After Grenfell, the spotlight was turned on safety in social housing and the importance of the tenant voice. Inside Housing’s round table discusses how housing providers might talk about safety with the people living in their homes. Photography by SWNS
In association with:
Earlier this year, Inside Housing launched a campaign, alongside Aico, that focused on safety in the housing sector. In particular we wanted to look at how residents were involved in decision-making and communication processes.
To do this, a competition was launched to uncover learning about ways organisations are working with residents to communicate and work through safety issues.
A panel of judges chose five winners and Inside Housing invited the winners and judges to a round table, chaired by deputy editor Peter Apps, to discuss the campaigns and how the engagement with residents can be continued.
Rosemary Ley is the resident chair of a scrutiny panel that evaluates the way housing association Optivo communicates with its residents – with a central focus on driving improvement.
The team focused on engaging residents in high-rise properties about fire safety – “not because there was a problem”, Ms Ley states, “but because post-Grenfell it was a good time to address the issues”.
She continues: “We surveyed some of the residents in our tower blocks and found that the majority felt safe. However, when asked what they would do in the event of a fire, many didn’t know what to do if there was an evacuation, while others were anxious about the message to ‘stay put’ as many residents hadn’t considered what this meant.”
Ms Ley says that the panel acted because it “wanted residents to know what they had to do, not have heard rumours and lost the understanding of fire safety procedures, and we wanted to keep the message alive so that everyone was aware”.
Pat Turnbull, Hackney representative for the London Tenants Federation, was one of the competition’s judges. She says that making sure residents were involved in decision-making about safety issues was one of the key elements she was looking for.
Charles Glover-Short, head of public affairs and corporate research, Optivo; Tina Mistry, regional specification manager, Aico; and Stuart Francis-Dubois, operations director, Tamar Housing
“After all, residents know the property they live in better than anyone else,” she says.
Michael Hill, one of the competition judges and business development manager at Tpas, agrees. He says that seeing residents leading a campaign was ideal.
Another winning entry, Hyde, also talked about the importance of face-to-face contact with residents. Its campaign focused on five tower blocks in Gosport that are undergoing cladding removal. Hyde wanted the buildings’ 750 residents to feel safe during the process.
“We held coffee mornings and surgeries – now people come by not only to discuss concerns but to say hello because they know the team,” says Liz Oliver, interim director of compliance.
When looking at the competition entries, the judges noted how different forms of engagement were employed. Tina Mistry, regional specification manager at fire and carbon monoxide alarm specialists Aico, which sponsored the campaign, says: “Aico works with landlords to gain access to buildings. My role is to engage residents and I found being on the judging panel interesting because of the diverse practices used, such as something as simple but effective as a Facebook page.”
Tina Mistry, regional specification manager, Aico; Stuart Francis-Dubois, operations director, Tamar Housing; and Rosemary Ley, resident representative, Optivo
This was the main platform for Tamar Housing, based in Plymouth. Operations director Stuart Francis-Dubois explains why: “We are a small organisation employing just 21 staff to manage 700 homes across South West England. Therefore our campaign had to be low cost and simple, and have impact. We know our residents engage with us on Facebook. In fact, we have more followers than we do residents, and we know that on average 160 residents view our posts.”
Explaining the idea of the ‘Safety Saturday’ campaign, Mr Francis-Dubois says: “It’s called Safety Saturday and every week we post about fire safety, electrical issues, internet safety or scams. The advantage of this information being online is that unlike flyers, posters or letters, the Facebook posts are always available for reference.”
ForHousing had a similar motivation to Optivo and Hyde Group, says Nigel Sedman, group director of homes at ForHousing. “We had 17 blocks that were home to 1,300 residents and 11 blocks had cladding. Post-Grenfell, we decided to remove the cladding and we started a campaign to reassure residents that we were doing everything to keep them safe. However residents still felt unsafe, so in September 2017 we fitted sprinklers in all the high-rise blocks.”
As a result of the campaign, when the sprinklers were installed, ForHousing was able to access 100% of the properties because residents understood the collective responsibility and how it might compromise their neighbours if they did not allow maintenance staff into their flat.
After that, ForHousing continued the campaign to bust myths. For example, Mr Sedman says: “Residents were worried that if they burned their toast, all the sprinklers across the block might go off.”
