived need. I can order an Uber, book a table, hunt for houses to rent all on my smart phone (another need based development). Yet when it comes to social housing how progressive have we been in our service offer? As Tim Pinder has noted, only a modest number of social housing organisations offer customers the rather simple ability to book a repairs appointment online. I think he was being polite regarding his nod to the fact that in reality most of these were actually ‘fancy emails’ with a scheduler still required to actually sort the appointment. Not only does this save time and effort for customers, as Tim notes it can also deliver savings for the organisation. The two factors are not mutually exclusive.

Elsewhere opening hours continue be highly restrictive and inflexible. Opening 9am-5pm is next to useless for most people who work. So too is being open Mon – Fri. Letting agents in the private rented and home ownership sectors are open on a Saturday. This is because they recognise the need to be available at times that suit potential customers. So why aren’t social landlords who own and manage tens of thousands of units doing the same? Even banks have changed their opening times to be more customer friendly (admittedly dragging their heels the whole way). Again, why aren’t we looking at this seriously? Flexible hours of working should not just be for the benefit of staff. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting a marketisation (is that a word? It is now) of social housing, anyone who’s witnessed the basket-case of New Labour quasi-markets in the NHS will know the perils of trying to create a state-led market out of thin air†. Certainly not all organisations act in the best interests of their customers, or even the long term viability of the business. However, the lack of a need for invention combined with the nature of many of the organisations that provide social housing has inevitably left the UKHousing sector wanting in a number of ways.

Talk is Cheap

We’ve often talked about embracing the better elements of the private sector. But in reality these have largely been confined to pursuing activities that make more money (not a bad thing in and of itself). But not on the relentless, necessary drive for developing and improving products/services* or the need for good, responsive customer care. Or the requirement to design services around the needs of the customer, not around the business, or worse still – what the business thinks the needs of the end user are.

I will let others rally around the Big is Bad, Developer is bad arguments. There are truths and falsehoods there. As this documentary by Adam Curtis has noted the problems highlighted by John Harris and by Steven Hilditch on build quality and customer service are nothing new in the development of properties for the social housing sector. As with housing policy more generally these issues have a depressingly predictable tendency to come round full circle.

As ever, it depends on the organisation, the culture and the desire to improve as a business, and yes – the profit motive if you wish to improve the services you provide. Key to this is putting the customer at the forefront of what you do, otherwise it’s just lip service. A stance that ultimately will erode your service offer, trust in you as an organisation and the very values you should be standing up for. The choice is simple one, but it’s yours to make.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Picture Credit – Wojtek Gurak – Bouça Social Housing

†That and , you know, pretty much every single ‘communist’ country, ever.

*There are obviously some caveats here, I’ve lost count of the number of tech firms I’ve come across directly and indirectly that are flogging a bit of kit that last saw major investment when Tony Blair was still PM. But you get the gist.

 

Arguing With Thermometers

Fact, fiction or managing the narrative? Housing has long had an image problem, one that has been embedded by failure to counter powerful narratives to pervade public discourse and, to a large extent, public policy initiatives. Is it time for the sector to get down and dirty?

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

A recent train of thought I’ve come across is the (statistically backed) claim that we need to stop pretending that everyone is a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. This is largely because there are real and significant differences in the chances of someone becoming homeless. These heavily (but not exclusively) depend on one’s age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. My only problem with above argument is that despite being technically correct, such approaches miss the point.

The dominant narrative around homelessness has been that individual pathology i.e. our own choices and behaviours are by far and away the main driver for one’s housing situation. This message has been picked up and rammed home to such an extent that it largely goes unchallenged. This has problematic consequences for housing policy because it impedes the ability of people to back ‘progressive’ policy changes i.e. it makes our job a lot harder than it should be. Something Campbell Robb nailed in this post whilst still at Shelter.

Hypocrite

Simply stating technical arguments isn’t going to reverse this wet dream of the centre right. Because it assumes that evidence based arguments have got us to where we are. Quite bluntly they haven’t. Emotive, ideologically driven bullshit has. We’re not really living in a post facts age. People have just refined ways of finding what they perceive to be evidence based support for the way they view the world. However, what has been interesting about the gradual change in the tide of public opinion in housing (both here and over in the US) is that it’s become less of an ethereal problem that effects others. Everyone has family, colleagues, and friends who have been affected or know someone affected by housing affordability problems. It brings home a policy issue that previously been on one’s periphery. This offers a way in for those looking to influence public opinion.

Homelessness is more of a tricky beast. Those working in the sector have long been alarmed at the rising rates of homelessness. But this doesn’t engage with the public. Don’t believe me, casually observe people’s behaviour when they see street homeless. Better still, observe your own. There is a real detachment here, from empathy and acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

Whilst people don’t care about technical arguments, they do care about what affects them, their friends, their families. They also like to believe negative life events happen to other people, preferably due to their own poor choices rather than an ingrained unjust system in which they play a part. It’s more of a convenience to blame other individuals rather than structural problems associated with our drug like dependency on the housing market. Whilst many of us have friends struggling with their housing situation. Few know a homeless person.

It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way that You Do it

I’ve long argued for the UKHousing sector to own the narrative, to control the image relating to it. It has routinely failed to do so. But more recently progress has been made as better lobbying and a different Government, with its head at least partially out of the clouds, providing a tweak in housing policy. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has also shown signs of change. Albeit one that will be utterly insignificant if we do not build more social housing. Honestly kids, that part of the housing crisis is the easy bit.

As ever it’s the PR and Marketing side of things that has let both the housing and homelessness sectors down on occasion. Too much facts, not enough empathy. Particularly at a time where one can easily twist publicly available information to meet their own desired view of the world. Our message needs to be clearer, simpler and more accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting the truth, but it does mean refining the message.

A massive thanks to Beth Watts for both initial discussions and some very useful reading material. Also to Burcu Borysik for tweets from #CrisisConf which helped to frame this blog. As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Birgit Kulbe (2012) Homeless

Music References

Arguing With Thermometers – Enter Shikari (2012)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip (2007)

Hypocrite – Midasuno (2002)

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) – Bananarama (1982)

 

Walking Into The Sunset

tommurtha

As I approach my 65th Birthday I have been thinking about the next stage of my life.

Walking Into The Sunset.

It is London Marathon time again and my Twitter lifeline is full of brave women and men who will be running it for the first time. I wish them well. I ran my first London Marathon in 1983, the year our son Kieran was born. I dedicated the race to him. I ran regularly for the next 15 years until my body could take no more. A combination of a trapped sciatic nerve and knee problems forced me to stop. So I began walking instead.

I have always looked for new challenges in my life. Five years ago on 13th April I gave up my Chief Executive’s role at Midland Heart, to make way for the next generation. At the time I wondered how I would adapt to my…

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Don’t worry our values will save us.

tommurtha

Profit for purpose, social business, business head social heart, value driven, social enterprise. I am sure you will recognise these terms. They are all used to describe housing associations in the new era. They are intended to show that even though housing associations are diversifying, entering new markets and becoming more commercial they are doing it to continue to deliver social values.

When I speak or write about the risks of diversification I am often told that there is nothing to worry about as the sector is still committed to strong social values and that its leaders will ensure that this continues to be the case. I have argued elsewhere that history shows that organisations who have gone down this route, even though they begin by making this claim, often end up by being driven by their financial imperatives and not their values. The reply to this is that I…

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