When Bulls Play God

With the Housing Bill making its way through Parliament, rent cuts and a generally rough operating environment the temptation may be to cut back non-core services. But with the Tories intent on reducing state help to a couple of plasters and a turnip, helping communities and individuals (not just building homes) needs to remain a key focus.

If I only had one dollar left I would invest it in an employment advice and tenancy support service.

Bill Gates is often quoted as saying that if he only had one dollar left he would invest it in PR. If I had that dollar I would put it into an employment advice and tenancy support service and it appears many in this sector would agree. Research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion found that 67% of housing associations either already ran, or were planning to run, a programme to support customers into work. Many seeing this as a natural extension of their role and an increasingly important priority.

The link between landlord and poverty is an interesting one, with property owners in a unique position to directly (by rent) and indirectly (by additional services) impact (if not solve) the socio-economic security of the tenant. Research on that very subject is available here and neatly highlights the approaches/strategies of the sector and the impact they may have. In addition to this report, the struggles of Gentoo and Circle, both laying off staff as the operating environment toughens, show the balancing act many are having to play.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty. However, for many living in social housing that is either not a realistic achievement due to physical/mental health issues or because of care commitment (in and of itself an undervalued part of our welfare state). But for others, with help, guidance and sustained support it is. As the report from CESI indicates many have, or are about to, rise to the challenge. It is not uncommon for social landlords to build-in apprenticeships and training opportunities for customers/communities into contracts with 3rd party service providers. Maintenance and repairs organisations in particular. Others match fund, or directly fund specific employment training and/or soft skills courses.

So far, so noble but the issue many organisations currently have is defining the benefits for the business. I’ve never been truly convinced by social value calculations. Yes there are undoubtedly more generic benefits that can loosely be quantified but specific cost benefits to businesses are much harder to define. It often takes years for an individual/households to get over historic debt/arrears issues. Poverty is often an up and down life event, it is seldom static. Most importantly life doesn’t neatly fall into financial years for accounting purposes. That aside what should you actually measure? Arrears? Contact with the organisation? Number of repairs? Often such work throws up more questions than answers.

My fear is that without further work into this area, to provide hard and fast, quantifiable proof that employment support benefits all (the CESI report reckoned about £70million could be shaved off the benefit bill) many will simply withdraw as operating pressures squeeze budgets and organisations play safe. That would be a shame for all concerned. Especially those at the sharp end of George Osborne’s attempts at creating lower tax, lower welfare economy.

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First as tragedy, then as farce?

One of the greatest frustrations I have with housing is its lack of unity when seeking to influence policy. In everything we do there are a myriad set of interests that are often directly competing against each other. If there is a means by which to do the same thing over and over in a million different ways you can bet your bottom dollar housing will find a way to do it. This is one of our great strengths, but also one of our biggest weaknesses.

Hell you just need to see the number of different award ceremonies there are to see this in action. Sometimes I wonder how the fudge we can actually get any work done. Awards don’t just occur, you bid for them, the same way you do for a contract or a piece of work. The only difference is you get a fancy dinner (that you pay for) a nice evening (that you pay for) and a chance to swan around with an award (that you have paid for in work hours putting the bid together). Don’t get me wrong, as a lad born and raised in a land distinctly lacking in diversity I appreciate the need (and benefit) of/for difference. But we seriously need to stop replicating crap for the sake of it.

I was intrigued by Hannah Fearn’s piece on the sector’s reaction to right to buy. Yes, there are some elements that have been a bit hysterical. There are some that do need to be slapped with a wet plimsoll and told to pull themselves together. However, you can’t blame a sector for reacting passionately against such a poor policy that (regardless of whether it will come to pass) would devastate the sector. In his book, this blog post gets its title from; Slavoj Zizek highlights Marx’s contention that history repeats itself. First as tragedy and then as… well, you get the idea. After the last 3 decades of leeching vital social housing via Right to Buy we need to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated as a farce. Though [insert deity of choice here] the guys and gals at CCHQ are giving it their darndest.

What we must be more aware of is that screeching about how crap a policy is will do next to nothing to change it. It is the equivalent of Evangelicals turning up at your door to convert you. You are polite, you listen and (if you are like me) you then point out all the absurdities of the bible/their faith (yup, I’m that guy). In the end you despair and say, “Yes heaven and eternity with you guys sounds swell but I’m happy to be an atheist. At least if I am damned to an afterlife in hell it’s where all the cocaine, hookers and decent music will be…” They go away having achieved nothing and frankly so have you.

