How to Make Friends and Influence People

It is a broken record on repeat but the sector needs to do more to get heard outside of the bubble that is housing.

About 18months ago I moved to deepest, darkest Warwickshire, Bidford on Avon to be precise. It’s the kind of place where time hasn’t so much stood still but lost all interest and buggered off elsewhere. For me and the lady-friend, who like busy cities the same way the Body Coach likes a greasy kebab after an all day session down the Winchester, it suits quite well. However, one of the things we hadn’t expected was the reaction of some of the locals.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Bidford, like most of Warwickshire, is as about as Blue as you can get without seeing portraits of Margaret Thatcher in every living-room. It is conservative with small, medium and large C’s. Whilst I had clocked this early on in the move I hadn’t quite clocked what impact it might have. As a keen gym enthusiast (the heavy weight, not treadmill running kind) I’m pretty much as broad as I am tall (being 5ft 8inch helps). I’m reasonably tattooed with a full sleeve supplemented by a half sleeve and a chest piece. Finally, I own a Staffie. In short, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and frankly neither are they mine.

Exhibit A – World’s Least Dangerous Dog

The first time I saw a middle age woman clock me and my dog, stop, then walk across the road it made me laugh. After the 3rd or 4th time it really began to piss me off, I swear I could hear the anuses clenching as I went past. After a while, and through general interaction with people in the village such instances became rarer. More so after many people actually stopped to chat to the dog (yes, people do that). These days the local teenagers refer to her as “Well cute” whilst my general presence appears to be accepted.

What happened? Well, me and the lady-friend made a conscious effort to show that both of us, and our dog were perfectly normal everyday people and posed no threat/ill to anyone. Essentially we went outside our own bubble. In many ways social housing is still yet to do this. Neil Jackson (all the cool people are called Neil…) provided what I thought was the best blog of Housing Day by highlighting this point. For all the effort (hats off to Ade Capon, the lad has worked tirelessly to grow the event) given on the day how many outside the bubble came across it/engaged with it? A snap poll with the Lady-friend concluded, not many. I won’t bore you with her precise words but they were akin to, “Oh, that thing OK…”.

All is not lost

Scientifically valid checks against impact aside (see here for the actually rather impressive figures). The sector is still capable of influence Central Government policy. One of the greatest examples can be seen with Shared Ownership. Consistent targeted lobbying alongside co-ordinated work has seen something that frankly has been a backwater bolt on to social housing gain significant traction.  To the point where there may genuinely be a ‘fourth tenure’ of mainstream housing in this country.

Such an achievement didn’t come through the back slapping, circle-jerk that the sector is occasionally prone to. And whilst warmer noises have been coming from the new-look Government, they frankly couldn’t have been much colder. Nick ‘Kind of Stating the Obvious’ Clegg’s serialised memoirs in the Guardian (let’s face it, no-one else would bloody do it) have highlighted what many thought. That a significant part of the Conservative Party is hostile to social housing and see it as a Labour Voter breeding machine. Let’s hope Mr Barwell’s warm noises come to something. Historically the NHF Conference has led to conciliatory noises from Government followed by business as usual. Real change occurs outside our housing bubble.

The above does raise the old ‘what does it all mean/what should we build question’. But I loathe the term used to describe the intersection of two roads. And quite frankly the mid-life crisis that is the sector’s inability to decide what it wants to be is starting to bore. So I shall ignore it here.

Regardless, continuing to speak to, and build bridges with, those who have not been traditional bed-fellows is a must. Pushing how good the sector is, and what it can bring to the table is also essential. Alongside Health and Education, housing is one of the 3 pillars a person builds their life on. It is something that everyone needs and can understand the importance of. Even if how someone conceptualises what a safe and secure home looks like is different, we all need one. The trick is to tap into that and tie it to how we can help this Government achieve its aims of more housing for all.

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It’s Always the Quiet Ones

Organisational change will always have its challenges, some of which can be anticipated, others not so much. Whilst a lot of focus is spent on those near the top of the pay scale in terms of undermining change, it’s actually those closer to the ground floor that can put a real dampener on proceedings. Managing messages, engagement and understanding staff motivation(s) is therefore key.

