The chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland was unable to attend its presidential dinner last week after a nasty accident on an ancient ruin.
Alan Ferguson was reportedly holidaying in Greece when he took a tumble down the hill on which the Acropolis stands, rupturing his patellar tendon and rendering him bed-bound for the foreseeable future.
While Closed Circuit wishes Mr Ferguson well, it would like to remind readers that those who climb too enthusiastically up ancient monuments are always likely to come a-cropolis.
Closed Circuit enjoyed a night out at the theatre with United House recently.
The contractor has sponsored the Donmar Warehouse’s production of existentialist playwright Jean-Paul Satre’s Huis Clos (No Exit), most famous for the line ‘hell is other people’.
After an intense, almost claustrophobic, 105-minute performance, Closed Circuit caught up with Paul Nicholls, group director responsible for business development at United House, and pondered who would be the two people we would least like to spend a windowless infinity with. Discretion obviously prevents Closed Circuit from mentioning any names.
It’s amazing how a selfless act can leave you caught short.
Just ask junior housing minister Andrew Stunell who found himself locked in the opposition’s lobby during a commons vote on a Labour amendment to the Local Government Finance Bill.
In the Commons, MPs walk through one of two lobbies to dictate how they will vote. The luckless minister found himself trapped in the opposition lobby after nipping to the washroom to refill a water jug to refresh his thirsty colleagues.
Labour, rather cruelly spun the line that the embarrassed Mr Stunell had ‘plumbed new depths of incompetence’ - even though he had indeed voted with the government. Naturally, the minister protested he had acted out of kindness so his colleagues would be refreshed - but that didn’t wash with the opposition. Water carry on!
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Manchester is already preparing itself to welcome the great and the good of the social housing sector for the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in June.
The new and improved location might take some getting used to for delegates more accustomed to the tranquil charms of Harrogate, but it surely can’t compare to the culture shock suffered by some Conservative Party members when their conference first pitched up in the city in 2009.
One source at the conference venue told Closed Circuit of a panicked query from group of twinset and pearl-clad Tory women: ‘Do you have restaurants in Manchester?’ one asked.
Apparently they do, just in case anyone was wondering…
Years in office have done little to dim the talents of the mayor of London.
Closed Circuit was recently invited to attend a press call at the Olympic park with Boris Johnson and the top brass from Newham Council and athlete’s village development consortium Triathlon Homes.
After mistaking a question on rioters’ tenancies for writers’ tendancies, the mayor then professed to know nothing about a story involving himself that was published that morning.
But who can blame him? It was only a double-page spread in the nation’s biggest selling tabloid newspaper with several photos of him with direct quotes.
Could housing minister Grant Shapps finally be running low on fresh policy initiatives? We only ask because the MP for Welwyn Hatfield seems to be appealing for a bit of help in the area - for free.
An advert posted last week seeks candidates for a ‘policy and correspondence’ internship. The successful applicant will be able to help ‘draft policy responses to constituents’ as well as having ‘the opportunity to gain an insight into Grant’s role’. ‘Reasonable’ travel and lunch expenses will be covered. How generous.
Closed Circuit is considering applying for the job - an insight into Mr Shapps’ mind is too good an opportunity to miss.
Closed Circuit has learned that one north east landlord’s chief executive has a surprisingly revealing past as part of a Spencer Tunick installation in Newcastle in 2005.
For those unfamiliar with the artist’s work, Mr Tunick enlists thousands of members of the public to pose naked for photographs in the world’s cities. The woman in question, who did not wish to be identified, let slip to Closed Circuit that she had joined the throngs without thongs in Newcastle in the early hours of a Sunday morning in July 2005.
Apparently the picture could be seen at Newcastle’s airport for months afterwards - although thankfully her modesty was protected because of the fog on the Tyne.
The housing sector will be sad to see the back of one of its more popular figures after Tom Murtha’s retirement as chief executive of Midland Heart was confirmed last week.
But Mr Murtha would appear to be readying himself to go out in style. According to a letter from Midland Heart to the massed ranks of the fourth estate, he ‘will emit office’ some time in the summer.