Realistically the best way to defeat the extension of Right to Buy will be via the complexities of its implementation. I can’t see this getting through the House of Lords intact, even if it does there is a very strong case for legal action. Though if anyone can get that damn impact assessment released (open government my arse) that would be ace. Any move against Right to Buy will need to highlight the cost of the status quo (i.e. the horrifically bad housing policy in this country) and the value for money we provide. Because at the moment people essentially just see us giving houses to Jeremy Kyle rejects (or foreigners if you are UKIP) paid for by their taxes. Lose public opinion and you’ve already lost the battle.

SHOUT, in conjunction with Capital Economics and the National Federation of ALMOs has put forward a strong argument to highlight our true value. They have also shown some grim figures around the potential cost to all concerned if we carry on our current course and the absurdity of some of Central Government’s thinking. The good ship ‘Make it up as you go along’ needs to change direction. I won’t go through the nitty gritty, Steven Hilditch has already done a cracking job of that. But if you wish to read it you can get your grubby mitts on here.

In the meantime calm down dear, it’s only a bullshit policy. One we can stop.

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

Roll Call

Social housing can play a key role in reducing in-work poverty.  In doing so not only will they be helping those who work for them but also the communities in which they operate.

So it turns out if you pay your staff a decent wage not only do they increase their productivity but their reliance on the state might also reduce.  Who wudda thunk it?  The JRF has recently been releasing a number of blogs/research pieces highlighting that whilst some progress is being made a large minority are being left behind.  Worst still for the state assistance is state dependency brigade this is impacting our welfare payments.  Those of you who have even only occasionally read my blogs will have noticed a recurring graph.  This is the one relating to those housing benefit claimants who are in work.  This graph has inexorably been moving up.  However, unlike Yazz and the Plastic Population up isn’t the only way (baby).

There have been a number of reports, largely from the centre left that highlight the absurd situation where the market is able to pay crap wages because the state will subsidise it.  The damage this causes has been known for a while, 5 years ago the JRF released a research piece into the damaging cycles of low-pay-no-pay (another piece I crack out from time to time).  The simple point is this, yes employment has increased in terms of number but like many things this is not just a simple numbers game.  It is the quality of the jobs, and the pay that goes with them, that is key here.  Unfortunately we are being found severely wanting in this regard.

I have previously called for social landlords to put both their money and their ideals where their mouths are on this subject.  A quick look at the Living Wage Foundation’s website will show that a number of housing associations are already doing so.  But given that there are over 1,500 in the country and the foundation has 1,218 businesses/organisations signed up more need to pull their finger out.  You cannot state that you work to better the lives of the communities you operate in without looking after your own community of workers as well.  A guaranteed Living Wage isn’t the be all and end all, but it is a start.

The Living Wage, according to the Foundation that takes its name from the notion, is £7.85 outside of London, £9.15 inside.  That equates to £14,695.20 and £17,128.80 per year respectively.  If as an organisation you can’t guarantee to pay that, or at least the pro-rata equivalent, then I’m sorry but you have no business being a social landlord.  I’m not saying that you chase yet another standard to pin on the bottom of your letterheads.  But God  knows as sector we chase awards like kids at a sweet shop.  Why not chase something that has some benefit other than inflating ego?

The benefits to both business and employees are pretty hefty.  For businesses absenteeism, staff turnover and productivity all improve whilst reputation is also enhanced.  Employees feel more loyal to their employer, are (again) more productive and have a better psychological wellbeing.  Invest in your staff, reap the benefits.

Please don’t take this as a slap down to the sector.  I am highly aware (and appreciative) of the very generous employment packages the sector puts together for its workers.  Having worked both in the Private and 3rd Sector spheres it is always refreshing to see how much time and effort housing associations and their peers put into staff development.  I am also keenly aware that many social landlords do pay something akin or even above the Living Wage at the bottom end of their pay scales.  But this is a simple, but significant, way of protesting against general poor pay whilst having a positive impact closer to home.  As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

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

Eat, sleep, collect data, repeat

Report from Sheffield Hallam University highlights the sector still has work to do around data and their approaches to Universal Credit.

So first off here’s the caveats, whilst researched and published by Sheffield Hallam the report was commissioned by Housing Partners.  Given that their primary business is heavily tied into providing IT solutions to the social housing sector a pinch of salt is needed here.  That being said SHU has a long history of research, particularly in the social housing sector.  Hell they even had the pleasure of my company for a year whilst I bumbled my way through a Masters Degree there.  Forgiving the deepest of sins (I did my undergrad degree at the University of Sheffield) #UniTilliDie and fundamentally both the report, and Housing Partners’ associated trumpeting of it, carry some weight.