A Little Anecdote

On my way to work there is a Shell Petrol Station (other destroyers of the Earth are available). Recently they’ve deemed fit to stop people parking on a bit of green adjacent to them. To try to do this in a not-so-dickish way they put in big concrete plant pots. What they hadn’t counted on was the tenacity of locals in wanting to park their cars for free. In short, people just parked between the aforementioned plants. A week later work men are back on the scene and by the end of the day even more plant pots have arrived and now no-one can park there. Moral of the story? People don’t like being forced to change the way they’ve always done things. You may have to leave them no option.

Things to Consider

A bit like Leadsom referring to herself as a mother to validate her view of macro-economic policy, yet taken as trashing a rival, what a person says and what other people hear are two different things. People looking to get other staff to ‘buy in’ to change tend to ignore that what the phrase means in practice i.e:

‘I want to change the way you work, hopefully for the better, but I’m not 100% sure on that. You agreeing with me makes this process a lot easier, so JFDI*.’

Not nearly as succinct, or cushty is it? But it is a more honest statement around organisational change. For many change is not an opportunity, it is more work on top of what is an already challenging workload. Often because someone at mid-to-senior level saw something at an un-conference and thought it would work rather neatly in their part of the business. Perception is key here. People who have been in a role for a while will carry on doing what they’ve always done until utterly forced otherwise. Because people are naturally cautious, careful beasts that mitigate change to the best of their abilities. Well, for the most part they are. You’ll always have a couple of nutters who want to go try something new like extreme ironing.

*Just Fucking Do It

So What to Do?

Like it or lump it, winning hearts and minds is fundamental to instigating embedded change. Because despite what a number of consultancy hawks post on twitter “Innovator Destroyers in Chief” aren’t always the heads of needless bureaucracies. Often it’s actually front line staff who are pissed off with moving goal posts and have no desire to retrain that are the most efficient change blockers.

Fundamentally what people want is to be able to do their job easier, without any risk to their livelihood. But what they hear when the change word, or its pumped up cousin transformation, is mentioned is re-structure. A phrase which is, rightly or wrongly, intrinsically associated with job cuts. Given the fact that Housing Associations go through a restructure every 2-3 years people can get battle weary. Your Top-Down Approach To Transformation (TDATT for short, the D is silent), is just another set of jobs cuts and unwelcome upheaval unless explicitly, and painstakingly, proven otherwise.

I should probably state that having been through restructures and mergers in my few years in Housing this is one of the areas I am actually a bit of an optimist. Organisations need to develop, to evolve, to grow. Stagnation is the death of a business, social or otherwise. And where change happens, so opportunities grow. But I don’t have kids, or a mortgage to worry about. What I would recommend is less time on flashy slide shows and focus more on the communication of the change; why it’s happening, will it affect jobs, what are its benefits. Otherwise your change will fail.

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UK Housing Policy: A mess years in the making

Insecure tenancies and poor quality housing are health issues, they should be treated as such. Investment in all of the 3 main types of housing tenure and reform of Private Rented Housing is needed to avoid a crisis evolving into a full on catastrophe.

Political Failure Manifest

Complicated is what we use to avoid simple truths (Some bloke off the internet, 2016)

The modern-day crises that make up the UK Housing crisis are a complex mish-mash of competing and conflicting needs.  More housing is desperately needed, but no Government wants to dampen house prices when the economy and individual wealth creation are heavily tied to ever-increasing house prices. To get around this tricky issue, Cameron et al have attempted to side step the main problem at hand i.e. instead of increasing the supply of the right type of housing in the right areas they have deliberately mis-identified the actual problem (of supply) with an easier issue to solve (demand). Why? Because simpler problems are easier to fix.

As Campbell Robb noted the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public has longed been lost in relation to social housing provision. So it seems has all logic. We want our kids to get housing of their own, to be able to afford to buy, but for our own house prices to keep on rising. With Teresa May now PM it remains to be seen if the over-focus on Home Ownership will continue, Jules Birch fears, just like Teresa, it May (sorry…too tempting).

