Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Can we fix it?

Pig sick

Wed, 28 Mar 2012

Seasoned journalists at Inside Housing were momentarily caught up in something a little less cerebral than the goings-on in the housing sector this week.

With the release of the NPPF, new regulatory framework and details on the government’s plan to help 120,000 troubled families you may have thought there was little time for anything else.

But, one story caused the news desk to sit up and take notice for at least half an hour – the evicted Derby Homes tenant who kept a pig in his home.

There is no real need to explain the story further as those dozen or so words tell pretty much all there is to tell about it. They also show why some were so entertained by it and why pretty much everyone wanted to write it up.

Of course the obligatory puns kept some entertained for a while (ham-fisted, pig-headed, given the pork chop) but others were left a little stunned by the images.

In short, the house was a complete mess. To be honest it would be foolish to assume otherwise what with it being a literal pigsty.

It transpired that the tenant had not only kept a pig in the house – which was only discovered during the actual eviction – but he also had a dog in there and had previously been spotted with a Shetland pony in his back garden.

The ALMO is now saying that it will have to spend between £10-£15,000 on repairs and maintenance to bring the home back into good use.

This money, it says, will be recovered from the tenant – who has got rid of his animals.

Having seen the muck and filth in the house I can tell you that it would not be enough to make me go in there with a mop and bucket.

Good luck to whoever gets the job.

An explosive crime

Wed, 14 Mar 2012

There are occasions when damage to a house cannot be said to have been the fault of the tenant, landlord or contractor.

One way homes get damaged is through an act of god – something that very little, if anything, can be done to prevent.

But what about those other instances when the devil has made work for idle hands?

Just this week we have seen a rather shocking story about a housing association’s bungalow being almost completely destroyed by an explosion.

Police investigating the blast have blamed it on thieves who broke into the property and cut away at precious copper piping.

Officers believe the crime caused a gas leak which a short while later caused a large blast that brought the building crumbling to the floor.

Luckily no-one was hurt as the home was empty and neighbouring properties were not hit.

It is an all too familiar story.

In Liverpool an explosion in a block of flats in March 2011 was also blamed on the theft of copper pipes, while a residential block owned by Birmingham Council was flooded in May 2011 after a boiler was stolen. All for ‘precious’ metal.

Landlords are acting on this through initiatives such as smartwater and closer working relationships with the police.

But, I wonder how much work is done across the repairs and maintenance sector?

It would seem that those taking a lead on this matter are the landlords.

We have previously reported on how Sanctuary Housing undertook excellent work to bring the number of instances of stolen pipes or boilers down where before it had cost the landlord £140,000 in replacements and repairs.

While I am sure there are contractors out there which are taking a lead on this, all the noise is coming from the direction of the owners of the properties.

Surely now things such as smartwater should always come with installation of boilers or pipes as they are proven to bring the crimes down by catching the culprits.

With national media focussing on the sad and shameful theft of copper from war memorials, surely the real concern should be directed to the places where most damage can be done – people’s homes.

Action needs to be taken before we have to face the possibility of a couple of bits of metal losing someone their life.

The lost art

Wed, 29 Feb 2012

Innovate or die. It is a statement which resonates in almost all industry and is surely apt for repairs and maintenance.

Although the horror shows of Connaught, Rok and Kinetics are now in the past, they nevertheless present a warning to current teams that nothing can be taken for granted.

We have shown many times on the pages of Inside Housing how fast the housing sector changes and its needs along with it.

The way contracts are now procured is much changed from the old days and the expectations put upon contractors is much changed too – often with a greater focus on the customer.

So I was interested to see Kier has launched an App for customers to log complaints and interact with the provider.

This is innovation and, although I am sure others may be doing something similar, it does show forward thinking and an appreciation of the customer.

For those scratching their heads thinking ‘what is an App?’ – these are applications, or small computer programmes, which can be downloaded onto a smartphone such as an iPhone or Android.

These are the small things that you see people looking at almost all hours of the day instead of engaging in meaningful discussion with one another.

From that last statement you may be able to guess what my gripe may be and yes, it would be about face-to-face interactions.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am no luddite. I think things like this are really a step in the right direction and I have nothing but praise for this scheme. I also like smartphones - without mine I would not have been able to track ‘one of the worst ever’ Arsenal teams putting 5 goals past ‘the best ever’ team the noisy neighbours from Haringey have had at the weekend.

