Down The Rabbit Hole

One of the things you notice about the social housing sector is that familiar themes tend to rear their heads. Mergers, the digital question and innovation are probably the three most circular and lamented examples one can find. And on all three it is time the sector moved away from its Group Think.

The last couple of weeks have a seen a number of announcements on significant mergers within the sector. L&Q and East Thames, Affinity Sutton and Circle have come to the end of working out who is going to metaphorically sod off to retirement in France, and who is going to be sticking around to move the organisation forward. Cue the predictable mutterings of discontent.

Variety might be the spice of life but Rationalisation Needs to Take Place

One of the most telling points on the sector is that no-one is quite sure how many organisations there are. With figures usually around the 1,200 mark – but it varies depending on how/who you count. Size is also just as varied, orgs having a handful of properties to the likes of Places for People or Sanctuary, who quite frankly are Goliaths.

For Housing Associations, culture even more so than size, is the most crucial element in a merger being successful.

Let’s be clear, a merger is not necessarily a bad thing. But neither will it automatically be the land of milk and honey. For Housing Associations, culture even more so than size, is the most crucial element in a merger being successful. Well, that and someone doing some proper due diligence on the finances. 

The much vaunted efficiencies & VFM typically too readily associated with mergers actually come from smarter ways of working. These stem from a desire to improve, innovate and change up internal processes. Simply adding on a gazebo to your organisation via a merger won’t obtain that on its own. Nor will it occur by just handing a bigger paycheck to the Chief Exec. for getting more stock. It needs to be driven by the vision of the new organisation. And through hard bloody work. 

Are you comfortable helping a finite number of people, or do you want to help as many as physically and practically possible?

On the other hand, whilst it is possible to grow without mergers, too often I get the feeling that resistance to mergers is about keeping fiefdoms, negating change, staying the course. It is an eerily similar pattern that is seen with digital change and innovation in UK Housing. People tend to talk shop but deliver very little. The problem with this approach is that such stagnation is regression. If you are not going to grow you still need to develop and evolve. If not in your core business, you will need to do so in your processes and infrastructure. If you’re not doing either then you have a problem and need to rethink your life choices.

Don’t worry, the big boys & gals can be just as culpable here. Big does not mean innovative, it just means big. Indeed, if the sheer number of ‘thought disrupting’ consultants out there hawking for work is anything to go by it could well be the opposite. But is there really a need for as many providers as we currently have? Probably not. Does this means going down the route of train franchises for example? I.e. localised monopolies delivering a shit service. Again, probably not. But there are too many cooks in this particular kitchen, and some are a bit shit. Time to clear the decks a bit.

Keep Your Knickers On

I’ve worked for an organisation on the smaller side of the scale (2,500) units. And I currently work for one with a stock size around the 40,000 mark. I get the merits of both. The best bit about working for the smaller organisation was the freedom you had to try and fail. Because money wasn’t any issue (there wasn’t any) you had to be very inventive on new ideas. That’s great to a point, but it means you’re always having to punch above your weight, are heavily reliant on a couple of staff driving forward ideas and eventually you run out of steam. Largely due to other competing pressures or staff leaving. 

In a larger organisations there are a different set of challenges. Dealing with the local politics and bureaucracy can be a pain. But the payback is that you have the resources and support you need to make meaningful change on a bigger scale. You also get more clout in the broader policy environment. 

I guess for me it comes down to what you see the role of the housing sector as. Additionally, where it fits within the broader policy environment and what part of that do you want to be. Thus, to a large extent, it has always been a numbers game. To borrow John Stuart Mill’s philosophical musings, it is about Utility Maximisation, i.e ensuring the greatest good for the largest number of people. For a lot of people this doesn’t seem to a problem if the body doing the work is a Local Authority. But have a housing organisation akin to the size of a District Council and people seem to lose their shit.

Stop Pissing in from the Sidelines

But all the above means nothing if you aren’t willing to engange and influence, to drive home what you do. Too often organisations have been content with being non-political beasts. Not wanting to rock the boat. As a result they have been passed by in the process. Stop pissing from the sidelines and connect with your local politician. If you don’t engage in the process someone else will. Often with an agenda at odds with yours.

I don’t care what your politcal views are, you are going to have to work with what is in front of you. The recent policy wins (negated by continuing losses elsewhere) at the Autumn Statement came from direct lobbying. With a Government now at least appearing to be listening it is important to make your case. Whether you have 100 or 100,000 units, it doesn’t matter. Get off your ass, develop, progress and influence. 

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

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

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Are We Nearly There Yet?

Whilst significant inroads have been made at Government level, popular support for state provision of housing, and the welfare state more generally, is still an issue that needs addressing. And as the regulator is busy ruffling feathers by making history repeat, as a sector we need to avoid the same old mistakes and convince the public of our worth, and the cost of decades of policy failure.

