Back to basics
A Manchester-based housing association is showing how apprentices can create an effective, sustainable repairs and maintenance service with wider benefits for the community. Alex Turner reports
Manchester’s Parkway Green Housing Trust is a big fan of apprenticeships. Since its formation, following a stock transfer of nearly 6,000 properties around the Wythenshawe area in 2006, it has put more than 100 apprentices through their paces, running schemes specifically to help young ex-offenders and students.
‘Post-stock transfer we were insistent that, through procurement, contractors provided apprenticeships,’ recalls Ian Gregg, director of communities and investment at the trust.
‘But as soon as we got our own contracting organisation [staff from the council’s direct labour organisation were transferred to the trust in 2008] we created a business plan; part of that was that we could afford three apprenticeships a year.’
The resulting apprenticeship scheme was flagged up by a nine-month joint initiative between repairs and maintenance contractor Mears and the Chartered Institute of Housing. The ‘Getting the basics right’ campaign aims to identify what makes an effective repairs and maintenance service. Parkway Green was one of 150 organisations which contacted the CIH following the launch of the campaign and its work with apprentices was picked out as a good example of a scheme that is making a difference in building skills and capacity.
The campaign focuses on delivering services that tenants want, value for money, effective asset management, coping with new responsibilities landlords face in an era of light-touch regulation and providing a repairs service that stands up to local scrutiny.
It will be placed under the microscope at the forthcoming Homes 2012 conference, at London’s Excel centre on 14 and 15 November, organised by the CIH in partnership with Inside Housing’s publisher, Ocean Media Group.
‘Whether you’re a large organisation or a one-man band, the basics should remain the same,’ explains Mears’ executive director Alan Long. ‘Provide a high-quality, responsive service that’s accessible and accountable, constantly strive to improve services - and deliver value for money.’
Yet, as Joanne Kent-Smith, a senior policy and practice officer at the CIH, points out, things aren’t always simple in a time when social landlords’ identity is shifting.
‘Sometimes organisations aspire to deliver a bigger and better service. Tackling financial inclusion, worklessness and so on is valued by communities but draws on management expertise.
‘Additional services are important - we welcome their delivery - but not at the cost of core ones. Get the foundations strong and you can build up. Repairs [as a service] affects the greatest proportion of tenants and is the biggest spend,’ she says.
And how better to build strong foundations than training a new generation through apprenticeships?
Parkway Green’s Mr Gregg explains that since it launched its apprenticehip programme, the scheme has grown offshoots. Links with Manchester’s Achieve project - through which the Probation Trust supports ex-offenders into voluntary work, education and employment - have resulted in young ex-offenders clearing gardens for Parkway Green. If they complete their placement, which can be up to eight months, they’re offered an apprenticeship within the landlord’s supply chain.
In 2011, Parkway Green also began the Gateway project with local schools, offering year 11 children with good attendance but low attainment expectations two days a week repairing fences. They gain an XL skills qualification awarded by the Prince’s Trust and focus on core GCSEs during the remainder of the week - they are also guaranteed an apprenticeship interview once the year is complete.
‘It changes the dynamic of the business,’ Mr Gregg continues, ‘and there’s something nice about seeing a young person develop. People can put their mark on that apprentice; see what they’ve become.’
To date 21 people have successfully taken part in the ex-offender scheme and been placed in apprenticeships. They, like nearly all the young people involved in the wider scheme, come from around Wythenshawe. As well as seeding a sustainable local workforce, Mr Gregg points to other benefits, such as likely reductions in crime and anti-social behaviour as a result of 24 individuals passing through the ex-offenders’ garden clearing project.
And, crucially, it’s saving Parkway Green money. The ex-offender project has recouped an estimated £150,000 to £200,000 a year from work that would have been contracted out, while schools involved in Gateway pay the landlord (it received £15,000 in the first year, much of which has been recycled into other joint initiatives).
Factor in that many of Parkway Green’s DLO employees are approaching retirement age, and are likely to be on £25,000, while their teenage replacements cost less than half that, and it’s clear that organisations spreading their wings can still keep the basics covered very nicely.
Tenants of former arm’s-length management organisation Stevenage Homes - which has transferred back to Stevenage Council control but retains its ALMO name - made it clear at their 2011 annual conference that they wanted change in the organisation’s repairs service.
Two clear objectives were identified: to arrange repairs appointments at tenants’ convenience, and to get jobs done in one visit.
‘We offer a tenant an appointment when they want within a two-hour spot,’ says repairs manager Glenda McLellan.
The second element, empowering operatives to diagnose and carry out repairs rather than call centre allocating specific jobs based on tenants’ descriptions, was more complicated to implement - but has proved popular.
There was a bit of, “it’s not our job to diagnose”, but [operatives] appreciated we were over-specifying jobs,’ reveals Ms McLellan.
The local authority’s efforts to ‘get the basics right’ have also been flagged up by the Chartered Institute of Housing and Mears in their joint campaign.
No large-scale cost analysis has been carried out so far, but estimated savings are £10 to £14 per job. There are fewer aborted calls, customer satisfaction levels rose from 96.37 per cent in April 2011 to 98.27 per cent in July 2012, and average repair completion times fell from 10.32 days in April 2011 to 5.3 days in July 2012.