This is a fantastic way of making the service much more accessible for people and also frees up time for tenants who do not have to sit on the end of a phone waiting in a queue.

I only hope that when the repair is being done, people can drag themselves away from the phone long enough to make the worker a cup of tea!

Isolating a problem

Wed, 8 Feb 2012

A BBC programme looking at the role of coroners brought up some interesting and timely topics.

For those who did not see Death Unexplained, I suggest you do your best to catch it on iPlayer or watch the next episode as it is a well made documentary.

It centres on West London Coroners court. A place I know quite well from time spent on local rags in that part of the world.

Forgetting the grisly details of various autopsies ascertaining the cause of death of an individual, the part which most interested me was the death of ‘Fred’.

He was an elderly man who lived alone and did not appear to have any friends or family. He lived a quiet life - chatting occasionally to neighbours - but mostly popped in and out of his home.

He died in his flat and was not discovered for a number of months.

The only people to attend his funeral, paid for by the council, were his neighbour and her mother.

It is a situation that many housing associations will have experience of.

This year we have already had two separate cases where the body of a tenant has been discovered years after their death.

Often these people are not found until a gas check or repair is scheduled or rent arrears occur. In a civilised society it is not good enough.

But, what can be done in the housing sector to stop this from happening? We cannot prevent everyone from dying in their own homes – whether it be from natural causes, accident or crime.

But could the sector do more to prevent a person lying dead in their property for - and it has happened before – anything up to three years?

At the moment hands are tied somewhat. If someone is having full benefit paid to them and they have not been identified as vulnerable, then there is no real reason to get involved in their life. After all, social landlords cannot and must not act as nannies for their tenants – particularly at a time when the government is keen on getting people in and out of social housing as quick as possible.

Could there be better linking up with other ‘partners’ – police, council, contractors etc? Possibly. I don’t imagine it would be too hard for a contractor who maintains an estate or does responsive repairs to liaise with the landlord and identify the properties where people have been identified as isolated.

Surely a quick tap on the door and a good morning every once in a while would not only increase confidence in the landlord and contractor but also open up dialogue with tenants who have previously been under the radar.

This need not just be for contractors or landlords though. The police are frequently on the beat and are eager to foster good relations with ‘communities’ and I’m sure they wouldn’t turn down the chance of a cup of tea and a quick chat.

But then, perhaps this is all too idealistic. With swingeing cuts and belts tightened as ever before, do we expect people to go that extra mile?

I’m not so sure. One thing I am sure about though, it is inhuman to not have concern for our neighbour and for no-one to take responsibility or at least try and make a change is a stain that will take some getting rid of.

If there is genuine concern for ensuring someone lives the best life they can while in a home, then that concern should be equal once that person dies.

Out of the woodwork

Wed, 1 Feb 2012

I have had the joyful tones of Jimmy Cliff reverberating around my head all day.

Unfortunately this is not due to the radio implanting ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ in my brain on the way to work this morning.

Had that been the case, I dare say I would have been much more productive today – like watching ‘Rocky’ before setting out on a 10 mile run.

No, Mr Cliff has been ever present in my conscious today thanks to Inside Housing’s focus on the tenant cashback scheme.

Darrin Gamble, head of neighbourhoods for the west midlands at Bromford Living (which is running a pilot), is a big supporter of the scheme.  So much so that he uses the song as inspiration for the landlords attitude to ensuring it succeeds.

Mr Gamble says that the tenant cashback scheme fitted in with the group’s approach in the housing sector and its thoughts on innovation.

The aims of the group’s pilot are to reduce the cost of housing management, reward customers and discover what opportunities the scheme presents.

The landlord is also keen to see improved behaviour in some tenants too. Mr Gamble said in our Focus discussion that a customer who had damage to doors and boards came to them asking to be part of the pilot.

The tenant was told that they could not take part until the damage had been repaired. This was done and the tenant signed up to the scheme.

So far, it seems the scheme has been going well but one problem it has thrown up is tenants claiming cash for repairs that previously they would have done themselves.

Mr Gamble has admitted that this is an area which the group is looking at as the current amount of £300 for repairs is too high and would eat into any savings made. There is, however, no solution given.

On the other side of the fence sits Kevin Lowry, head of housing services at Northumberland Council, who argues that a failing repairs service should not be fragmented and replaced with more emphasis on tenants taking responsibility, but to ‘consolidate and make the service tenant driven and accountable’.

