A housing association and a council explain how a holistic approach to repairs and maintenance is delivering results for both organisations
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Challenge: Flooring works in communal areas disruptive to tenants
Solution: New installation method utilised
Outcome: Tenant complaints fall to zero
The Decent Homes Standard transformed council estates across Sheffield. But Steph Grayson, housing co-ordinator at Sheffield Council, points out that most of the communal areas were left untouched.
“They would have normal day-to-day repairs, but there hadn’t been any improvements since they were built,” she says. “They were looking shabby.”
Two years ago, the council embarked on a programme to upgrade these neglected spaces in 4,000 blocks across the city. It teamed up with property solutions provider Fortem to improve two-thirds of the blocks.
“We’ve been putting in new entrance doors and entry systems, and replacing any timber or metal-framed windows with double glazed uPVC windows,” Ms Grayson explains. “There’s also been an electric upgrade replacing the internal lights with LED lights.”
In addition, the council asked Fortem to replace the unsightly and in some cases potentially hazardous flooring.
“Many of our blocks have concrete floors. They are grey, dull and utilitarian. Or they have old, asbestos-containing, thermal plastic floor tiles that tend to be either a dull burgundy-brown colour or black,” she says. “They are very dark.”
However, the product specified by the council involved three stages of drying and required the tenants to stay off the floor for up to 16 hours.
“The work has made such a massive difference to the residents’ lives.”
Steph Grayson, housing co-ordinator, Sheffield Council
“People living in these blocks were having to walk through the communal area all the time,” says Ms Grayson. “This slowed the pace of the work. The contractors had to fill in the pram wheel marks and footprints before they could lay the floor.”
It created a “logistical nightmare” for the council, which was receiving at least one complaint a day from tenants. Fortunately, Fortem developed an alternative approach, which has now been adopted across the programme in Sheffield.
“Fortem came up with a one-step solution, using a damp proof course at the bottom and then a screed. It is ready to walk on after four hours,” she says.
Ms Grayson and her team have not received a single complaint about the installation of the flooring since the builders started using the new method.
Indeed, tenants in finished blocks are now reaping the benefits of their new entrance halls and stairwells.
“The flooring and lighting in particular have made such a massive difference to the residents’ lives,” she says. “Residents are taking pride in their blocks now. We’ve found that they are much cleaner and tidier.”
One tenant told Ms Grayson that she could now invite guests over without feeling embarrassed.
“She told us: ‘I was ashamed when I had visitors coming in, but it doesn’t look like a council block. Now it’s lovely. It looks like a private block of flats. I’m not embarrassed when people come anymore’.”
Challenge: Repairs programme needed for more than 6,500 properties
Solution: Close working between landlord and contractor
Outcome: Improved tenant satisfaction
Since 2014, Fortem has been looking after at least 5,523 general needs properties and 1,111 care and support properties for Midland Heart. This is a considerable undertaking, involving carrying out about 16,000 repairs each year.
“Fortem covers our South region for repairs, maintenance and voids. It’s about a third of our portfolio,” says Gary Dulson, senior operations manager at Midland Heart.
It is what’s known as a price-per-property contract. This means that Midland Heart pays Fortem a set amount for each property to carry out all the necessary routine repairs.
“The advantage of price-per-property contracts is that they give you cost certainty. You know at the end of every year – within reason and excluding non-routine work – exactly what you need to be spending on your stock,” explains Mr Dulson.
He compares it to a “comprehensive insurance policy”, but says it cannot cover every eventuality.
“There are exemptions that are not included in the price per property, such as major works. If a roof blew off, then under the price-per-property contract we wouldn’t expect Fortem to replace it, whereas if there were just some tiles that needed to be replaced, then it would be covered,” he says.
Fortem and Midland Heart are working together in innovative ways to ensure customers receive the best possible service. Fortem staff work from Midland Heart offices to speed up response times for customers.
“We’ve got Fortem staff based in our offices in Birmingham. That facilitates better communication with our customers. We can get problems resolved quickly because we don’t have to wait for people to call back. We are able to go to our contractors immediately, whether it is scheduling issues or appointments,” he says.
The two organisations’ IT systems are also closely intermeshed. This too has benefits for customers.
“We have interlinked digital platforms that speak to each other. We have an interface where, for example, when an operative finishes a job and enters it into a handheld device, then that information is immediately uploaded into the Fortem system in real time. That is replicated in our operating system,” he says.
The real-time sharing of data makes the repairs service highly efficient. Both parties know what has been done immediately.
But that’s not all they share. Midland Heart keeps Fortem informed of the most frequently needed spare parts so tenants do not have to wait for vital repairs.
“We go through our regularly used parts to keep one step ahead. We try to anticipate the things that are likely to fail and are critical. For instance, the flushing mechanism on a toilet, which a customer can’t go without for long,” he says.
Standard kitchens and bathrooms ensure operatives do not need to carry around a multitude of different parts. “We try to install a standard set of accessories so that the contractors do not have to carry so much stock in their vans,” he says.
The partnership uses technology to remind tenants of appointments.
Customers get a text message sent to their mobile when an appointment is scheduled and another one the day before. “That helps to drive up appointments made and kept successfully,” says Mr Dulson.
All of these innovations have led to improved tenant satisfaction.
“We measure overall satisfaction with the repair. We measure happiness with the conduct of the operative; did they, for instance, show their ID card, did they make it clear they were from Midland Heart and did they explain the work,” he says. “And we have, during the past 18 months, seen more than a 90% satisfaction level for repairs.”