Different Year, Same Story, Pretty Much the Same Blog

A few months down the line since the madness of the post Post Brexit vote the Government of the day may be listening more, but public support is scattergun at best. And with backing for welfare spending in continuing decline, particularly when looking at out of work benefits such as unemployment benefit, we need to look at how we sell ourselves. Because, like it or not, we as a sector are inexorably tied to welfare spending and the welfare state more generally. Probably doesn’t help that for the taxpayer our core business model always has been, and most likely always will be, give us loads of your money and we will build houses for people other than you to live in. At a price cheaper than you pay for yours. That’s about as tough a job as an ice cube seller in the Arctic i.e. damned difficult, and we need to get better at it.

Pay Your Money, We’ll Have to Take Your Choice

Given what has been mentioned above, numerous Governments have sought to withdraw state intervention in the housing market. But as David Bentley over at Civitas has noted, just as Governments have sought to reduce their role. More and more they’ve actually had to prop up the private market. Largely due to policies that have focused on demand side fixes.  Thus perpetuating a cycle where the very measures sought to increase the ability of consumers to purchase housing ends up pushing houses further out of their reach.

A number have sought to highlight the utter absurdities of demand side policies and house prices. Seriously, the more you dip into George Osborne’s housing policies, the more idiotic they appear. Others have noted the positive financial impact genuinely social housing can provide. But it’s tying it altogether that has been the difficult part. Namely because it involves pointing the finger at those who’ve been making batshit mental policy decisions in recent years and going – these fuckers don’t have a bloody clue what they are doing – and then trying to work with them.

Is there a Point to All this?

Kind of. As a sector we may have a more benign Government in power, but we have failed to convince the general public that we are providing value for money. In the long-term that will be a killer. For all the KPIs we produce about performance, for all the smoke and mirrors about being upfront about our costs and what we deliver. We need to drive home the value of what we do. For whilst there is a groundswell politically for investment and support in what we do. In the mind of the General Public the battle is far from won.

As the incumbents in power realise they need to do more than simply cut corporation tax to help JAMs, Marmalades and other food groups. We need to take advantage and reach out beyond our usual audience. Because unless we state in plain and simple terms, very clearly and very loudly what we do, why we do it and how well we do it. And repeat Ad Nauseum (I call this the Farage method of mass communication). We’ll be left in vacuum of rumour, misinformation and gossip. That helps no-one, least of all us.

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

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

Building Bridges

Under Theresa May we have a Government that appears to be listening the voice of the social housing sector, at least in part. Following a very sympathetic Autumn Statement it is time to make the most of the opportunity at hand.

A couple of years ago at a Housing Party breakout session the question was asked is the sector independent or tied to Govt policy? The room was reasonably split, whilst my answer was both (yea, I’m that guy) though more on the side of Government influencing. HAs might like to think they operate independently, but in reality they play within the rules of a game set by Government. It’s why we’ve so often been chasing our tails trying to adapt to whatever new short-term measure has been thrown in by some smart muppet with a grip on reality as vague as 2yr old mid-tantrum.

Unforeseen benefits

Historically I’ve been pretty critical of some of the lobbying efforts of the CIH and NHF. Too often they appear to have been caught off guard by policy announcements, reacting rather than managing the policy changes coming the way of the sector. However, there were very few surprises in this budget. Indeed a number of the key housing policy alterations are remarkably similar to what has been suggested by Mr Orr et al. That is both a reflection of how successful the NHF and CIH have been at shaping the debate. But also of the changes that have occurred in the Cabinet of Mrs May’s Government.

It pains me to say it but Brexit has helped immeasurably here. With Cameron and Osborne leaving their positions the key blocks to funding for the social housing sector have been removed. The Treasury under Osborne dominated both welfare and capital investment programmes. It is no surprise that 2010-16 saw the sector have very little influence on housing policy. Under May and Co there appears to (at last) be at least some realisation of the difference between want and need in relation to housing. The majority of us might want a house, but with homelessness of all kinds on the rise and a housing market not working for an increasingly large proportion of the public. The need of a secure home is just as important policy wise.

The removal of forced Pay to Stay, the Land Registry privatisation being kicked into the long grass and a specific pot of money for sub-market rent are all very welcome developments. As a private renter, so is the plan to scrap letting agent fees. Though at £1.4bn over 5 years (2016 -21) the Autumn statement is not so much making rain for the sector, but giving it a bit of a damp drizzle. Considering the situation the sector was facing just over half a year ago, I’ll take it. It’s like being 3-0 down at half time but being able to salvage a draw. Not so bad from Mr Hammond, a chap who is fast giving John Major a run for his money on lacking charisma.