Poor quality housing is a public health issue, treat it as such

As the social housing sector has been allowed to dwindle, those who used to be on the margins of being accepted into social rent have had to turn to the private sector. In the South and South East this has put an inevitable strain on housing, pushing rent prices further away from affordable levels. This in turn has led to families unable to buy, but ineligible to rent social housing relying on insecure private sector tenancies. It is no surprise that the number one reason for being made homeless in the UK is the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). Insecure, poor quality housing can be just as detrimental as being homeless, all being linked to:

A parallel issue is poor quality housing. It is not uncommon to see news reports on landlords who have not just violated HMO rules, they’ve jumped up and down on them, popped them in one of those circus canons and blown them apart as spectacularly as Michael Gove’s leadership bid. I’m sure the resistance to any kind of further regulation and licensing of private landlords has nothing to do with the fact that a large part of MPs are landlords themselves, but the wilful inertia needs to stop. In the right conditions Private Renting is a very good form of housing provision, the majority of landlords are good. But when lack of alternatives are driving those in the bottom income quartile to beds in sheds, overcrowded and frankly dangerous housing, the buck needs to stop.

So why are we not doing more to battle this?

I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my boy. [I’m] Fed up of moving all the time.

The current Tory Government will argue that via RTB2, Help to Buy and Shared Ownership they’re helping those like my friends (and me). But whilst there are a plethora of products designed to facilitate access to home ownership, many simply just aren’t suitable for those who most need it. We need a Government to invest in all 3 of the main tenures in this country, because what we have right now is poorly channelled money and whimsical, wishful thinking. Post EU Referendum I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Let’s take back control of something that actually matters, our housing policy.

The above quote is symptomatic one of a many up and down the country having to juggle affordable private renting, school and the need to provide secure home for their kids. It’s from a mate of mine, one of at least 3 in the same situation. As a private renter myself I’m one legal notice and 2 months away from homelessness at any given time. So pardon me if I sound a little pissy at A) the lack of action and B) the wrong policies being pushed.

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April Fools

It appears that the world has temporarily gone mad. Or at least temporarily remembered that life is incredibly different if you have lots of money. But, a bit like anger at the banks for pretty much bringing this country to its knees then having the cheek to ask for a helping billion or two, the swell of indignation will die down leaving but a few angry vessels beached on the sand dunes of rage. Once that occurs maybe we can sit down and have an adult conversation.

Things to learn

How often has the sector been on the back foot struggling to explain a concept many outside of the sector don’t understand?

Firstly, what is it with us British and mentioning sex and/or money? A slight whiff of those topics and we go all Hugh Grant in a 1990s rom-com. For once I am largely on the side of our Prime Minister (shocking, I know). Whilst some would have you believe otherwise Mr Cameron Snr has legally, and to a large extent morally, done nothing wrong. Guilt by association doesn’t mean guilt, which is funnily enough something the UK Justice System found out to its cost this year. What Mr Cameron Jnr has done wrong however is drop the ball regarding his response to a non-event. But more crucially he failed to grasp the general feeling and perception around the issue at hand. For the uninformed this is an interesting take on  the ramifications of Blairmore-gate in the Economist online. However, setting aside the embarrassment of David Cameron, there are one or two things for housing to pick up here.

Your argument is as good as there are ears willing to listen

You can have facts, figures and the belief in a moral argument on your side, but that doesn’t mean you will win the argument. Sound familiar Housing Comms people (pay attention at the back). I’m not going to overly slag off how we do things. Though if you are feeling the need to feed your masochistic tendencies Mr Halewood is always on call to rightly pull us up on where things have slipped a bit. But how many times as a sector have there been inaccurate, but morally on point attacks against Chief Exec pay, or the amount of homes we build? How often has the sector been on the back foot, struggling to explain a concept many outside of the sector don’t understand. As G.I Joe notes, knowing is half the battle, if we don’t push what we do it is left for those outside the sector to fill in the gaps. This will not always be in a positive light.

Just as an FYI if you can fully and utterly explain the workings of the Camerons’ ‘Investment’ scheme I would be grateful. I get lost somewhere around the dollar-denominated global…zzzzzzzz bit. Sorry nodded off again. The FT have a good stab here mind.

When to go hard, when to go home

Ultimately it’s about being a bit more nuanced around news stories that affect the sector. The recent attack pieces in the Times and predecessor articles in the Standard and the Times (again) are easy to bat away on the figures side because the journalism around them has frankly been a bit haphazard. However, they tie into popular perceptions around the sector with those in power if not the general public. Knowing when to go full balls, and knowing when to be a bit more subtle is key to shaping the debate, and as the NHF keeps on saying ‘Own our future‘. Getting some press outside of the trade magazines and the Guardian Housing Network wouldn’t go amiss either. Stop preaching to the converted.