He argues that there is little evidence showing tenants’ desire to do their own repairs.

This is an intriguing point and if we take it further we could ask what will happen to the service once it is two, three or four years old?

Will tenants still be so keen to do repairs in their own home in return for cash? I’m sure we can all recall a point in our life when we have put off painting the garage or putting together the new desk from Ikea for a number of weeks.

Could it be that the novelty soon wears off and a number of homes begin spiralling into disrepair as tenants do not bother to report and undertake repairs?

The health and safety concerns aside, what about the effect on the actual house and the monetary value of it?

These are but a few of the considerations which came up in the debate this morning and there are sure to be a few more that crop up as the pilots rumble on.

Cause for concern

Wed, 25 Jan 2012

All you lucky readers of Inside Housing are getting a repairs and maintenance special this Friday.

Across 30-odd pages you will find out about the latest innovative schemes, best practice and much more in the sector.

Without wishing to blow the IH trumpet too hard, it’s a good read and does show how fast things are changing.

Among the features is a look at the government’s tenant cashback pilot project.

For those unaware, this is the scheme which pays tenants to do their own repairs – minor ones.

Also reported on is a new way of working, which is being piloted by Wrekin Housing Trust in Telford. The team there is taking inspiration from emergency services, and is looking to get repairs done within two hours of the first phone call.

We also investigate the apprenticeships taking place at contractors across the country and asses the success of such schemes.

All this positivity and change of focus towards a more tenant-based outlook is surely a cause for celebration as for too long the tenants were the one part of the repairs relationship that appeared to be considered last.

However, the news of Morrison posting a £12.7 million loss, coupled with the revelation today that Peabody and Osborne have agreed to terminate a 10-year, £85 million contract just under two years into it bring things down to earth with a bang.

There is no suggestion that either contractor is in trouble, but both stories work as a reminder that there is still a fine line to tread and perhaps a few more lessons to be learned.

Co-operative solutions

Wed, 18 Jan 2012

The ringing in of the New Year does little if anything for the same old problems.

Across the length and breadth of this land, there are thousands upon thousands of empty homes.

It is a subject which I have written of before and one which last year, thanks to Channel Four, received some long overdue attention.

The government has pledged cash and is looking at the issuing of council tax upon these properties as ways of incentivising them being brought back into use. All of which will help chip away at the problem.

So it was with interest that I read about a housing co-op deciding to take control of the situation in its area by going right to the heart of the problem.

Phoenix Housing co-op, in jolly old Hackney, has just finished renovating a disused property in the East End of London – an area which, historically, is all too familiar with housing crises of one form or another.

The co-op has tarted the building up and converted it into nine studio flats for single people on low-incomes after signing a lease with the owners last year.

This, the group say, is something they wish to do more of in and around the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

It is seeking out owners of disused properties and asking for 10-year leases in return for renovation. It sounds like a great idea and one which could be implemented in other parts of the country without the need for interference from the government.

There really does seem to be very few drawbacks to this scheme.

All a cynical journo is left to worry about is if there are a series of safeguards in place which ensure that the new homes go to those people who need them and that renovations are done by local contractors or by local trainees being taught by local contractors.

House in order

Wed, 4 Jan 2012

As nice as the festive break was, there is one strong reason to be happy to be back at work.

Not having been at home during the day, feet up and watching the TV for some time, I forgot how terrible the daytime television is.

Not really the programmes, but the awful adverts that incessantly bombard you with messages promising an easier life…in just a few easy payments.

King of the awful adverts are the notorious payday loan companies ones.

The shocking APR is hidden at the bottom while cartoon characters happily go about their lives. You would be forgiven for thinking they are a good thing.

I however, think the opposite.

Today we hear that a survey finds people are using payday loans more and more. In Shelter’s calculations there are 1 million people turning to this form of finance.

This figure is somewhat skewed by the fact the charity only surveyed 4,000-odd people – but you can see what they are getting at. Payday loans are bad.

The news becomes doubly bad when taken into account with the news that Save the Children are claiming that hundreds of thousands of families are not receiving their £120 Warm Homes Discount Scheme.

These families – those on annual salary of £12,000 or less – are probably some of the most likely to use payday loans. They are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

That is why it is not just essential that we fight these payday loans and push hard for the energy companies to find more customers for the Warm Homes Discount Scheme, but also keep pushing ahead with maintaining current properties.