Given the monumental delays, recriminations, borderline lies and fluster coming from Iain ‘never knowingly gives sound statistics’ Duncan Smith and the DWP you would be forgiven for forgetting that we are midway through the roll out of Universal Credit.  And whilst there are undoubtedly many more rocky steps to take, piss poor project management aside, it is here to stay.  It is therefore somewhat surprising to see that a number of social landlords are still in a bit of a muddle around their customer’s data.  The greatest advantage we have as a sector is that there is no element of surprise, rumblings around UC started in 2010, so we don’t really have an excuse.  But the findings from the guys and gals t’up north show the same issues that we had a couple of years ago are still around.  It does make you wonder what the fudge have we been doing?

I appreciate the monumental task at hand, particularly for the larger social landlords.  People move in and out of our properties, have kids, get married, get divorced, get married again (on a number of occasions to the person they divorced) etc etc.  Mobile phone numbers are as concrete as a chocolate tea-pot and no-one and I mean no-one takes ownership of the bloody data.  But it is not just the day to day grind around data that we appear to have a problem with.  As usual there appears to be a disconnect between the IT systems we have, and the systems we need to use.  I say this from something of an odd position because the organisations I have worked with have had pretty solid, if unspectacular IT systems. Their data collection, protection and insight processes, whilst not perfect, are pretty advanced and are being used in the correct way i.e. to inform the business and improve customer satisfaction.

The most interesting thing about the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit and now the report from SHU and Housing Partners (from a purely data point of view, not the suffering and utter shiteness of the policies themselves) is that they have illustrated how little we know about our customers.  Or in some cases our own stock. It does make you wonder what the situation would have been like without such external stimuli.  Would we as a sector remained largely oblivious to how bad our data was?

Many organisations when the Bedroom Tax came out probably looked at undertaking a census.  No doubt many who responded to SHU’s survey are thinking of doing the same again.  These bad boys are great at providing a big bang effect.  It will indicate areas where you have been lacking data (typically you will see a sudden spike in certain demographics sets) but they are only part of the solution.  It is in the day to day interactions that you will gather the majority of your information. To truly keep your data fresh you need identify how and when you and your customers interact and make the most of those opportunities.  You also need to make sure you properly store the data you already have.

I find it deeply alarming that some 42% of the 167 or so organisations surveyed admitted to using paper based systems (i.e. paper) to store some data on its tenants.  This is utterly horrendous and frankly unforgiveable.  Storing data on off-system spreadsheets is bad enough, but paper?  How the hell do you ensure any consistency, any accountability and any basic audit trail if part of your data is on paper!?  If your IT system can’t store the data you need there are plenty of options out there.  Side note, if you are procuring make sure the business and not the IT bod is the customer and the lead on the project.  IT facilitate, they don’t lead on business focused IT procurement. Though quite often no-one tells them that.

By and large data is a simple beast. Work out what you need, why you need it, how you are going to store it, how are you going to keep it fresh but most importantly how are you going to use it.  That my friends is basically it.  Everything else is just mere details.

If you feel so inclined (I wouldn’t advise it, you will be disappointed) you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Das Capital

Right to Buy, the Russians acting like an empire (again), big hair, leggings and electro music being popular amongst the ‘yoof’, a Government pushing policies that continuously undermine those further down the food chain.  You’d be forgiven for thinking this is the 1980s with Thatcher in her prime.  Regrettably it is 2015 and it’s an election year.  Whilst Cameron and co may be stopped I can’t do a lot about the fashion choices and poor taste in music amongst the hell spawn younger than even I, sorry.

As if it needs spelling out Right to Buy is a bit like kryptonite to our beloved sector.  It is the perfect political weapon to decimate social housing.  In a country obsessed with home ownership and asset based capital it is a highly potent mix of aspiration and access to cold hard cash.  It’s better than Help to Buy, it’s better than Shared Ownership and pretty much every other initiative designed to assist those with lower incomes acquire a property.  Why?  Because you can buy the property you are currently living in, in the neighbourhood where you have built up substantial local networks.  More importantly you can do so for a fraction of the cost of even the best low cost home ownership products out there.  Though frankly as a sector we have been bumbling through the provision of those products for years.  Even better you can sell it on for large profit after a few years, especially if you are in the right part of London and the South East.  It’s the postcode lottery (the good kind, not the one where your local hospital is shit).

Unsurprisingly it is bloody popular.  The figures below show just how many people have bought their council/housing association property through Right to Buy (and it’s watered-down cousin Right to Acquire).  So it is no surprise that the announcement last week that Right to Buy may be extended to include Housing Association properties has caused nothing short of alarm.  Though nowhere near its heyday peak of the early 1980s allowing Housing Association tenants to purchase their home under Right to Buy will give the figures below a significant kick up the bottom.

