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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Left Hand Right hand

In an attempt to get over the horror show that was the 2015 General Election me and my ladyfriend went to watch the mighty Worcester Warriors take on London Scottish. For the uninitiated/dead inside this clash of titans was for the 2nd leg of the Championship Play Off Semi-Final. As is customary on our pilgrimage to Lourdes Sixways we stopped off to have some grub and a drink. Hardy Warriors fans will know drinks are a necessity to get you through the game.

At the public house in question all was dandy until the food service kicked in. You had about 4 staff doing different jobs (but not really talking to each other). I can see the attraction of this approach. Each member of staff nails their respective areas. But such modes of work need to run smoothly with communication being paramount, otherwise you end up looking (and acting) like headless chickens.

One particular Faulty Towers-esk moment involved staff member #1 coming over, dumping our drinks and leaving. In the process of doing so he didn’t bat an eyelid whilst completely stopping me and staff member #2 from sorting out the food order.  Random staff member #3 came to check if food was OK. It is a skill but they always ask me mid mouthful so hand signals usually have to suffice at this point. After we had finished staff member #4 cleared our plates. Not stopping to check if we wanted either the bill or dessert (FYI I always want dessert).

Why the rant? Well, swap the pub for a Housing Association the food service for the services we provide and a similar pattern emerges. Very often the different aspects don’t properly interact with each other.  Often from our end the focus is on completing a process, not understanding the needs of the customer. Whilst we may have an SLA which states a 2 week completion time for us.  For the customer that is 2 weeks of hearing nothing whilst the issue at hand builds up. Touch points and process junctures are two different things.

Such approaches as outlined above tend to end up with poor customer service and a pissed off tenant. Worse it can end up costing your organisation a lot of money.  This is especially relevant given the increasingly complex structure we operate under. With the boys and girls in blue winning the General Election I can only see a further move to more mergers and group structures as organisations seek to secure their long-term future.  The fact that the first ‘new’ generation of housing folk (post 1960s) is up for retirement soon may also be a factor.  But that could just be me being mischievous…

My all time favourite story on poor communication involves windows (the see through things, not the operating system). It was recognised that a scheme with rather shabby windows was getting a lot of call outs. So the repairs team went out stripped off the paint and sanded back the wood and repaint said items. The hope being that this would reduce repeat/consistent repairs and ultimately save money. It looked lovely, until the planned maintenance contractors came out a month later, ripped the windows out and put new PVC ones in. What a mess.

But there is also a more urgent need to ensure different parts of the organisation know what each other is doing. Every organisation has ‘names’, customers that through acute vulnerabilities, bloody-mindedness, or with nothing better to do, cause havoc. This is often containable and manageable with frontline staff. But such individuals are persistent and will call every number they can find. Well intentioned back office staff (like myself) may end up kicking a hornets nest by accident. Fundamentally not only are such occurrences time-consuming, they are also costly. Your CRM processes should enable you to pick up a quick back story before calling. This will enable a coherent riposte and avoid re-opening grievances. Failure to do so risks unravelling months of work at a stroke.

Probably just as effective is ensuring that you facilitate cross team communication.  A simple but effective method is getting your housing officer (or equivalent), income officer (or equivalent) and repairs team member responsible for an area to meet regularly.  This can be tricky if repairs are held externally but by enabling the 3 main threads of a tenancy to intertwine you can share valuable knowledge and experience.  And keep everyone on message.  If you have a mixed housing/income officer set where low arrears are handled by housing officers, stop, now.  You are about 5 years behind the curve.  For some interesting facts and figures on this changing side of housing check Pawson et al.’s now slighted dated work for the TSA.

Moral of the story? Well, as Bob Hoskins used to say (ironically enough in an advert for a company known for its crap customer service) “It’s good to talk”. As organisation get ever larger and more complex (I’ve not even touched on the role contractors play in this) ensuring clear communication channels is paramount. It is also good to make the most of your CRM. Drill home its importance and invest in its use. Oh and always make sure your repairs and maintenance teams keep in touch.

Feeling depressed? Don’t worry, all is not lost and in particular from my pub experience there is happy ending. Warriors smashed it to reach the Play Off finals and we went home and made our own dessert #winning.

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

The Guardian’s latest opine (though a legitimate one) on the potential further cuts said to be drafted up by Whitehall rams home the point that those receiving state assistance are fair game politically.  Regardless of the repercussions.

I am constantly amazed that those in a position of wealth, security and responsiblity continuously, and dishonestly, shun those below them.  A significant undertone to the pre-election campaigns has been the denigration of those at the margins of society.  Let me be clear these proposals (outlined below) are immoral, unworkable and will fail to deliver what is needed to help the economy recovery properly.  They also forget that we are all a couple of missed pay cheques, a stroke, an accident, a bereavement away from being in the same position of many of those we help on a day-to-day basis.