As a sector we should always do the utmost we can and then push others to do what they can. That means ensuring homes are as warm, safe and reliable as possible.

After that, attention must go to other businesses or sectors and the effects they have on tenants.

Humbug

Wed, 21 Dec 2011

How many days left are there until Christmas?

If I am honest I find it hard to care about this time of the year. So small is my passion for Christmas, that I have taken on the role of office Scrooge.

Greetings are met with a grunt and my attempts to explain why I receive no joy from either receiving or giving a gift fall on deaf ears.

The only positive I get out of this time of year is knowing that you get a few days off work and you can sink a few pints of Guinness with your friends.

All that said, even I – the great Inside Housing grump – can see why people are upset with Brighton & Hove Council for its banning of festive decorations in communal areas.

The council, quite rightly, argues it is concerned that wreaths or other such decorations could pose a fire risk and wants them out of the way.

This is argument which must be taken seriously and needs proper thought attached to it rather than over the top reaction. We have all heard horror stories of blazes devastating homes and families due to various festive decorations. Any measure to reduce the risk of this happening again, must therefore be properly appraised.

There is no denying that the chances of a fire would increase with a plethora of clutter stuck outside homes.

But is this the situation that faces Brighton? That I do not know.

What we do know is that the council has flatly banned all decorations and in doing so has come across as a bit of a nanny authority.

Would it not have been better to engage tenants earlier in the year and begin a dialogue with them - informing them of the details, assessing desires and perhaps working up some kind of collective plan with the people who actually live in the homes?

Actions such as this outright ban can make a tenant feel unimportant or not in control of their own home or life - which is completely contradictory to the idea of social housing. It will also do nothing for tenant/landlord relations.

It’s a tough one to call as there are strong arguments on both sides. Brighton has decided to err on the side of caution. What would you have done?

What's in a name?

Wed, 14 Dec 2011

Ok, it is time to get up on my high horse, ride it to the top of a soapbox and have a moan about something that really bugs me.

To do it properly, I have to resort to a different sort of communication so, if you will excuse me for a minute, ‘what iz wiv sum of da landlordz?’

I understand that it may feel awkward reading that and completely out of touch, but that is really my point.

I say this having read my umpteenth news report from a council, charity or social housing provider where they are celebrating their youth.

Nothing wrong with that whatsoever. I am all for it. More, I say.

However, as I scan the details and begin looking for the name of the award or training programme a familiar sinking feeling appears in the gut.

‘At the first annual CitizenZ awards…’ AARRGGH, not again.

Why oh why do local authorities, charities, housing providers or whoever or whatever feel the need to make something more ‘street’ to appeal to young people.

While not a problem in rural areas, it is incessant in urban ones and, I believe, completely patronising to those people it is attempting to celebrate.

As said, I wholeheartedly support anything that gives young people in more deprived areas or situations either a boost up the ladder or shot of confidence.

However, I seriously do not believe that we have to make this celebration conform to stereotypes that much of the right-wing press peddle out daily to their millions of readers.

Do we think so little of our youth that we believe the only way to get them interested in something is to spell it with a ‘z’ and make a flyer look like graffiti?

It is akin to your dad trying to dance to Drake (I had to ask my stepchildren for a current act!) at a wedding. Just seems wrong.

So what could be done right and why are you talking about this in a repairs and maintenance blog I hear you say.

Well, if we are to look at engaging with the youth then we need to take stock of what happened in August with the riots.

Now, don’t all go shouting at once. I am well aware that the stats so far show a small per cent of convicted people coming from social housing, but the stats have said that a large number where young adults, so we have that group to look at.

In the wake of the riots, contractors Lakehouse immediately came out and said that they would be investing in the deprived communities in which they work.

The company also pledged to create 20 work placements, 50 apprenticeships and donate 30 days of staff time to volunteering.

This, to me, sounds like the best way of supporting young people and I think that if landlords want to go someway to empowering their young tenants they could do worse than work out similar agreements with contractors when they are awarding work.

Contractors, like many other businesses, stretch past their core work so have marketing departments, human resources, legal advisors.

With a bit of different thinking, we can get a more harmonious relationship with tenants, landlords, contractors and more.

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Can we fix it?

Alex Wellman takes a look at what’s going on in the social housing contracting sector 

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