Sit Down, Be Humble

The conference is dead. Long live collaborative work events.

Time is money, so don’t f*ck with mine

One of the lessons I learned early on in my career is that most networking doesn’t actually take place in events designed to facilitate networking. This is odd, because as a sector we are pretty good at sharing learning and best practice. Particularly lower down the food chain. But these events tend to follow a wearily predictable pattern. The coffee is horrific, the biscuits worse and that’s before your attempts at making small talk with someone who probably thinks WhatsApp is an internet. Yes interpersonal networking is a necessary skill, but give a chap a chance with a decent Hobnob or two, we’re not animals, you beasts.

The speeches are hours of your life you won’t get back. Where engaging content is typically treated as an afterthought by the speakers. The breakout sessions are rushed and haphazard. Frenetic energy & forced enthusiasm are not a good mix. I dunno what annoys me more at these faux seminar encounters – the person who talks over everyone else, or getting stuck having to write up the bloody notes. I’m sure useful stuff happens at these things. But I’ve found one makes better, more interesting, connections via less formal gatherings than at a conference. Because frankly if I wanted to listen to a bunch of middle aged men living on past glories and discussing subjects that provide no real insight/are of no particular use, I’d turn on the TV and watch Soccer Saturday†.

Dust in the Wind

For those of us born after Duran Duran were a thing, networking online before physically meeting someone is pretty normal. Whilst unconferences (I know, I hate the term too, but they have their uses) tend to offer a more palatable affair than their more orthodox cousins. There’s something essentially democratic about a day where topics are proposed and then assigned on a basis of passionate arguing for their right to exist. By allowing delegates to steer the focus of the learning one tends to get a better level of information exchange. Which is ultimately one of the main goals of a conference, to disseminate knowledge en masse. As well as you know, meet interesting people and make small talk about how shit the weather is.

Even the online presence of conferences annoy me. Instead of having an arbitrary hashtag most folks get wrong, despite being reminded every 5mins to tweet using it #OMGBestConferenceEver17. The more organic social media presence that comes with peer created, less formal conferences generate a better and more memorable buzz. Because they allow people to buy into the day by getting them to shape it. Such an approach also gives people the opportunity to share ideas, and dare I say it, network prior to the day. This makes it a darn sight easier to hit the ground running and thus offers a greater potential for a heavy focus on collaborative working/discussions instead of cringe worthy icebreakers. It is a better way to network, it is a better way to work collaboratively full stop.

There may well continue to be a place for standard conferences. God knows we need our peacock season, where people go to see and be seen. It’s also a useful means by which to get one’s senior management team out of everyone’s hair for a day or two. But fundamentally I am yet to be convinced we are getting a good bang for our buck in relation to what’s currently available. For the layperson they offer very little. Well beyond ego massaging that is. But if that’s all there is, why bother?

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

†We’re in the UK, you sods, it’s bloody Football. Not Soccer.

Photo Credit Dimitris Kalogeropoylos – Conference (2008)

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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)

 

A Little Goes A Long Way

As UKHousingFast approaches, it is time for all of us to reflect and consider the world from a different point of view. And maybe, just maybe, start to change the world for the better.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with UKHousingFast for a number of years, it is such a simple, yet rewarding, concept. For one day fast, skip lunch or breakfast, the same way that millions of others do. Some for their religious beliefs, some to lose weight, some because they have no choice but to go hungry. You can take from it what you want, and more importantly give to it what you feel you can give. It is in many ways a personal, but also very connected, form of introspection. One, despite my love of food, I’m happy to take part in. And in supporting the Trussell Trust this year’s event will be helping out a charity that is doing vital work for those at the sharp end.

A Little Story 

I’m one of 4 lads, lads that can eat a lot. We were lucky to grow up in a household where love and, fortunately, food was plentiful. I’ve never had to skip a meal or worry about the electricity getting cut off. Yes hand-me-downs were de-rigour but the only word I would use to describe my upbringing is comfortable. So it was a bit of a shock when shortly after move number 2 (of 4 in a 24 month period) me and the lady-friend came up against the reality of in-work poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, bills were paid, food was eaten but we only had pounds left over at the end of every month (better than some, but not a great state of affairs). For a 6 month period the word most often said to friends was ‘No’ because saying ‘Yes’ meant doing stuff we simply couldn’t afford. At one point, to try to help us budget even more tightly I devised a spreadsheet to cost up all our outgoing and incoming cash. I used to look at that spreadsheet so often the lady-friend would joke that our money problems wouldn’t magically improve simply by looking at it.

