Are you being served?

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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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.

The Power of Nightmares

If you haven’t managed to I strongly recommend taking a look at a couple of documentaries by Adam Curtis.  The first provides the name for this blog, The Power of Nightmares, the second is Bitter Lake.  Both focus on the power of meta-narratives that seek to explain the world we live in.  Both highlight the often unintended consequences of doing so.  Particularly in Bitter Lake which links the over-simplification of worldviews to the spiralling violence in the Middle East.

Whilst a Neighbourhood Office can be pretty frenetic at times I would balk at comparing it to the various swathes of carnage ripping up parts of the world far away from our shores.  However the central messages from Mr Curtis and his dark, compelling and surreal documentaries ring true for social housing.  For years politicians have used highly negative narratives when looking at the welfare state and social housing.  Providing a justification for dismantling one of the central support systems for the general public.  Where once was assistance is now dependency, where once was a council house now stands a privately owned building sold for a lot more than it was lost for.  Benefit claimants are shirkers, not people.  So the story goes.

Within the pervading political explanations of the modern world is a set of basic assumptions.  And as with Bitter Lake these assumptions, which in turn have driven policy, have led to unintended outcomes.  The emergence of Neo-liberalism from pariah to main stay of both political thought and economic policy brought about a seismic shift in housing tenure. Home ownership has come to dominate the UK Housing market. With this domination a set of ideals, of pre-scripts, have become buried within our nation’s psyche.

Table Numero Uno – Trends in tenure, 1980 to 2013-14

Trends in tenureWe are one of only a few countries in Europe where a property is seen as a money-making endeavour above other beneficial factors of home ownership. Where buy-to-let small-scale landlords have been positively encouraged. Programmes like Homes Under The Hammer or Location, Location, Location typify our approach to housing. We believe house prices will always increase for short-term profit. Yet somehow housing will remain affordable for our children. This is a lie and a dangerous one.

At the same time we have been fed a myth that living standards will always improve. That consumerism is a good thing. That the wheels of the economy will keep on turning and benefit us all. The fact that our current recovery is based on, and now threatened by, ever-increasing individual debt as credit replaces cash savings is ignored. Roll the dice baby, papa needs a new pair of shoes.

The latest Conservative Party policy announcement beautifully illustrates the point. A scheme that provides cheaper home ownership, via public subsidy, at the possible expense of actual affordable (social) housing for the most in need is only possible where the pervading narrative is utterly warped from the reality it seeks to explain. It is about housing, stupid. The utter lack of it. The continued loss of social housing via right to buy. The inability for those of my cohort to even begin to countenance the prospect of buying due to the inherent costs.  Some half-baked initiative to help schmucks like me is akin to pissing in the fucking wind when the mess that is our housing system is seen in its entirety.

As Colin Wiles has noted yet another demand side initiative is not the answer here.  More needs to be done on the supply side.  And with the Private sector so utterly unable to meet pent-up demand approaches like Starter Homes and Help to Buy miss the point.  But given the worldview in which they have been formed, where the state cannot provide the solution, it is perhaps hardly surprising.  What we need is a Government that will reverse the drop in social housing and invest in housing and infrastructure, properly.  Alas I do not see this coming from the boys in blue.

Graph Numero Due – Households aged 25-34, by tenure, 2003-04 to 2013-14

25 to 32 Housing TenureOf small comfort is that housing is now seemingly on the agenda for politicians. However looking more closely at the policy announcements there is still reason enough to be glum. In a week where The Green Party fluffed its lines, where Labour promised 200,000 new homes built a year by 2020.  The Tories for their part have stated they are on course to do this by 2017. The focus is overwhelmingly on home ownership. Social housing is merely an aside. Indeed the Conservative Party has been so consistent in conflating social housing with its wider affordable housing provision aims I think they see schemes like Help to Buy, in their eyes at least, as an acceptable form of social housing (see equation below).