Still in Choppy Waters

It’s not all plain sailing, VRTB is being expanded, albeit in pilot form, the draconian cuts to the Benefit Cap to £20,000 are still going ahead and the absurdity that is the Bedroom Tax is still in play. Of concen is that social rent is conspicuous by its absence. Additionally, the tweaks to the Universal Credit taper and uplift of the national ‘living wage’ are smaller than hoped and don’t go far enough.

Elsewhere fixed term tenancies are also in, and have caused a bit of stink. But to be honest it’s not something I have much of an issue with. They are already in use in the sector and the kicker is more in the symbolism of such a move, rather than the practical reality. 

As a side note the next year or so might see some interesting case-law as the first batch of 5 year tenancies come to an end (thanks to LaweyergirlUK for highlighting that). Better cross those Ts and dot those Is because as Cardiff City Council v Lee [2016] showed, the landscape can change pretty quickly when it comes to ending tenancies.

What the Autumn Statement has done is shown that this Government, for some of its failings, is at least willing to hear the sector and take on board what it is saying. There have been times since 2010 when the silence from Cameron et al on social housing has been deafening. The U-turn since this summer cannot be underestimated. Still, whilst there is much to commend, there is much more to do. But at least there is now a fighting chance.

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

Photo Credit –

London at Night (Churchill Gardens) | by scotbot [2014]

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.

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

Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

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

*Updated 13/09/16

 

Why Spend More?

Government cuts merely shift the burden, and associated costs, from one department budget to another. Often providing poorer value to the taxpayer as a result. If there is to be a change in policy direction highlighting the absurdities of arbitrary cost cutting in the Welfare State, and capital funding in infrastructure more generally, is needed.

Working in housing you can get caught up in a couple of broken records, repeating time and time again that social housing is needed; and that please, won’t someone think of the poor people. It can all sound a bit noblesse oblige but often you’re one a very few voices pushing those messages. Changing tack, if only for the sake of your sanity, is therefore occasionally necessary.

Show Me the Money

What is often left out in arguing the need for a more progressive approach to policy making in this country is that being a tight arse as a Government often ends up costing the taxpayer (directly and indirectly) more than is saved.  If you have time to read his works, the University of Cambridge based economist Ha-Joon Chang is worth a visit. Whilst the forever left (behind) Owen Jones interviewed him the other week, he has been vocally critical of trickle down economics and Austerity for some time. Notably because the former is bollocks as a theory and the latter more costly for economic growth than expected.

Post-Brexit is seems ‘experts’ (i.e. people who’ve spent years learning about a particular subject) are old hat, who needs them when you’ve got a former Investment Banker (but not part of the establishment) and a former journalist with a penchant for Shakespearean-esk melodrama to tell you the truth+. But it is perhaps worth listening to the various research pieces/staff notes coming out of the world-renowned hotbed of Marxist thinking, the IMF. It has released a number of critical pieces on more recent macro-economic policy approaches and how they’ve failed to solve inequality and provide sustained growth.

It should be noted that the contents of such works represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the IMF itself. Bloody economists, they’re always particularly anal about caveats and detail. Almost as bad as accountants. To ram home the point reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights how the IMF, amongst others, has been fundamental in pushing many of the policies that have actually caused greater economic damage than progression.

What Does this Mean for Housing?

Well, being selfish, it means that it is probably worth setting aside more capital funding for infrastructure projects (like building social and affordable housing). It would also be worth re-visiting plans to strip back the welfare state to the point where all that’s available is a couple of turnips* and stale corn flakes. Both of these pipe-dreams are unlikely to happen any time soon. But redirecting the narrative is desperately needed where Central Government and the Welfare State is concerned (a bit like Own Our Future, but without the OOF acronym). Thanks to excellent research from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the negative impact of inequality on households is well-known. However, the more recent admission from the IMF that inequality negatively impacts growth should provide the ammunition to make the case for investment over cuts. Or as Olivier Blanchard put it:

what is needed in many advanced economies is a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation, not a fiscal noose today

So change-up the language and change the focus of dialogue. The old adage of needing to spend money to make money (or in this case, save money) is useful here. By highlighting that through investing in secure, good quality, affordable housing the state, and by extension the taxpayer, gets far more bang for its buck (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). When you can show the cost effectiveness of preventing individuals and households from hitting crisis point (and therefore requiring acute, high cost interventions) you’ve won half the battle.

Not Convinced?

Just count the cost of housing those accepted as being statutory homeless, count the cost of those sleep rough on the streets. Count the cost of those relying on friends and family for a sofa to sleep on. Count the cost of the severe damage to job prospects, education and even health that is caused by insecure, poor quality housing. Add that up and investing in social housing and a Welfare Sate is frankly a snip at the price.

Because, why spend more?

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

+Is this a dagger I see before me? No Michael Gove, it’s your political ambitions going up in smoke.

*In fairness, in Worcester (my home town) this would probably make you King…

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.

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