A little goes a long way

Despite how tough it was, I remember the kindness of family and friends. My brothers clubbed together to pay for my gym membership for 3 months. For my birthday all my mates surprised me at my home with a party (organised by the lady-friend), the very mates I hadn’t been able to visit for ages. It’s those things that stick with you. That period in our lives serves as a constant reminder for how close things can get to going side-ways out of no fault of one’s own. It is a large part of why I’m more than happy to get involved in UKHousingFast. We were lucky, our problems were temporary, for many they aren’t.

Whatever your own particular reasons for getting involved I hope you get as much out of it as I have. Whether you fast, donate, or simply raise awareness, it all goes to supporting a great charity. Don’t forget to tweet, blog and generally promote the day as much as possible – it’s 14th June 2017. Looking forward to my end of fast meal already.

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

 

 

Sharing’s Caring

The rise of Shared Ownership as a genuine tenure option is both a welcome and worrying sight. The news that it is now seen a key route to getting on the housing ladder shows the fruits of labour of the CIH and its partners. But it is also a sign that for many home ownership remains a very difficult dream to achieve and that the market is failing them.

Unlikely Cheerleaders

In an ideal there wouldn’t be a Shared Ownership programme. And certainly not the gearing up of a tenure as is currently being seen. This is because Shared Ownership is the sign of market failure. Or at least, severe market dysfunction. Shared Ownership exists because people aren’t able to scrape together enough collateral to convince banks and/or building societies to lend them enough cash to buy a house. If household incomes and price of houses/their increase broadly matched there would be no need for such a product.

Sadly we don’t live an ideal world, we live in this one. Shared Ownership is needed and for a number of reasons it has had a welcome kick up the sweetspot. Firstly Government has bought into it, big time. From the point of view of the previous Prime Minister it was a perfect product to suit his Government’s agenda around increasing Home Ownership (see chart below, this was becoming an issue).

Chart 1 Falling Housing Owership

housing-tenure(3)Thus, instead of social rent housing, shared ownership was to become the new housing for poor people. Something that aligned with the thoughts of one or two in the sector as well. In addition to a few Think Tanks tied to Number 10. Secondly, the sector finally got round to looking at the long list of issues with Shared Ownership as a product (like maybe promoting it would be a good idea). Thirdly housing is becoming so unaffordable in parts of the country that products like Shared Ownership actually start to make sense.

Increasing Popularity, Increasing Problems

The CIH and Orbit* (plus other partners) reports on Shared Ownership – creatively called Shared Ownership 2.0, and Shared Ownership 2.1 have made genuine progress in terms of refining a product that for years was the inbred forgotten cousin of the sector. They might not like to admit it but Housing Associations did Shared Ownership the same way Nuns in Catholic Schools did the awkward bits of teaching sex education in biology i.e. embarrassingly blundering their way through in the hope that no-one was paying any attention because they didn’t have a clue.

The report rightly highlights the dissatisfaction with some of the aspects of rights and responsibilities. Always a grey area where there has been a substantial amount of confusion. Typically around who should do/pay for repairs (the customer) restrictions on sub-letting/adaptations (many) and the fact that when the rented element, mortgage, service charges and associated additional charges/red tape involved with stair-casing it wasn’t always the best deal for the buyer. These existing kinks have sought to be addressed by a variety of measures including ensuring greater levels of consistency of service across providers, tweaking the rules around eligibility and generally making the offer a bit more flexible.

Location, Location, Location

However, there are some issues with Shared Ownership that can’t be as easily ironed out. It is a perfect product in rising housing markets, where increased equity enables the part owner to leap onto a ‘proper’ i.e. fully owned house when looking to sell. It is also why as a product it works so well in London, the South, South East and South West (Chart 2, highlights the distinct regional variations). But if you’re in a shared ownership property in a depressed market where prices are stagnant, or worse, regressing, you’re more or less fucked. In such a market it would always make more sense to buy outright and avoid the red-tape (still a significant drawback).

Chart 2 – All dwellings annual house price rates of change: UK, country and regions

figure-5-all-dwellings-annual-house-price-rates-of-change-uk-country-and-regions
Source ONS – 12 month percentage change year up to Jan 2016

But, for those looking to buy in areas of increasing house prices Shared Ownership is an easy sell in every sense of the word. Hardly surprising as it was first conceived as a way of resolving affordability issues in and around the Greater London housing market for those on modest incomes. And as the report shows the product is much more affordable than outright ownership across a wider area (on day one, at least).