On a side note for a beautifully biting critique of our reaction as a sector and attempts to nullify other policies of the Coalition I do suggest you read Rob Gershon’s piece in 24 Dash.  The chap has a wonderful way with words.

Depressing Chart 2 – Right to Buy Sales – England

Right to Buy SalesIn addition to decimating social housing stock (see depressing graph 2 below) Right to Buy provides piss poor value for money to the tax payer.  As a policy it has the dubious honour of being paid for by the taxpayer twice.  The first time to build the property then, after it has been sold, we pay again as the property is rented back by the Local Authority that sold them, at higher rents.  For a (slightly) oldie but goldie report on this utterly stupid situation please see Tom Copley’s report.  His report, a year old today (Mazel Tov my friend) highlights the cost of Right to Buy in London, but it is a situation likely to be repeated up and down the UK.  You know this, I know this but does the general public care?  Probably not.

Depressing Chart 2 – Dwelling stock by tenure, UK, 1980 to 2012
Dwellings by Sector

As Colin Wiles notes (I really do need to write my blogs quicker) Right to Buy is bollocks on a number of levels.  It is an ideological weapon to suit the needs of those who wield it, a means by which to rid the country of a housing sector that has no real place in the vision of the UK held by those in Government.  Interestingly, for me at least, Right to Buy’s second lease of life raise a number of questions in relation to the long term direction of our sector.  Is this another nudge towards going it ‘alone’?  How would it work if housing associations were allowed to buy their way out of historic debt/grants?  Will this serve to discourage future uptake of grant (no grant, no strings, no Right to Buy)?

So what do we do?  Fight the inevitable an uphill battle, because in essence we need to convince the general public that social housing is worth fighting for.  But more critically that they should sacrifice the opportunity to make a quick buck in order to maintain it.  Telling the Treasury to keep its dirty mitts off the Right to Buy sales receipts would also be worth doing.  Cheeky sods.

If you feel so inclined (I wouldn’t advise it, you will be disappointed) you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

It was only a joke…?

Despite forcing Clinton Cards to remove its offensive card about council housing, as a sector there is much to be concerned about.  The battle for public opinion is still very much in the balance.

Someone at Clinton Cards HQ is probably having a very bad day.  Whilst #Cardgate has shown the positive power of social media (maybe now some higher up in the housing world will start to take note of its importance) in reality there are no winners in the events of the last few days.  The card was crass, with poor grammar and a highly debatable punchline but it raises more issues for the social housing world than merely a bad joke.

The key thing for me is not so much the content of the card, but the fact that it was thought to be publishable.  Comedy is often a yard-stick, a barometer by which to gauge public opinion.  Just as Bernard Manning has been assigned to the racist dustbin of the past by all but an idiotic few (thank god for social progress) so council/social housing has become fair game.  Whilst there was enough backlash to force Clinton Cards into a bland corporate apology the reason why the card existed in the first place is because it taps into a narrative most in this country already believe.  That those living in social housing are feckless, lazy, money leeching cretins.  I doubt if you nipped down your local boozer that many would take deep issue with the card.  Like it or lump it we’ve lost the PR battle, badly.

I fully agree with Colin Wiles’ assessment that had the phrase ‘Council Estate’ been swapped for ‘black people’, ‘gay people’ or ‘Muslim’ that veritable poo-storm would have kicked up such a stink (pun intended) that the card company would have been in deep trouble.  Instead, a few headlines have been made, one or two hardy souls popped their head over the parapet and defended the sector but realistically the whole thing will be forgotten in a week.  It is a sad indictment of the current state of play that a whole swathe of society is so easily cast aside.  But it should be no real surprise to those who live and/or work in the sector.  For years social housing has been pushed to the margins, those living within it largely reduced to the level of ‘they’, of the ‘other’.  Mostly because it is easier to belittle, isolate and undermine a group of people when they have no recognisable public identity.  Better to hate the enemy you don’t really know (or understand).

In one of his (many) blogs Joe Halewood noted that #housingday2014 should be everyday and not just one 24hr period of the year.  That as a sector we don’t do enough to promote the good that we, and the people who dwell within the homes that it serves, do.  This sorry episode backs up Joe’s argument.  On a day when the OECD, a body hardly known for its radically left-wing politics, has published a report highlighting a) the growth in inequality and b) the negative impact this has on a nation’s economy we would do well to carry on banging the drum in favour of social housing.  SHOUT and Council Homes Chat are a start, but we need much more.

