Sunday, 20 April 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.

No more excuses

Wed, 7 Dec 2011

I have something terrible to admit.

In a week of almost unprecedented publicity for housing on television thanks to a series of shows on Channel 4, I have yet to see any of it.

Do not get me wrong, these shows are all saved on Sky+ waiting for me to settle down with a glass of Guinness and watch.

It’s not the case that I am not interested - it’s just that a few Christmas drinks with the Brent Labour party in London were the order of the day for Monday night.

And then last night it was down to the end of the Northern Line and into Underhill stadium to watch the real Bees knock the fake Bees out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (come on Barnet!).

Despite not having watched these programmes, one thing is palpable – that there is a real and current desire to push housing to the top of the agenda.

Whatever your thoughts on these shows, they have really made an impact and good on Channel 4 for taking on a subject which others may have thought unfashionable.

The one show which appears to have really jumped into the limelight however is The Great British Property Scandal, which covers empty homes.

There has been much talk on empty homes recently – I have blogged about it a few times in the past – and it’s great to see this being taken seriously elsewhere.

While I agree with Jules who blogs here that focussing on empty homes could skew the public’s perception of an answer to the housing crisis, it is undeniable that having 700,000-odd properties which come under this banner is a national disgrace.

The latest idea to come up from charity Empty Homes is for councils to offer the empty properties they own to prospective buyers and tenants at discounted prices.

This, they argue, on top of increased council tax on long term empty homes should bring many of the thousands of homes across the country come back into proper residential use. Sounds like a winning idea to me.

With the government pledging £150 million toward bringing empty homes back into use and a national broadcaster highlighting the issue, it really feels like there has never been a better time to rid the country of this shame.

Empty strategy

Wed, 23 Nov 2011

The government’s housing strategy for England was released on Monday with much fanfare.

But, like many have already said, it is lacking in detail and what it did say, most of us already knew.

Take its plans for tackling empty homes.

Reading through the chapter (all three-and-a-half pages of it) which sets out how the coalition government will bring some of 700,000 plus empty homes back into use, you get a sense of déjà vu.

Awarding new homes bonus to empty homes brought back into use? Yep, we know about that - the consultation on it began this time last year.

Investing £100 million funding to bring empty homes back into use? Check, letters were sent to council leaders in October 2010.

Consulting on giving councils powers to levy additional council tax on empty homes? Roger that, Andrew Stunell announced this at the Liberal Democrat party conference in September this year.

A further £50m to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes and match funding from local partners? Er, that one’s new…I think.

Of the main parts of the government’s strategy to rectify one of the embarrassments of the housing sector, only one appears to be new and that involves throwing an extra £50m in the pot.

That’s not to appear ungrateful. This cash is much needed and will go some way to alleviating the problem that areas such as Leeds and Liverpool experience.

The problem is that after so long a time and so many different people saying ‘wait for the strategy’, it comes as something of a disappointment.

Empty homes are one part of housing which can have a fairly immediate impact on a number of different aspects of communities.

Jobs are created, homes are brought back into use and, quite often, areas are reinvigorated.

It is good that there is action being taken on empty homes and I truly hope this strategy has the desired impact, it is just slightly disappointing that there were no pre-Christmas surprises…at least none we wanted.

Private solution

Wed, 16 Nov 2011

Leeds Council has taken a huge step in the right direction.

By setting up a conference with the city’s private landlords, they are hoping to address the housing crisis that Leeds finds itself in.

And it seems the answer may partially be in restoration and not simply new builds.

According to the council, there are 28,000 people on the housing waiting list and 15,883 properties in Leeds.

It does not take a degree in rocket science to work out that if these properties were restored and repaired, a large number of people could get off the maddening waiting list.

Where normally there is a wedge driven private landlords and local authorities, Leeds has decided to take a grown-up attitude and invite the private sector in for talks, and it is easy to see why.

If there is a push to repair the empty buildings, it will create work, the redeveloped house will become a home and private landlords (many of who receive totally unwarranted negative press thanks to an unscrupulous minority) create a new revenue stream. Everyone’s a winner.

Within the conference, there will also be a discussion around the delivery of good standard accommodation.

Again it is a topic that private landlords are often battered with until they are black and blue. There is the perception that private landlords are happy to let people stay in tiny flats with damp and peeling walls.

I have lived in private-rented flats, social housing and of course the family home and the only place where I have not had complaints is with mum and dad - aside from a tidy-obsessed mother who appeared to take pleasure in hiding Playstation games.

And within these different tenures I have had totally different reactions to complaints and calls for repairs

True, one or two private landlords have acted with contempt and shrugged their shoulders until I became a pain in the backside, but others acted straight away and got repairs done to a standard above what I expected.