The details of how, where and why Tom plans to ‘emit’ his office are sketchy, but it is sure to make a spectacular show. It could be ideal if The London 2012 Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games are looking for something different for the opening ceremony.
Any go-getting director at a housing association noted for innovation would surely be delighted at being compared with a famous political figure.
Wayne Gethings, director of asset management at Wrekin Housing Trust, not only has his team onside but other landlords beating down his door for a chat about how he does things and invitations to talk at events across the country.
Such leadership would surely evoke images of Churchill, Roosevelt or even Charles de Gaulle, no? Not quite. ‘What with his hair, jokes and the way he talks, he’s the sort of Boris Johnson of Dudley,’ one staff member told Closed Circuit.
The reinvigorated right to buy has got a few people in the sector all nostalgic for the shoulder-padded glory days of the 1980s.
Not least among these is Sir Steve Bullock. When asked by MPs at a select committee evidence session whether he saw the policy as a throwback to the Thatcher era, the London Councils’ housing chief harnessed his inner Gene Hunt, the rough diamond police officer from TV show Life on Mars. ‘Fire up the Quattro,’ he replied (a favourite Hunt quote), quick as a flash.
Closed Circuit hopes he didn’t then down a couple of lunchtime sharpeners, before kicking down a door and nicking a few villains.
London & Quadrant has had an uncomfortable time recently with its plans to redevelop a former dog track in east London.
The landlord has faced a barrage of criticism from MPs and a well-organised group of campaigners calling themselves Save Our Stow.
You would have thought, then, that fellow housing association chief executives would be sympathetic towards L&Q boss David Montague over the controversy.
Apparently, though, some of Mr Montague’s chief executive colleagues in London have taken to making barking noises when they see him. It sounds like woof justice to us.
When arm’s-length management organisation Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing sent out a tenant survey, Closed Circuit assumed it was expecting the usual plethora of minor complaints and comments.
But according to local news reports, when answering the seemingly innocuous question, ‘if your home was not cleaned properly, what was the problem?’, one tenant wrote: ‘Floorboard rotten and dead cat underneath boards in bedroom’. As ‘failures to clean properly’ go, this certainly beats failing to dust the high shelf.
Closed Circuit hopes the tenant in question had not chosen to wait for a survey to address the question of the rotting feline.
A KNH spokeswoman chirpily said she was aware there was still work to do to improve tenant satisfaction. At least the rotting boards should make it easier to gain access to the cat.
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Goodbyes at the end of drinks parties can be pretty awkward affairs. Politicians are forever prising themselves away from conversations - especially with journalists - so they can flee.
The only thing more awkward is ending up standing next to them on the platform, waiting for the same train afterwards.
Former Labour housing minister and MP for Greenwich and Woolwich Nick Raynsford found himself in such a pickle recently. Positioned to the right of Closed Circuit and next to Newham Council executive director for regeneration Clive Dutton who was staring firmly at the ground, there appeared to be a shared understanding that there would be no conversation. The arrival of Places for People’s sustainability guru Nicholas Doyle, however, meant Closed Circuit felt compelled to break the silence.
He may have the appearance of a regional director of CAMRA but Julian Ashby, the new chair of the Tenant Services Authority, is in fact a ruthless war veteran who has dispatched numerous terrorists.
Closed Circuit has it on good authority that when Mr Ashby is not dealing with housing issues, he is ensuring the western world remains free.
His battlezone is the internet and his weapon of choice is a computer console controller. The regulation expert has a penchant for first person shoot ‘em ups.
Quite how he copes with going toe-to-toe with housing minister Grant Shapps, communities secretary Eric Pickles et al remains to be seen, but surely he has good experience after battling grumpy teens online for hours.
News reached Closed Circuit this week of an MP giving his acting skills to the test by taking part in a social landlord’s pantomime.
Arm’s-length management organisation Gloucester City Homes wanted to engage young people and give them confidence to perform in front of an audience so it put on a production of Snow White and the Seven Anti-social Behaviour Dwarves.
Local MP Richard Graham was roped in to take on the role of Prince Charming but no mention was made of who played the other roles.
Could some of Mr Graham’s Conservative Party colleagues have filled the roles? Suggestions on a postcard.
