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A new pilot scheme modelled on the emergency services aims to help tenants within hours of reporting repairs. Alex Wellman finds out how the scheme works in practice.
Their vans don’t have flashing lights or a siren, but Wrekin Housing Trust still sees its repairs team as providing an emergency service. This isn’t just hyperbole - the landlord has remodelled its entire repairs service so it now works in a very similar way to the police or ambulance service.
When Wayne Gethings, director of asset management at the 11,000-home landlord, first revealed details of its pilot scheme at Inside Housing’s repairs and maintenance summit in November, he managed to split the room of almost 100 delegates into cynics and believers.
Citing the Automobile Association - the AA, which prides itself on getting to customers within two hours of their first phone call - as an inspiration, Mr Gethings wants Wrekin’s in-house responsive repairs team to begin promising its tenants ‘we will be there within two hours’ when they call to report day-to-day maintenance problems, such as a leaky tap, stuck doors or plaster cracks.
Usually when tenants call Wrekin’s customer service centre to report a repair, the job is logged with Opti-time scheduling software and an appointment is arranged. But visits organised through the pilot, which has been running since 9 January, go straight to Dale Roberts, the repairs and maintenance operative who is testing the new way of working.
‘The call [from a tenant] goes to the call handler who assesses the job and then makes a judgement call. If they think it is the sort of job that can be done on the same day it will be sent straight to Dale,’ Mr Gethings explains.
‘He then receives it, as before, and goes ahead and does the job. The difference is that the call was put in no more than two hours ago instead of [the tenant having to make] an appointment [to be seen] within 10 days.’
Although only in its infancy, the housing association is planning for the new way of working to be rolled out to Mr Roberts’ 59 colleagues in the housing association’s repairs and maintenance team in April.
Eventually, it hopes the majority - 60 per cent - of all jobs will be done in this way, with the remaining 40 per cent of more complicated jobs continuing to be handled in the same way as they are currently.
One RAM SUM delegate who was impressed with Mr Gethings’ conference presentation on the new system was Umesh Natalia, head of responsive repairs at arm’s-length management organisation Brent Housing Partnership. ‘I wrote to [Mr Gethings] the next day and asked him to keep in touch on how he is progressing with the new way of working,’ he says.
‘It’s an exciting idea. Wayne wants operatives to get the job done there and then. It could improve efficiencies and it would also mean tenants would not be ringing back to check if somebody is coming - things would be done almost instantly.’
On the other hand, Alan Rogers, business development director at Aster Property, housing association Aster Group’s asset management business, says he believes the AA-inspired system ‘will be difficult to implement’. He was also in the audience during Mr Gethings’ presentation and warns: ‘Peaks and troughs in workload will be hard to manage.’
Inside Housing decided to check out Wrekin’s repairs and maintenance revolution for itself, so we spent a day shadowing Mr Roberts.
Along for the ride
After a train ride from London to Telford via Birmingham, we arrive at the location of Mr Roberts’ second job of the day - a tenant’s home on a small, low-rise housing estate to the south of Telford town centre.
It’s 11am and the 27-year-old is already there. He appears from behind a fence, introduces himself and cheerfully explains what the job he has been sent to do entails - fixing a broken door handle.
After showing his Wrekin ID to tenant Richard Highway, we make our way in and he explains the problem in more detail. The back door’s handle is jamming which left Mr Highway’s wife stuck outside for two hours after dropping their children to school earlier this morning.
It was only when she called him and he returned home to force the handle down that Mr Highway was able to gain entrance to their home.
Mr Highway called Wrekin to register the problem and ask for somebody to be sent out to repair the faulty handle at 9.40am. Mr Roberts is here fixing it just an hour and 20 minutes later.
‘This is a typical problem you get at this time of year,’ explains the repairs and maintenance operative when assessing the problem. ‘The door is wooden and it seems the inside of the lock is rusting a bit.’
After grabbing a collection of tools from his fully stocked van, he has unscrewed a piece of the door and removed the lock entirely. He then sprays it with grease - all the while explaining what he is doing and why to Mr Highway.
Despite the distraction of a reporter and photographer noting down his every word and snapping away, Mr Roberts manages to get the job done in just over 30 minutes. He logs it on his PDA and then sits in his van waiting for the next job to come through.