When in social housing, my partner and I were ‘lucky’ enough to have Connaught as a contractor and I’m sure I could share a few horror stories with tenants and landlords over a Christmas pint of Guinness if desired.

Equally, just a few months ago we had the best service from a major contractor that we ever have done when a water leak occurred in the bathroom.

So it is good that Leeds seems to be willing to get around stereotypes and opening itself up to sensible dialogue with a sector which could provide a great deal of help at this moment in time.

We do not know what will come out of the conference but what it does signify is that the council and private landlords are both aware of a problem and are looking at different ways of fixing it. Now to get the rest of the country thinking the same.

Out of charge

Thu, 3 Nov 2011

A housing association recently lost a court case it brought against owner-occupiers who were refusing to pay a service charge for the upkeep of green areas on estates.

Two Rivers Housing lost an appeal last week against a previous judgement which said that non-tenants of the landlord did not have to pay for the cutting of grass in parts of a number of its estates.

The homes were all previously council run but the landlord bought them, and the land, some years back.

With a number of these homes having been bought under the right to buy scheme, the owners felt that they should no longer have to pay a service charge.

The problem seems to come from a poorly worded clause in the conveyance.

Indeed, Garry King, chief executive of Two Rivers, told Inside Housing that this was the very point the judge made in court.

The decision certainly leaves the housing association in an awkward position – it is still responsible for the land, but will not have the resources to keep it to the same standard.

After conducting a review, it has identified around 115 sites that it would normally maintain through a contractor paid for by a service charge.

Not all these sites are wide open spaces – some are grass verges, others unused patches – but they all add up to create an area where people live.

Two Rivers is now planning to consult with residents to find out what they think it should do.

Options include speaking to the contractor to look for ‘efficiencies’, scale back the maintenance or dispose of the land.

Whatever happens, it is highly likely that any outcome will be met with indignation from some folk.

Yes, they may well own their home and no longer be responsible for the upkeep of the land around it, but those who ‘opted out’ certainly cannot go screaming blue murder if come summertime there is a more unkempt look to grassy areas.

Either that or these areas are taped off with a big ‘Two Rivers tenants only’ sign sticking out of the ground.

Spending to save

Thu, 27 Oct 2011

The Scottish Government has been accused of short-sightedness this week by a housing body.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has argued that a cut in the budget for housing adaptations may create short-term savings but these will be offset by costs incurred in the future.

It’s argument, and it is hard not to agree, is that any initial cost on adapting people’s homes to fit their needs, will be recouped in the coming months and years as that person remains an active part of the community.

By not putting money toward supporting more adaptations, the SFHA argues that more people will be pushed into care homes, need more hospital care and generally become increasingly costly as an individual.

Family Intervention Projects have much the same effect – an initial fairly expensive outlay resulting in long-term savings.

Just this week Ian Munro, chief executive of New Charter Housing Group, told Inside Housing that he estimates that FIPs done by his team have saved the taxpayer £3m.

The adaptation argument seems sound to me and of course is relevant for the rest of the UK – not just Scotland.

This is why it seems quite remarkable that councils, housing associations and contractors do not promote this issue more.

True, it is hardly a ‘boom’ part of the repairs and maintenance sector that will bring in fortunes for contractors, but it is a part which can be argued strongly for increased attention.

There does not appear to be a fixed value on what savings adaptations can provide and perhaps this is part of the problem.

And with the current scramble to ‘cure’ problem families in the wake of the English riots, perhaps the financial benefits of adaptations have taken a backseat.

However, if there is a route available that can provide a better home life for tenants, keep people working and save money in the long run, why on earth are we not shouting from the rooftops about it?

Power to the people

Thu, 20 Oct 2011

The procurement of contracts for repairs and maintenance work is often fraught with difficulties.

For the outsider looking in, it can seem a murky world full of dodgy dealings where the principal concern is to make it as cheap as possible.

For those on the inside looking out, there is the struggle to get value for money while ensuring all parties are content.

Only last year we saw how damaging the wrong sort of contract with the wrong sort of contractor could be for tenants, landlords and hundreds of staff.

As Connaught fell, so too did the confidence of housing associations, councils and – most importantly – tenants.

I know from personal experience how bad it was as my partner and I took days off work to wait for various repairs, only for nothing to happen.

I also know how helpless we felt and how frustrating it was, having to vent our anger at someone down a phone line, knowing full well nothing would be done.

Not long after Connaught fell, councils and housing associations began spreading their contracts wide to minimise the risk of taking another hit again.

This made good business sense, but how involved were tenants in these decisions? Not much one would suggest.

That is why the agreement between Network Housing Group and contractors Rydon and Axis Europe seems to be a step in the right direction.

The London housing association has said it began looking for a new R&M team as a number of contracts began winding down.