Putting it into Perspective

Shared Ownership is still a small proportion of the overall market, but as a tenure it is set to grow quite dramatically. As better exposure through Help to Buy branding (and the £4.1bn in funding), HAs getting their arse in gear (and the £4.1bn in funding), and massive pressures on the housing market in particular locations (can’t stress that last one enough, have I mentioned the increased funding?) all have an impact. More tweaks are needed, but progress is at last being made.

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

Photo Credit – Tom Page – Img_3852

*Full disclosure, I work for Orbit although like hell would they put me anywhere near something like this. Mostly because it’s not anything to do with my current role. Mostly…

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/

Moses I amn’t

I agree Gavin Barwell, relying on a rich, dead, relative should not be the way to buy a home. The housing market should be able to facilitate affordable home ownership without someone being 6 Feet under or living in a hamster cage. So let’s build more social housing.

It is seldom that I write directly about home ownership, this blog is typically a mish-mash of things related to social housing, internal processes thereof or me being annoyed at Central Government that negatively affects social housing. But, as is now, I occasionally will stray. In this particularly instance it is some recent comments from our new Housing Minister that have piqued my interest.

Fetch the shovel

The first comment of note is Mr Barwell’s quite honest (and accurate) response to a question around home ownership and how first time buyers can get on that mythical housing ladder. By stating that Grandparents should by-pass their children for the sake of their Grandchildren’s ability to buy a home he has presented a quite reasonable approach tackling diminishing home ownership. This is fairly appropriate and reasonable, the issue is two-fold.

1) The most obvious – It’s bollocks. I, as a qualified, reasonably well paid, worker should not have to rely on a rich relative dropping dead to buy a bloody house. The fact that people are having to do so in order to afford the deposit for a mortgage is a sure-fire sign that years of crap housing policy (from all political parties) is coming home to roost. I agree with Mr Barwell that this shouldn’t be the case.  The problem is his party have been making the situation a lot worse for the past 6 years. Going, yeah it’s a bit shit, right now isn’t helpful. Though it is a start.

2) Housing supply is the key concern in terms of driving up the cost of housing, not necessarily the ability to buy (in many instances credit has never been cheaper to access). Social mobility will stagnate until housing supply increases because it is this (and not scrapping right to buy in social housing) that is causing stock blocking and wealth inequality to sky-rocket. Renewed Government interest in funding housing projects might help, but much more is needed. Especially in terms of more social housing. Which pays for itself and even works post Brexit. Just saying.

I am not a Hamster

Sadly Mr Barwell’s other interjection has actually annoyed me (the other is a bit of a misquote). Call me picky, but I don’t want to live in a house that doesn’t meet current building regulations, because they’re actually pretty shit. Britain already has the smallest sized houses in Europe (the continent, not the EU, shut up Brexiters). Making them smaller isn’t going to help. Whilst it’s happened to a number of day-to-day products like Cadbury Chocolate bars. Yes you cheeky sods, I’ve noticed they’re smaller, and you’ve put your prices up. Bastards. Doing the same for properties just builds up issues down the line.

Whilst some might think that my age cohort splash out cash on overly pricey crap and skiing holidays, we’re mostly just getting by. You’ve had your cake, and eaten it, kindly don’t lecture me. I don’t want to live in a tiny house. I don’t want to live in a converted shipping container. What I want is for my reasonable pay to be able to afford a reasonably sized house, preferably within a 1 hour commute from my job. That is not an outlandish wish, but as prices (both rental and ownership) continue to outstrip wage growth, it might as well be.

Wrapping it up

I am willing to give Mr Barwell some leeway. His predecessors have said/done much dumber things. As Housing Minister Grant Shapps championed a policy that increased social rents (i.e. Affordable Rents) to those likely to receive housing benefit (i.e. those living in housing provided by Social Landlords) whilst the Government he worked for was trying to reduce that very same bill. Barwell’s statement on inheritance is quite sensible, but for many it is simply not an option. And at least with his idea for smaller homes he’s trying to think outside the box. But with a Government that is at least wanting to sound like it will make Britain work for all (as long as you’re British…) something other than ‘hope you have rich relatives’ is needed.

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

*Updated to emphasise misquote of Barwell in the Independent.

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.