No extra cost
The beauty of this pilot is that it does not cost Wrekin any money, as Mr Roberts and the customer service centre staff - who we are now waiting to send us the details of our next visit - are already employed by the housing association. No new technology has been needed, but - with repairs costing the landlord £4 million a year - there are, Mr Gethings believes, savings to be made.
‘What we are looking at is a need for less sophisticated planning,’ he explains. ‘I’m not doing it for savings, however if you move this way you have less of a [financial] impact from sophisticated planning systems.’
Under the pilot, when Mr Roberts finishes one job, he is given the next geographically closest job to where he is at that point. The Opti-time system is used to check his location and then a job is issued to him. Jobs are allocated using good old-fashioned human judgement, instead of a schedule generated by the software system that plans out his entire day and could take him all over town.
Back in the van and after waiting for instructions for just a couple of minutes, colleagues in the customer service centre send details of the next job to Mr Roberts’ PDA.
After a brief check of the road map we are off to a property roughly 15 minutes north, where a kitchen tap has come loose.
We arrive at the second property at 11.55am and the tenant, Helen Allen, is already there with a Wrekin electrician who is fixing her lights.
Mr Roberts explains that he wouldn’t be able to do that job as he’s not qualified in electrics.
‘[Repairs and maintenance operatives like me] do the normal sort of repairs - the day-to-day jobs,’ he explains. ‘Electrics is a particular skill - we cannot do that or gas. The gas workers and the electricians can do extra bits, but we cannot do their jobs. It’s the law.’
Again he flashes his ID and enters the property where, within seconds, he is under the sink taking a look at the wobbly tap. A few tweaks of a spanner and it’s as good as new and Mr Roberts is tapping the details into his PDA.
The time is now 12.30pm - Ms Allen called Wrekin to report the repair just an hour and a half ago.
After a quick cup of tea and chat, it is off to our third - and for us final - job of the day. While it is fewer than five miles away, the route we would usually take along the main road is closed at the moment. We take a slight detour and less than 20 minutes after the job was sent to Mr Roberts’s PDA, we are pulling up in a parking space outside an estate.
The only problem now is finding the right house. Number 22 is opposite number 56 and we passed the teens - which are next to the 80s. ‘Whoever designed some of them can’t have been very good with maths,’ says Mr Roberts as we retrace our steps.
After a short search, we find the property. It’s now 1.10pm. The ID card is displayed once again and we’re led inside the house to fix a toilet that isn’t flushing properly. According to the tenant, he put the call in ‘about two hours ago’.
All three of the tenants we spoke to were impressed with how quickly Wrekin managed to send out an operative to see to their repairs problem. But the new system will not work for big jobs, director of asset management Mr Gethings admits.
‘It’s a question of stock. Most of these jobs will be component replacement and if it is a bath or a sink that needs replacing, they are not going to be in the van. This pilot is about the jobs that you can complete on the same day as the call was made and those bigger jobs do not fit that.’
At the moment, Mr Roberts is doing, on average, six jobs a day - that’s the same number as his colleagues who are not operating under the new system. However, Mr Gethings believes that as it is fine-tuned and as journey times are cut, that number can go up to eight. Plus he expects the new system will lead to savings on petrol.
Rolling it out isn’t going to be without its problems though. ‘Our biggest challenge is changing mindsets,’ Mr Gethings explains.
Back-office staff are likely to worry about where the next job is coming from - at the moment they work with a backlog of jobs, so turning repairs around within a couple of hours could put them under increased pressure.
Also, tenants will need to get used to receiving a visit on the same day they call to report the repair. Those who find it more convenient to arrange an appointment in advance will need convincing that the new system is an improvement.
‘We are working with them on that but they are the only two things that need changing,’ sums up Mr Gethings. ‘People are steeped in history and we need to change that.’
Residents who can easily be at home, and for whom a repair can be dealt with as quickly as possible, are likely to be as clearly won over by Wrekin’s new way of working as the three tenants whose homes we visited.
Wrekin’s repairs and maintenance operatives, meanwhile, will find their jobs will continue pretty much as normal - although, if it is successful, they’re likely to spend less time on the road and to squeeze in an extra couple of appointments a day.
‘For me, nothing’s really changed,’ says Mr Roberts about his experience working on the pilot. ‘I still get the jobs come through as I did before and I still log them as I did before.’ Job done.