Instead of going through the same old motions, the landlord engaged with residents finding out what they wanted, and then devised a system whereby each bid for the work was judged 60 per cent on quality and 40 per cent on price.

This contract also takes into account the experiences of the tenant as there will be financial penalties if they are unsatisfied.

This tenant first ideology must be one that others pick up on.

If it is, perhaps there will be a shift in how contractors battle one another to win jobs by upping the stakes on tenant involvement rather than knocking down the price.

It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Contracting a solution

Thu, 6 Oct 2011

A housing association was this week fined £100,000 for breaching the health and safety at work act.

The landlord, Midland Heart, was taken to court by Birmingham Council after one man died and another was badly scalded as they ran baths in different hostels run by the association.

According to the council, Midland Heart had ‘failed to ensure that the water outlet temperature was properly controlled to avoid scalding’.

Midland Heart has admitted it did not do ‘as much as we could have done to minimise the risk’ and has said it has taken steps to try and stop this happening again.

This awful story – which happened to two vulnerable adult men – once again hammers home the importance of properly maintained premises.

But instead of being concerned with faulty boilers, crumbling walls and other repair issues, this case highlights the importance of landlords to be aware of tenants needs and then work with contractors to find the best solution.

Contractors should not be hired by housing associations, councils or other landlords just because they are the cheapest and just to respond to emergencies.

These businesses have a wealth of experience and expertise in these fields and can add something positive to the experience of tenants in all kinds of tenures and situations. That should be utilised as much as possible.

According to court report in local newspapers, Midland Heart has now placed thermostat mixer valves onto all taps of its properties.

This is a good step, but it is sad that it took the death of one man and an injury to another to put his in place.

Empty gesture?

Wed, 21 Sep 2011

The great empty homes debate has come crashing back onto the news agenda this week.

Andrew Stunell, the communities minister, has announced that the government is to consult on giving local authorities the discretionary power to charge extra council tax on homes which have lain dormant for more than two years.

It is hoped that this will either push hoarding owners to get their house in order – literally – or raise extra cash for councils already straining for breath having pulled their belt so tight.

The news is pretty much the first action on empty homes that the coalition has undertaken (discounting the extension from six months to two years that an authority can try and take charge of a property) and it is a step in the right direction.

There are some 700,000 empty homes across the UK – 14,000-odd alone in Leeds – and finding ways to free them up and get them back into use will not only benefit families in need of somewhere to live.

If this measure has the desired affect and speeds up the release of empty homes back into use, surely it could also have the knock on effect of reviving communities and creating jobs.

While there is no a hard and fast rule on what an empty property is (they range from two homes in a plush neighbourhood to a large number in housing estates), often they can have negative affects on an area.

In some cases they can push down prices of neighbouring properties and occasionally act as a magnet for anti-social behaviour.

In these cases, the people that will move away will be those who can afford to, leaving others – and the idea of mixed communities – far behind.

Some may argue that as the home will be privately owned, it is the right of the owner to do with that property what they want.

This is of course true, but is it right? Is it right that families and communities can be held to ransom over a drawn-out planning wrangle or an owner’s desire to increase the value of their asset?

No it is not, that is why this looks like a fair compromise. In no way is it forcing an owner to sell. Far from it. Instead it putting in place the ability for local authorities to ensure communities get something out of nothing.

As with anything though, we must not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The announcement is but a day old and the date of consultation has not yet been announced.

As with anything the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and in the case of empty homes, we need to hope we are not left with a rumbling stomach.

The ALMO question

Thu, 1 Sep 2011

The subject of arms-length management organisations is becoming ever more important for local authorities up and down the country.

We have seen recently how both Islington and Redbridge Councils are engaged in discussions over the future of their housing management bodies.

Redbridge, it would appear, is set to bring its housing stock back under control of the council. At least that is what the recommendation says.

Islington is under siege from residents demanding Homes for Islington – the north London borough’s ALMO – is disbanded.

Both are engaged in consultations and both are due to make decisions in the near future.

One thing that may be forgotten in all this is the role of the contractor.

ALMOs were initially created to help push through the decent homes programme – a steady source of work for repairs and maintenance companies.

The government pledged extra money to help bring homes up to the standard.

Funding for this should be secured through each local authority’s April 2012 settlement but what about work outside decent homes?

If ALMOs stay as they are or even come back in-house, finding cash for extra work will be hard.

Many contractors will have already had discussions with their council partners about the possibility of the ALMO going back in-house or even having the stock transferred to a housing association.

One major contractor told me how the important thing to do was not go hard one way or the other on the subject of ALMOs.

They said it was important to articulate the benefits of partnering to the ultimate end user – the customer – and put forward the arguments on value for money and efficiency whether the ALMO is inside or out the council.

