It’s not just athletes who will face hurdles during the Olympic games, social landlords must keep repairs services on track in challenging circumstances. Alex Turner finds out how they’ve trained for the event
The Olympic creed famously places taking part above winning. Less often quoted is the conclusion to the games founder Pierre de Coubertin’s words, which emphasises putting in a strong performance.
London’s social landlords are certainly working out how they and their maintenance partners will put in a strong performance during the disruption caused by the Olympic games this summer.
The Olympic and Paralympic period stretches from late July to mid-September. Transport restrictions and congestion threaten conditions one senior officer calls a potential ‘nightmare’ for service delivery.
So how are housing providers and contractors planning to fulfil their, often urgent, repairs and maintenance commitments during this difficult period?
Inside Housing asked nine social landlords and contractors working in the capital about the challenges they will face and the measures put in place to ensure services function. We wanted to know about changes to operating procedures within the games period, how tenants’ expectations are being managed, and what benefits have come out of facing such hurdles.
All nine organisations agreed tackling emergencies (such as burst pipes, gas leaks and electrical failures) and urgent repairs (unblocking drains or replacing locks), posed a significant challenge.
The scale of this challenge depends largely on the proximity of stock and infrastructure to games facilities and the restricted, 109-mile network of roads connecting key venues.
‘Transport will grind to halt, we believe,’ warns Kevin Wright, director of technical resources at Poplar Harca, which manages 8,700 properties within a two-square-mile area of east London - some of which are only metres from the Olympic stadium. ‘Local government sources say roads will be virtually gridlocked; how do staff get access and supplies in?’
Poplar Harca’s answer is to ensure supplies are already in place. The association is stockpiling materials - including toilet ball valves, locks, sheets of plywood and glass - close to its properties.
While Poplar Harca’s housing density makes this relatively straightforward; others - notably East Thames Group, Peabody, Southern Housing and Swan - are pooling storage facilities to ensure their supplies are accessible. Contractor Kier has similarly augmented its supply chain, but with 100,000 homes across London to service it is looking at additional means of tackling this challenge.
‘Our operatives have personal digital assistants [palmtop computers] and we’ve got traffic and hotspot alerts going out so our call centre can give guidance,’ says Rob Leitch, regional managing director at Kier.
The contractor’s operatives - like those of Morrison, which services arm’s-length management organisation Hackney Homes, One Housing Group and Gateway Housing - will use bicycle and motorbike couriers for small jobs in locations vans may find harder to reach.
It’s not just materials and contractors that need to be in the right place at the right time, housing employees do too and many organisations are also applying flexible thinking to staffing.
‘We’ve offered a week condensed into four days, different shift patterns or working from home,’ reveals Abigail Ellis, interim head of maintenance at 13,000-home East Thames Group.
Those unable to work from home are likely to be working close to it. Contractors whose employees are normally pegged to an individual housing client are instead deploying them geographically to minimise distances travelled.
The housing providers and contractors Inside Housing spoke to are confident these measures will enable emergency and urgent jobs to be handled.
Appointments will move to evenings and weekends - which may prove more convenient for tenants, who have been consulted on changes to services via online briefings, direct mailouts and face-to-face meetings.
Routine appointments such as gas inspections have been brought forward where possible, while the two-week window between the Olympics and Paralympics may provide a catch-up opportunity - ‘we just don’t know’, says Ms Ellis.
Many contractors’ housing clients have agreed to defer non-essential repairs until after the games. In some cases this will mean they can be picked up as part of programmed works rather than a one-off job, reducing the cost for the housing provider.
This isn’t the only potential benefit to emerge amid the headache of Olympic planning; it has presented a chance to test business continuity plans as ‘real documents rather than things that sit on a dusty shelf’, in Mr Wright’s words.
Several organisations also hope to permanently implement some of the flexible working practices trialling during the games, and Chris Smith, head of ICT, risk and contract governance at 22,000-home ALMO Tower Hamlets Homes speaks warmly about improved partnership working.
‘Working with the borough and other providers we’ve been making and rebuilding connections,’ he concludes. ‘When ALMOs are set up sometimes links between departments get stretched. It’s been a real opportunity to have conversations - especially with adults’ and children’s services - about what can we do to ensure the well-being of vulnerable residents on a sustainable basis going forward.’
What the tenants think
Whatever the steps taken by housing providers and their partners, it’s their customers who bear the brunt of service delivery breakdowns. We spoke to two tenants to get their thoughts on the London Olympics.
‘The positives outweigh the negatives,’ says Margaret Cox, who lives in a Tower Hamlets Homes maisonette in Bethnal Green. ‘For a few weeks we may have to change how we do things, but anything’s possible with the right attitude.’
Debbie Taylor, an East Thames Group tenant in Canning Town, isn’t so sure. ‘It’ll cause lots of disruption to driving and parking,’ she says. ‘It’s good for the area; not so good for those living there.’
Ms Cox and Ms Taylor say they have been kept informed about service changes and acknowledge the considerable challenge their landlords face deserves a little latitude. But both residents’ cautiously optimistic words come with the expectation that standards will not slip during the games period.
‘Everyone has known about this for a long time; it hasn’t sprung from out of the heavens,’ reasons Ms Cox.
‘If [providers] haven’t been able to pull it together it’s a poor show.’