Closed Circuit was disturbed to learn last week that Mr Men characters appear to be rebelling against the stereotypes imposed by their names.
The eviction of Ms Good from a Six Town Housing property could surely begin a trend resulting in Mr Brave becoming cowardly, Mr Strong becoming weak, and Mr Happy being diagnosed with depression.
On the plus side, Mr Bump is looking forward to an injury-free future.
Never let it be said that the stocky secretary of state for communities and local government does not go the extra mile to support the British economy.
With public sector strikes just a fortnight old and the Localism Bill recently gaining royal assent, Eric Pickles has pulled out all the stops to launch a ‘curry college’ which will teach Brits the fine art of Asian cooking.
With this innovative scheme fresh in his mind, Mr Pickles took time out of his personal schedule to attend the British Curry Awards as ‘chief guest’.
Closed Circuit is reliably informed that Mr Pickles ‘loved’ his chicken tikka masala and ate every single piece - in keeping with the government’s pledge to cut down on waste.
The year is not yet out but some in the social housing sector have already started crystal-ball gazing for 2012.
Steve Douglas, partner at consultancy Altair, predicts a bond issue by a council, cashflow problems for a large housing association and cash for economic regeneration.
These are very sensible and sober predictions, but unfortunately things soon went downhill from there.
‘Peace breaks out between the National Housing Federation and [housing minister Grant] Shapps. Sorry, you asked for wishes, not miracles,’ he joked.
‘Transparency agenda as part of freedom of information reform, but the sector can see through that…’ he then added - to groans from Closed Circuit.
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You could forgive prime minister David Cameron for hoping for a breather when parliament breaks up in 11 days time.
After all, if strikes, mounting public debt and the European economic crisis aren’t enough to send you head first into a family-sized tin of Quality Street in front of All Star Family Fortunes, then what is?
His pensions secretary has other ideas. So impressed is Iain Duncan Smith with Family Futures, the latest magnus opus from London School of Economics housing guru professor Anne Power, he thinks it could teach the PM a thing or two about tackling poverty.
‘It really is an excellent book,’ he told an audience at the LSE last week. ‘I’ll put it on the reading list for the prime minister over Christmas - and I’ll test him on it when he comes back.’
Family Futures, not Family Fortunes, it is then.
Could Whitehall austerity measures help reverse the fading fortunes of Marks & Spencer?
The high street giant recently reported an 8 per cent slump in profits, but Closed Circuit has learned that staff at the Communities and Local
Government department can’t get enough of their local store in London’s Victoria.
Cutbacks have seen all taxpayer-funded refreshments banned, except for marathon meetings lasting at least four hours and at which a visitor is present.
‘M&S is doing very well as a result,’ reports one worker. ‘The bite-size buckets are a particular favourite.’
As the festive season draws near, Closed Circuit thought it was timely to bring you a tale from Christmas past.
One afternoon, back in his salad days at Bradford Council, current communities secretary Eric Pickles apparently got wind of some of his staff knocking off early to sink a few sharpeners down the local.
Rightly concerned about this flagrant waste of taxpayers’ money, he promptly scheduled a meeting back at the office for 4pm.
A public servant to the end, the fact that it was Christmas Eve was, it seems, of little concern.
Places for People has never been short of ideas about how to get the housing market moving again.
But its chief executive David Cowans clearly had other bees in his bonnet when he spoke at the Northern Housing Consortium’s annual conference in York last week.
During a rather bleak state of the nation address, Mr Cowans chastised the purported 25 per cent of men aged 25 to 29 still living at home. ‘Maybe if they got out more,’ he mused before highlighting that only 13 per cent of women of the same age had failed to cut the chord. ‘What I want to know is where have the other 12 per cent gone?’ he wondered aloud.
Could this be the start of a PfP dating agency to help stay at home tenants fly the nest? Closed Circuit certainly hopes so…
Still at the Northern Housing Consortium shindig, chair John Craggs was also thinking of family affairs.
Having regaled the audience with alarming tales of his daughter’s adventures as a film student, the deputy chief executive of Gentoo got onto his son’s life in the army. An apparent thrillseeker, Craggs junior texted dad to tell him he was about to launch himself off the Eiger attached to a bungee chord. Just as dad was about to reply, another beep came through… ‘And I’m doing it naked,’ it said.