In short the proposals include:

  • Prevent the under 25s from claiming housing benefit and incapacity benefit (because of course no-one under 25 needs any state assistance)
  • Increasing the bedroom tax (because that has worked so well so far)
  • Freezing benefit payments across the board
  • Stricter fit for work tests (because the current ones run so smoothly)

Whilst a neoliberal’s wet dream these potential changes are simply horrific.  And if they are anywhere near as unsuccessful as the benefit cap, the bedroom tax v 1.0 and the already stricter fit for work tests they will cause havoc and poverty to those already struggling.  They will not re-balance the economy, they will not drive up employment, they will fuck over those who least deserve a good kicking.  They are a set of policies symptomatic of a political set that simply cannot, will not understand what it is like to be on the bread line.

I have been steadfast in my desire for our sector to be more proactive, more influential and to be more progressive in its efforts.  Whilst much more work is needed to be done the momentum gained pre-election has been welcome.  Housing is much higher up the agenda and those at both SHOUT and the Homes for Britain campaigns deserve credit for their efforts.  We must however be broader in our remit.  We must defend those who live in our homes, not just because it makes sense financially but because it is often the most vulnerable who have the least say.

David Backwith has recently written (well yesterday in-fact) that social workers must work with service users to understand and counter the detrimental impacts of austerity and poverty.  I would argue we need to go further and fight with them, not just on their behalf, but actually together (not just like resident involvement in decision-making, real collaboration).  Because otherwise these proposals will help shrink state support to some bizarre Victorian-esk level.  And frankly the 19th century was a bit shit, so let’s not go back there.

Ultimately you judge a society by how it treats those at the margins, those at the bottom.  I would rather be on the side that offered a hand up rather than a slap down.  I believe as a sector we do a great, great amount of work to help communities and individuals that otherwise would be cast aside.  It is time we did a bit more to stand up for them.

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.

A guide to recognising your saints

For those slightly out of the loop Right to Buy is basically the sector’s kryptonite (the green version, not the red one, no-one is going to go BS-mental on Metropolis just yet).  It raises passion, anger, worry and acts as a unifier to a sector so often at odds with itself.  Though funnily enough, like green kryptonite it does severely weaken us.

The reaction of the sector to the potential rolling out of Right to Buy has been fairly standard (i.e. we all went a bit cray cray, myself included).  But what has been surprising is that all these emotions appear to be coming from people outside of the sector as well.  Media that has usually at best been ambivalent, and often borderline hostile, have come out against the move (here’s looking at the Daily Telegraph).  Hell even the general public is a little bit unimpressed (hats off to YouGov for that poll), not even those who considered themselves pro-Tory.  Commentators, ‘experts’, housing insiders and a whole host of politicians have come out against it.  Embarrassingly for the Conservatives, so did they, well at least to members of the Coalition in 2013.  Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

In terms of popular policies Right to Buy is up there with the best.  But a counter attack via the Daily ‘racist in public so you don’t have to’ Mail (fyi still one of Russell Howard’s best jokes) has highlighted how negatively the policy has been received this time round.  But as Colin Wiles notes even at the Daily Fail not everyone is on board.  Peter Hitchens providing some unflattering comments on the policy (that being said I still always prefered his late brother, Chris).  Either way you know things are getting nasty when pay gets involved.  I could make snide comments about Conservative MPs, duck ponds and public money.  But I’m above all that.  Actually I’m not, what an utterly moronic set of circumstances.

So what does this all mean?  Well the answer, is partly provided by Julia Unwin and the guys and gals over at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Julia et al quite rightly point that the debate over housing has long been skewed to home ownership. And that arguably the most efficient way of helping to alleviate poverty and provide stability and security (social housing) is ignored.  Right to Buy, rent to buy, the promise of buckets more housing (to buy) are all geared around a political consensus that buying votes is preferable to renting.  Consequently each party is keen to show that they will provide the best opportunity people to purchase their own home.  Sadly for all the fluff and bluster little has been put forward as to how to increase supply as well as actually deal with an acute affordability issue.  Though the boys in blue fare particularly poorly and the public is definitely not convinced.  Especially those who rent, with the Tories polling badly around housing policies.  On a side note a majority of the public appears to back greater borrowing to build more affordable housing.