This seems like the sensible approach but one thing must be of concern is that if ALMOs are brought back in house, how will this impact on solid relationships built over years of trust?

It is certainly an interesting time.

Pay dirt

Wed, 24 Aug 2011

Contaminated land is something which all local authorities across the country know only too well.

Since the Environment Protection Act was tweaked at the turn of the century, the onus has been on local authorities to scour through their land assets and look for sites with possible contamination.

It is long, arduous and costly work that can cause panic among communities if not handled correctly.

Before the introduction of Part 2A of the act, this investigation – soil samples etc – only had to be done on new planning applications.

Inside Housing reported this week that Brent Council has been awarded £1.4 million to sort out a number of homes on two estates with contaminated land.

With this case, and many others, what becomes apparent is the length of time taken to get stuck in to the site and sort it out.

Take Brent as an example – only because they are the latest in a long line of local authorities forced into taking action against contaminated land.

The act came into force in 2002 and the first samples were taken in 2008.

It is now 2011 and work is expected to be completed by March next year.

From the council’s point of view, they are moving as fast as they can but I doubt residents and casual observers would say the same.

Council’s argue that they have to look through historic maps pinpointing possible sites for contamination – such as old milliners which would have used mercury.

From here an authority has to determine if it or a third party is responsible for the land now and then begin an investigation.

Councils say they have dozens and dozens of sites with potential contamination and they have to work through a priority list based on the greatest or most concerning possible contamination.

This seems plausible. However, speaking to lawyers who deal with these cases on an almost daily basis, it was said to me that councils can often be seen to drag their feet with contaminated land.

The feeling is that it is too costly and too much work and if the process is done slow enough, perhaps a private developer will swoop in and take over.

If this is the case, surely the blame must not be put fully on local authorities.

It is true to say that contaminated land must be investigated fully but in an age where belts are being tightened like never before, shouldn’t we direct our fury elsewhere?

Riot rewards

Wed, 17 Aug 2011

Upon seeing the devastation wrought upon England after four days of rioting, and the pillorying of social housing tenants by the mainstream media, you would think that estates across the land were no-go zones.

After being sent to follow the riots from Tottenham to Hackney to Manchester to Salford I can say this is not the case.

Indeed, it was widely reported in certain sections of the media that the Pembury Estate in Hackney was the epicentre of violence in east London with burnt out cars and shattered windows throughout. Not true.

While it is fair to say the streets surrounding the estate were littered with scorched pavements and shattered glass, there was very little, if any, evidence in the estate itself.

This is partly because this is not an issue of housing – social or other – but a shocking greed culture which engulfed people from all parts of the political and social spectrum of England.

The other part of this is down to Peabody’s in-house caretaking team who are clearly appreciated by most on the estate.

There was a similar scene in Salford where the rioting took place in front of but not inside a Salix Homes estate.

Turning to the work contractors will have to undertake in the coming weeks and months as everything gets back to normal, it would appear that save the odd broken window or burnt bin there is not much to do.

However, that may not quite be the case. If there is one thing these riots have shown it is that relations between contractors and tenants can be productive, supportive and long standing.

That is the hardest work of all but surely the most rewarding.

First among equals

Wed, 27 Jul 2011

The imminent merger of contractors Apollo and Keepmoat is being portrayed as the coming together of two equal companies intent on creating a market leader in the sector.

Apollo, the southern-based maintenance experts, and Keepmoat, the northern house builders, say they can grow together and provide an unmatched service to customers.

The premise is certainly impressive as the two can join forces and create an all-through business with skills across the sector and locations throughout the country.

The business model also makes sense as the pair are owned by the same investment portfolio, Cavendish, and a merger would surely lead to reduced running costs.

However the attempt to sell the deal as an equal merger does not quite fit when looking at the evidence so far.

Keepmoat had revenues of £682 million in the last financial year while Apollo had £367 million.

Keepmoat employs more than 3,000 people while Apollo has almost 1,000 staff members.

The new organisation will be branded the ‘Keepmoat family of companies’ with the head office in Doncaster – where Keepmoat currently are located.

David Blunt, current Keepmoat chief executive, will be appointed chief executive for the new company while David Sheridan, Apollo chief executive, will become a board member in charge of southern regions.

The rest of the top jobs – head of finance, head of homes for private sale, head of northern regions - are all going to Keepmoat people.

In anyone’s language that is not a fair and equal situation and while both companies strenuously deny it is a takeover, it is hard not to think that way.

It will be interesting to see how the deal progresses in the coming weeks and months and what impact it has on the sector but one thing is certain – we have lost another contractor and, although different to Connaught and Rok, it must surely set alarm bells ringing.

Can we fix it?

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

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