Closed Circuit hopes that housing minister Grant Shapps, famed as he is for his love of bungee, is not inspired to follow in the footsteps of Craggs junior.
Finally this week the prize for dedication above and beyond the call of duty goes to Affinity Sutton’s head of research Hilary Burkitt.
Ms Burkitt tweeted on Saturday that she was re-reading the housing strategy (published last Monday) and was ‘shocked that it states being a social tenant on a higher income is an “abuse” equivalent to tenancy fraud’.
Perhaps realising that her choice of light reading on a Saturday morning may surprise some Ms Burkitt quickly added: ‘I should stress that re-reading [the] housing strategy is not what I would ideally want to be doing for weekend fun.’
Closed Circuit can empathise with Ms Burkitt’s pain.
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Richard Blakeway is well known among housing professionals in London as Boris Johnson’s political housing advisor.
It is his job to make the mayor’s housing policies clear to the media, landlords and other politicians.
But Mr Blakeway’s ability to do this was cast into doubt by none other than Alan Benson, head of housing at the Greater London Authority.
Mr Benson, speaking at the National Housing Federation’s affordable homeownership and intermediate housing conference in London on Thursday, said: ‘You heard from my political other half this morning, Richard Blakeway. I’m sure you were inspired and confused as I am every time I speak to Richard about anything. I had a quick chat with him and he was inspired and confused after the session as well,’ he joked.
Closed Circuit hopes the pair achieve some clarity before their next meeting.
We’ve all been frustrated by the level of customer service offered by our banks at one time or another. But all this could be about to change, thanks to staff at Bromford Group.
The housing association recently hosted a delegation from Barclays Bank, which wanted to find out how to improve its customer service.
Bromford Group staff arrived for the meeting bouncing on space hoppers, part of its policy to make engagement with colleagues ‘entertaining and memorable’. Closed Circuit likes to think they were also trying to stress to Barclays the importance of achieving a bounce in the economy.
Closed Circuit was bemused to receive an email last Friday from Kent Reliance Building Society thanking us for contacting them.
The email said ‘we aim to respond to all email communications within 24 hours of receipt, and will be in touch with you shortly’.
An admirable policy, except on this occasion the company slightly missed its target. Closed Circuit sent the query, on a subject long since forgotten, on 17 December last year.
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A warm welcome back to the confines of Closed Circuit to Sir Peter Housden - head honcho at the Communities and Local Government department until last year and now Scotland’s most senior civil servant.
Twitter has been abuzz this week thanks to the publication on the Scottish Government’s website of Sir Peter’s internal blogs to staff.
Closed Circuit recommends readers take a look, if only for such classic musings as ‘Is there anyone else who would like to see the return of the tuna (without mayonnaise) and green salad in a box?’ and ‘went to Of Gods and Men at the Filmhouse. I’m afraid I had a major attack of the sleeps at the start.’
Closed Circuit’s personal favourite? ‘The undoubted highlight of the social week was the Gardening and Crafts Club annual show…. It was all very exciting. The price of leeks went above £1.50.’
It’s clearly still all go for Sir Peter.
Readers have probably heard the age old philosophical question about whether a tree would make a sound if it falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it. This week Closed Circuit has come up with a new poser: does a tweet count as a sound when it is being read?
British Gas helpfully answered the question on Friday when it sent out an auto-scheduled missive during the two minutes’ silence for victims of the two world wars and subsequent conflicts.
It immediately sent out an apology stating that it was ‘very sorry for the tweet during the 2 mins silence’.
Closed Circuit didn’t hear the offending tweet but it hopes the racket didn’t upset too many people.
In typical opposition style, Hilary Benn chose to dwell on the negative this week.
The shadow communities secretary slammed the government for ‘failing to deal with the housing crisis being faced by hard-working people’ in a carefully worded attack.
Closed Circuit is happy to restore some balance to the picture by reporting that the government has made great strides in dealing with the housing crisis being faced by people who do not work hard at all. It is sure that Mr Benn will find it in his heart to acknowledge this achievement in due course.