What we don’t need

A fucking hash-tag. Seriously, one more of those bloody things to promote yet another BS marketing/event ploy and I will be getting out the wet plimsolls and slapping (metaphorically of course) sense into people. A hash-tag based awareness/marketing approach on its own does not a successful campaign make. Or for someone with good intentions (I guess) like Alan Duncan going so far off message as to send the poor Conservative PR lass/guy into early retirement. To see him in full flow winning muppet of the day just go here. Tell me Alan, is there a cut off point for low earners, or is it tapered in, much like Universal Credit and now Starter Homes discount repayments? In fairness to the chap at least he attempted to clarify his statement, I think. I was to busy being synthetically indignant at being told about what is fair by someone who claimed over £4,000 of public money to have his lawn mowed (he did pay it back, and got demoted for his troubles). Behave and have a Snickers you silly sausage.

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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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Want is not of need

The only thing more predictable than the unpredictable nature of the Spending Review/Autumn Statement is the flurry of blog posts after the fact. I won’t attempt to cover the ground that has already been well trodden. But the housing policy geek in me can’t help but chew the fat on a couple of points.

Firstly, the good points. Housing has finally got the increase in funding and political attention it desperately needs. A nod here must go to the NHF, CIH and the Homes for Britain campaigns. Further mentions to Generation Rent, Shelter and Crisis. Given how far down the list of priorities perceived by the general public a few months ago it is relieving to see the subject set as one of the focal points of the Spending Review.

Now the bad news. (Yet) again the debate has been skewed to one particular facet of the housing market. Whilst ideology does play a part, there is something more fundamental here. Politicians like stories with happy endings. The story itself might be one of woe, but there is a solution in sight (theirs of course, the opposition’s vision won’t work). With housing, its complex nature, myriad set of interests and unpredictability negates a happily ever after. For there must be losers in housing to ensure winners. Mr Osborne knows this, and has played his cards accordingly.

Previous blogs of mine have highlighted the perceived need by those in power to highlight problems (real or imaginary) that then need resolving (the deficit for example…). They have also pointed to the works of people like Adam Curtis and Naomi Klein who in turn note that such narratives often belie more troublesome endgames and unaccounted-for consequences. The Government for example has chosen to frame the housing crisis as a problem that is just about affordability for first time buyers.

As the JRF rightly points out this current crisis is not just about the inability to buy. But it’s a lot easier for politicians to willy wave about helping those buy their homes than tackle the overarching mindfuck that is the mess our housing system is in. Particularly when actually making housing more affordable would hit the pockets of those who have already won in the game of housing.

Approaches to tackle this narrow view of the housing crisis are thus deliberately limited in their scope. And even then all is not what it seems, many won’t come into effect for a couple of years. Anthony Hilton’s delightfully bitchy, but informed piece, highlights the tricks played by Osborne et al. in their attempts to address housing affordability quite beautifully. For those who can’t be bothered to read outside this article the points to take are:

  • The greatest house building program since the 1970s might not actually build (materially speaking) more homes than already had been slated
  • The affordable homes that are built won’t be that affordable
  • Houses have been reclassified as affordable by a sleight of hand, not in cash terms or in their genuine affordability

Indeed when looking at both the newest Housing Bill and the funding put in place by the Spending Review it’s as if a whole sub-section of society is being written off. Brandon Lewis’s belief that the poorest will be able to buy thanks to the flurry of housing policies is frankly misguided bullshit. When you can’t put money aside for a mortgage, when keeping your crappy rented property as the roof over your head buying doesn’t come into it. But when the narrative is set to that of home-ownership as the solver of all society’s ills I wouldn’t expect anything less.

If allowed social rent will play an important role in helping with the issues in our housing system. Giving people the chance/space to breathe, get their shit in order then maybe one day buy. But until the narrative changes to admit that, we will continue on this merry-go-round of smoke and mirrors with the end result being that housing is utterly unaffordable for an even greater proportion of the country. And with it the chance of a happily ever after.

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