For some the mere existence of social housing is an insult, an affront to their view of the world, even a lefty’s wet dream.  I would argue for the most part that these are people who never have needed social housing and probably never will.  Me, I’m a bit more of a rounded kind of guy.  My old man was born and raised on a working class housing estate, my mum was the daughter of a successful doctor who did very well in his chosen field of expertise.  Apart from getting to see both sides of the curtain it has meant that I have a chip on both shoulders (a rounded fella, dontcha know?).  I am lucky that my immediate family has been able to buy the house it lives in and have a comfortable lower-middle class life.  This isn’t the case for everyone and simply going “la la la, get on your bike and sort your self out” to people less fortunate is patronising and degrading.

As Max Salsbury puts very eloquently:

as long as genuinely affordable housing remains a pipedream; as long as right to buy homes end up in the laps of private landlords; as long as millions of people are paid hopelessly inadequate wages, social housing has to exist.”

Fundamentally we have social housing because the free-market doesn’t provide well enough for the vulnerable, the destitute or those at the margins of society.  Despite this we need to defend what is already in place because it is seen as unnecessary by a large minority. Stopping a crap Christmas Card won’t change that.  But hopefully it will help to re-affirm the need for a loud, clear and angry voice in favour of the sector that actually gives a rat’s arse about the poor.

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

Go Team!

I have previously noted that working in housing can often be akin to hitting your head against a particularly unforgiving brick-wall, thankfully joyous sweet relief is here.  The hype, some have argued hyperbole, around this year’s #housingday (sorry Matt Leach, I promise there won’t be too many hashtags here) being a welcome change from the normal doom and gloom of working in our beloved sector.  Consequently I have given the wall a rest, for a day at least.

Firstly, the bad news.  We as a sector have largely failed to get our voice heard, loudly, consistently and coherently.  Ask your friend, neighbour, significant other, your Gran, what social housing is and what we do.  They won’t be able to succinctly tell you, if at all, because if we don’t know ourselves and if we don’t know how the bleeding hell are others meant to?  Do we just provide housing for the poor? Do we regenerate communities? Do we act as a de-facto welfare state? Do we provide housing for all, across their housing journey?  The answer is all of the above, yet the public still thinks of us as council housing, backward, an irrelevance.  As Mr Halewood wonderfully puts it,

“Joe Public still believes that social housing is full of White Dees laying on the settee hoping to get on Jeremy Kyle whom they adore on their 60″ flat screen TVs and get out of bed to watch.”

Frankly we lost the PR battle a long time ago and we need to make up a hell of a lot of ground to turn things around.  We also need to be better at balancing slapping ourselves on the back for a job well done and having crippling paranoia about what the world thinks of us.  As some of those on the receiving end of the services we provide have also noted we need to be much better campaigners-in-chief for social housing.  For a very good case and point it is worth reading Michael Vincent’s piece in 24Dash.

#housingday is an opportunity to challenge the negative perceptions of what we do and who we work for (ultimately about the people that provide us with livelihoods).  And as a result, whilst his blog makes many valid points, I wholeheartedly disagree with Joe’s viewpoint that #housingday is an inconsequential campaign.  Because anything that raises the profile of what we do in a positive manner (even if it is with hashtags largely only known by our own sector) is a good thing.  More importantly anything that enables us to work a bit closer together, and less like the herd of cats we tend to operate like, gets my vote.  It is true that there are a large number of different campaigns going on at the moment and I am running out of room on my lapel…might have to invest in a Wilderness Explorer-esk sash.  A bringing together all the disparate campaigns into one, largely homogeneous entity wouldn’t be a bad thing, if not just for my clothing choices. Less of the Judean People’s Front bollocks would also be a nice occurrence.

I blogged a while back that the main reason why UKIP do so well is that yes they say dumb things, but they do so repeatedly and very loudly.  They have bullied their way onto the political sphere and into the public consciousness with a “we’re here, were a bit posh and want to be out of Europe, get used to it” approach.  The package is well presented, works wonderfully with the masses as it hits a nerve and is easily identifiable.  Until we nail our own version of the ‘guffaw, f@*k Europe’ brigade’s method of campaigning life will continue to be tricky politically as we won’t be able to secure public backing.  You can’t back what you don’t know.  #housingday is an real chance to start getting the message out there, winning friends and influencing people.

So if you haven’t already joined the Housing professionals, amateurs, Twitterati and people who wondered along by accident I strongly suggest you do.  You can participate by tweeting using #housingday or the including the Twitter handle @housingday in your tweets.  When doing so for the love of whatever god/goat you believe in Tweet someone who knows nothing about social housing.  Because what is the point in keeping this in the large extended family that is social housing if we are trying to spread the word?  Viva la revolucion…or something similarly uplifting and rabble rousing.

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