Elsewhere the BBC Panorama programme the Great Housing Benefit Scandal showed that for once a TV could tactfully highlight the plight of ordinary people on benefits.  Showing the suffering of folks like you and me (only they are poor, apparently that makes them different) at the hands of sub-quality housing as opposed to being some glitzy Jeremy Kyle look at the poor people hate-fest.  It also did a very good job at showing some of the sorry excuses of landlords out there.  Before the National Landlords Association gets its knickers in a twist I doubt any of those highlighted in the show were paid up members.  Good private sector landlords do exist.  But it is hardly surprising when a few rogue private landlords put profit before both the quality of the housing they provide and the unfortunate souls who reside in their dwellings.

So where does this all leave us?  Well frankly in exactly the same place we always have been.  A country with a housing market that is fundamentally failing to meet the needs of the suckers who live in it.  I will leave you with a quote from a mate of mine, it neatly sums up the situation for a lot of people.

“I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my little boy. I’m fed up of moving all the time.”

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.

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.

New Year, Same Issues

A new year has arrived but the omens already look bleak.  It is time the housing sector made a few changes before we really are up the proverbial creek with no wooden implement.

It’s a new year but it is not a new dawn and I am definitely not feeling good. Though in fairness that might be the post Christmas come-down.  Those of you who keep an eye on such things will have noticed the pre-election bollocks is in full swing. As predicted by none other than yours truly (and pretty much every political commentator in existence) the rise of UKIP has seen Mr Cameron and co shift to the right.  Talk of a coalition with the ‘live off EU brigade’ has been left in the air, further budget cuts are looming large and there may even be a referendum on membership of the EU earlier than planned. Goodie, haven’t had a proper white elephant in politics for a while.

On the subject of white elephants, the notion of rent controls appears to have gathered momentum again.  I have blogged on this before and without wanting to sound too Milton Friedman-esk, as that guy is a monumental bell-end, this sort of state intervention is not the answer, at least not on its own.  I have sympathy with Civitas, the think tank whose report  promotes rent controls (as well as Generation Rent) and certainly there appears to be public support for such measures (see Mr Birch’s excellent article on the subject).  However as Civitas notes, ultimately it is more housing that is needed. On its own rent controls will merely act as a mild dampener on a housing market that is only working for those already in an advantageous position.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to be bit more helpful in my criticisms, so after slagging off housing policy for the umpteenth time here are a few of my suggestions for a glorious new world.  You can thank me later, or even better pay me.  Some of these are for the housing sector as a whole, others for the incumbents in power, enjoy.

  • Stop with the brooding introspective bollocks.  The social housing sector is not Ryan from the O.C #mancrush, whilst I have also been guilty of bemoaning the fact we aren’t the most popular kid in school it is time to stop looking moodily in the distance and go talk to somebody, anybody.
  • Find a friend.  Campaign under one unified banner (Homes for Britain is the closest to doing this) a splintered set of competing pressures groups is about useful as a chocolate teapot (at least I could eat the teapot…).  Though whoever thought of the Ho Ho Homes for Britain bit please don’t do that again, ever.
  • Grow a pair (of balls or boobs, I’m an equal opportunity muse so take your pick) and get over providing properties for private rent and sale.  I’ve lived in private accommodation, I’m about to go back into the sector.  The majority of the muppets currently pretending to be landlords know as much about renting as they do astrophysics.  Get into the sector, outperform the rest of the competition and reap the benefits for all your customers.
  • Scrap Right to Buy. Because this policy provides about as much value for money to the tax payer as throwing fifties off a tour bus in central London.
  • Scrap the bedroom tax and the benefit cap.  Neither would pass the so called ‘family test‘ supposedly being carried out against new Government Policy and because fundamentally they don’t do what they are meant to do.
  • Pay a living wage.  Whether you are a social landlord, investment bank, social enterprise or a high street store pay your staff a living wage.  Aside from the fact to not do so is a total d**k move.  The number of working households in receipt of housing benefit is sky-rocketing because the cost of pretty much everything is outstripping wages.  In addition cycles of low pay, no pay are key part of poverty and failure to act will mean further reliance on the state to make up the shortfall.  Make profit through good products and efficiency savings, not through underpaying your staff you cheap son of a rabid water vole.  Invest in the people who work for you and reap the benefits.
  • Scrap affordable housing (the type of rent not social housing in general!).  Or at the very least call it Intermediate Market Rent and let those properties out to people who don’t qualify for social housing.  Because it damn well isn’t affordable for the people who need it the most.  And for the love of Michael Flatley don’t complain that the housing benefit bill is going up when a policy as stupid as this is in place.
  • Invest in social housing, whether the economy is in good nick or going the way of Old Yeller there will always be a need for social housing.  Invest in it, it is a cost we can all share.

Positive rant over, I feel like a new me already…

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.