Social Rent = Affordable Rent
Affordable Rent = Affordable Housing
Affordable Housing = Cheap home ownership.
Providing cheap home ownership = Providing social housing(ish)

The policy announcements of this week are a start but they are nowhere near enough. Nice sound bites and vague promises around how much housing will be built. Or in the case of Brandon Lewis an absence of targets (guess you can’t miss them if you don’t have them…). Are all well and good but the lack of a coherent approach to housing policy has left this country in a very large pickle. Just got to hope we will eventually wake up.

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.

Talk less, listen more, stop with the biscuits and coffee!

The fluffy stuff might not always grab the headlines but it is an important part of who we are as social landlords.  We just need to get a little bit smarter about how we go about it.

The chances are when resident involvement is mentioned in a housing office eyes start to role over.  I can actually hear yours going now…stop, come back to me, this is worth it.  Just as hippies have often been bemoaned for having their hearts (if not their hygiene) in the right place, but ultimately being a bit ‘out there’ so too have all things involvementy (not sure that is a word but let’s go with it) been given the “ah bless ’em” treatment.

The notion of involvement in social housing is an incredibly woolly and vague concept.  This doesn’t help its perception as largely being a bolt-on to the mainstay of a landlord, i.e. rent, housing, repairs and maintenance.  Does involvement mean allowing residents on the board of the organisation (they often are)?  Does it mean residents taking part in procurement exercises (my pet hate)?  Does it mean dragging a few out to sign off the yearly annual report to residents (another bugbear of mine)?  Does it mean paying lip-service to engaging with residents in the hope that they stop all that moaning (depressingly this is occasionally the case)?

For me, the main problem with resident involvement is not so much the end game i.e. an organisation that is responsive to the needs and opinions of its customers.  But the way we go about it.  As a sector we still rely far too heavily on cost heavy, labour intensive approaches by which to engage and involve our customers.  With offices only open 8am – 6pm (give or take…) we seem to think that we will get a representative group of people to hold us to account and drive service improvement by having meetings mid-afternoon on a Wednesday (or any other week day for that matter).  This is of course utter bollocks.  What happens is that those who largely have the time, space etc to come along, do.  Consequently, residents groups are made up heavily by the grey brigade with a few out of work and long term sick customers thrown into the mix.  All bring valuable insight into the way in which we operate and how it affects them.  But they do not provide the whole picture, nor should they be expected to.  Just as I couldn’t possibly represent the voice of a generation neither can the the grey brigade fully speak for the people who so kindly keep us in our respective jobs.

That is not to say we should shut up shop and stop trying to engage and involve customers, quite the contrary.  We do however need to be more open to different ways of going about things.  A fine example of a non traditional approach can be seen at the Mecca of social media in housing, Bromford.  Although on paper not a great PR episode for the chaps and chapesses over in the Midlands, with long term issues of damp resulting in a resident driven online campaign.  The fact that a group of residents identified a problem, held the social landlord to account and ultimately set in motion the wheels to rectify the said problem (without the need for a midday meeting organised by the organisation) highlights my point.  We do not always have the answers, we should not always be the guide.  We should however listen.  The best companies in the wolf pit of the private sector adapt their offering according to feedback (both company and customer initiated).  We would do well to follow suit.

So how do we go about avoiding the old pitfalls of relying on a largely unrepresentative body of guys and gals?

  • Targeted communications – use the data your organisation has on your residents, want to know what first time customers think about their new property and the issues they face? Ask them. Look at who is involved and target the exact opposite.
  • Non meeting reliant feedback – you do not need to have residents in a meeting to get their opinion, facilitate remote working within your involved customer base and reap the results.
  • Do not just do 9-5 working – this means more weekend and evening meetings and yes more online based communication.
  • Expand your customer surveying approach(es) – it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that if loads of negative feedback is filtering through about a particular service area then you should do something about it.  But you have to ask people in order to get their opinions, or better yet listen when the phone/text/email/tweet their issues.  For god’s sake though do not just rely on paper surveys when asking people what they think!

Or maybe I’m just talking a load of gibberish and we should just make the same old mistakes (pro tip, we shouldn’t). For an interesting blog on this subject I suggest seeing Mr Paul Taylor’s latest offering.  Thought provoking as always.

If you feel so inclined (I wouldn’t advise it) 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.