When PA Housing decided to improve its relationship with its tenants, it started by reinventing its frontline services. Gavriel Hollander spent a day out and about with staff to find out how it’s panning out. Photography by Matt Gore
Ros Wilkinson’s van – Alan – may not technically be an employee of Paragon Asra (PA) Housing, but he is certainly treated like one by his owner and her colleagues.
According to Ms Wilkinson, Alan – a white Volkswagen that has been equipped with something akin to a mobile office, kettle and all, in the rear seating area – travels up to 100 miles a day in support of her work as one of 28 neighbourhood co-ordinators at the more than 23,000-home association. “I have to service him twice a year to keep him happy,” she laughs.
And it is important that Alan is kept happy, as being able to get around is central to the philosophy behind the creation of the neighbourhood co-ordinator roles back in April this year. PA’s thinking was clear: to improve tenant engagement, it needs to change how it is done.
The strategy dates back to the merger – or “amalgamation” as the two parties call it – of Paragon Community Housing and Asra Housing Group in 2017, which created PA Housing.
Sally-Anne Underhill, head of housing services for the Midlands at PA, admits that the relationship between the tenants and landlord at Asra, where she worked pre-merger, was not as good as it could have been.
“Four years ago, with the 1% rent cut and the way the organisation was going, we made a lot of redundancies and realised a lot of savings,” she recalls. “By the time we got to the amalgamation, our relationship with our customers wasn’t brilliant. We didn’t have the people out on the ground as much as we would have liked.”
At Paragon, there were also issues with the consistency of frontline services, according to Rachael Smart, head of housing for London and the South East. “There was no real consistent level of service,” she recalls, explaining how housing officers often had too many demands on their time.
“They were not meant to be out of the office all the time but they weren’t in the office all the time either.” This meant that officers would “come back to endless voicemails and emails” when they did return to work.
When the two organisations came together, it was seen as a chance to address these shortcomings.
Although the work on what was to be called ‘the neighbourhood model’ began just before the amalgamation, it moved on quickly after.
“We worked with resident scrutiny teams on the new model,” continues Ms Smart. “We ran a series of workshops to look at what needed to be delivered and how it could be delivered in the best way.”
At the heart of the model that emerged are the neighbourhood co-ordinators. These essentially replaced the old housing officer roles that both organisations previously had. Besides the name change, the key difference is how much time is spent on the ground, checking up on PA’s stock and – in doing so – getting to know its residents.
“They are ambassadors – familiar faces on the ground,” explains Ms Smart. “They are out of the office at least 70% of the time and enabled for mobile working.”
Crucially, the co-ordinators do not case manage anything themselves, instead they direct residents with specific issues to the appropriate centralised support service. Contact is designed to be face to face wherever possible, or via notice boards in blocks and social media.
The idea is that they are not “bogged down by admin, by emails and phone calls”, as Ms Smart describes. She adds: “A pet hate of mine was housing management by letter.”
Ms Wilkinson certainly doesn’t spend much time writing letters to tenants. Instead, she and Alan are on the road every day, carrying out safety checks and generally making herself known to residents.
She has what she describes as a “travelling patch”, which includes blocks across a wide expanse of PA’s relatively scattered stock, from Brentford in west London to Reading, nearly 40 miles away. This is where Alan is a vital tool.
When Inside Housing spends a morning with the pair, they are travelling to Broadwater House in Weybridge. Today, this five-storey block is also the site of PA’s ‘Neighbourhoods on Tour’ roadshow, a series of events where frontline staff are on hand to field questions from residents.
The idea is that residents can approach staff on a casual basis and discuss anything that is causing them concern. As Ms Underhill suggests, this can allow them to raise matters that they may not want to raise in a more formal way.
“A lot of people come out and report serious ASB [anti-social behaviour] that they may [have been] too frightened to report before,” she tells Inside Housing. She also says that cases of domestic abuse have been reported at the half-dozen Neighbourhoods on Tour events that have taken place so far.
Outside Broadwater House, where a gazebo has been set up this late summer morning, the complaints are more prosaic: one resident asks whether the recycling bins outside the block can be repositioned, others bring up an apparently longstanding issue with the smell from the drains.
“When you are on site doing your job, people can come over and talk to you more easily”
Ros Wilkinson, neighbourhood co-ordinator, PA Housing
For Ms Wilkinson, the new role allows her to understand residents’ concerns a lot better.
“It’s the little things like the location of the bins but these make a big difference to the people who live here,” she explains.
Broadwater House in Weybridge
“When you are on site doing your job, people can come over and talk to you more easily,” she elaborates. “I’ve only been on this patch since May and people already know me – they like the fact that you are accessible.”
Marina Munday, a 20-year resident of the block, is coming back home from the shops with her one-year-old Jack Russell, Jacko. She also tells Ms Wilkinson about the drains but she admits that the service from her landlord has changed since the reorganisation.
“Since Ros has been here it’s improved a lot,” she says. “She is always here to talk to; before we would never really see anybody.”
Ms Wilkinson jokes that she will slip Ms Munday a fiver next time she sees her. But she accepts that not all relationships with tenants are as easy. As with all blocks of five floors or more, Broadwater House has a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to fire hazards, a policy brought in two years ago by PA following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
This has meant that all items in communal areas must be cleared. The policy has caused some tension, but Ms Wilkinson says that being a regular presence around the blocks helps ease those tensions.
“For the neighbourhood co-ordinators, we went on attitude and behaviours rather than someone whose been a housing officer for 20 years"
Sally-Anne Underhill, head of housing services for the Midlands, PA Housing
She tells the story of one woman who thought she was being victimised after being told to remove shoes from outside her front door. “She made a complaint,” recounts Ms Wilkinson. “I knocked [on] her [door] and said to her that it might only be a small item but if there’s a fire and it’s dark, it could be dangerous for her kids.”
According to Ms Wilkinson, the relationship improved from there on. “It’s just about talking to people on a level that they appreciate,” she says.
Neighbourhood co-ordinators use phones or tablets to complete forms on site
While carrying out safety checks, the co-ordinators use their phones or tablets to complete the relevant forms there and then. This doesn’t just mean the work is done more efficiently, it also means they spend more time in the blocks.
“It means we are more open for anyone to come up and talk to us,” Ms Wilkinson explains.
As it stands, PA only has anecdotal evidence of the impact of the new strategy, though Ms Smart insists that “on-the-ground feedback” has been positive.
The housing association is certainly committing to it financially, with an extra £1m spent on staffing alone. It went on a recruitment drive last year to fill 32 new posts, with the idea of finding people not necessarily already in the housing sector. The association held three open days, with more than 400 people coming to the one in London. In total, they received 1,021 applications for the jobs.
“For the neighbourhood co-ordinators, we went on attitude and behaviours rather than [someone who says] ‘I have been a housing officer for 20 years’,” comments Ms Underhill.
Ms Wilkinson, who was working for PA already, albeit in a different team, encapsulates the attitude her bosses are talking about.
“To do this job you need to be a people person,” she says with clear passion as she drops Inside Housing off at Weybridge Station and she and Alan set off towards their next destination. “You are working in people’s homes so it’s about having that bit of respect as well.”