Michael Hill, business development manager, Tpas; and Pat Turnbull, Hackney representative, London Tenants Federation
The engagement with residents at WHG started before the Grenfell tragedy, says Paul Dockerill, director of energy and programme management. “We wanted to find out how people felt living in our 17 high-rise blocks and as a result of what we heard we held quarterly meetings with the local fire service.”
WHG has a ‘stay safe policy’, and every six months the management team knocks on doors, direct mails flyers and uses social media to message residents about it. “Our satisfaction survey shows that we’ve improved how residents feel about safety,” Mr Dockerill says.
ForHousing has a policy to stay put because many of its blocks are 10 to 20 storeys high with a single staircase. In March, it launched a campaign with the fire service to rename it ‘stay safe’.
The reason was that “we had 200 residents tell us they were anxious living in a tall block, despite the block being safe – it was their perception. We want our residents to have improved lives, and they can’t if they feel anxious. From a commercial perspective, it is also good when residents feel safe because they will stay in the property for longer,” Mr Sedman says.
Debbie Larner, head of knowledge and products, Chartered Institute of Housing
“This is what inspires me about the competition entries,” says Debbie Larner, head of knowledge and products at the Chartered Institute of Housing. “Housing associations haven’t done these campaigns because they had to but because they understand the importance. It’s great to be proactive.”
Communicating a safety message is vital but so is getting feedback, says Mr Dockerill. “WHG owns buildings with cladding that we know is safe, however we couldn’t assume that residents also knew this. To demonstrate, we invited residents to watch the fire service attempt to set fire to a panel… and they couldn’t. It was a wonderful way to communicate to our residents that they were safe.”
The feedback we received, he says, was positive and even those residents who had not seen the demonstration had been influenced because the message had spread via other residents.
Ms Oliver at Hyde agrees: “The only way the organisation can know if residents are proud of where they live is to ask them for feedback.”
Nigel Sedman, group director of homes, ForHousing
Once a housing manager has received feedback, it needs to be processed. Perhaps the new building safety manager role proposed in the Hackitt Review is what is needed, suggests Mr Apps.
“It’s important that residents can see something is being done and that person has to be equipped and skilled to deal with the problem,” says Mr Sedman.
“When you peel back the skills for that new role, it’s fundamentally about resident engagement. We already have on-site managers and they are able to send residents direct mail the same day that something happens, which is vital for safety.”
The Grenfell Inquiry recently recommended that organisations that own high-rise buildings should develop evacuation procedures. For many social landlords, this will involve changing their systems and communicating these changes.
Paul Dockerill, director of energy and programme management, WHG
When interviewing residents at Optivo, Ms Ley says, it was found that residents often only remember part of a message. “It is vital to continually deliver the message and ensure the language used helps tenants to understand and to remember.”
Ms Mistry agrees, adding: “Residents who are more vulnerable have a variety of needs, whether it be living with dementia, agoraphobia or learning difficulties, so the methods of communication have to be different. Before policies are changed, the demographic of a community has to be understood.”
Ms Larner asks the attendees whether they think increased regulation of resident communication could help to improve bad performance.
Charles Glover-Short, head of public affairs and corporate research at Optivo, thinks it is a good idea if it sets a benchmark for a minimum standard, however for organisations that are already doing this, it should not hinder them. “It’s about getting the balance right,” he says.
Mr Dockerill adds: “It’s been two-and-a-half years since Grenfell and many organisations have been waiting for the government to tell the sector what to do, while others have already taken steps to do the right thing.
Liz Oliver, interim director of compliance, Hyde Group
“Had the sector collaborated more and created communication platforms to learn from one another, we could have set the standards ourselves.”
Mr Apps wonders if this is now migrating into other areas of business for social landlords.
The consequence is simple, suggests Ms Mistry. “Without resident engagement, access into properties would be a nightmare and would drive up delivery costs for maintenance.”
Mr Hill says that Tpas is asking social landlords to think about their culture, and resident engagement has a huge part to play.
“Culture is an easy word to say but it’s more difficult to change. We would like organisations to consider how every touch point is an engagement opportunity. For example, repairs and maintenance teams are out in properties meeting residents every day and it’s important to see this as an opportunity to gather information and for residents to know this, too.”
Ms Ley concludes: “Safety is everybody’s business and I’d like to see this as a motto so that no one shies away from the responsibility.”
Peter Apps (chair)
Deputy editor, Inside Housing
Director of energy and programme management, WHG
Operations director, Tamar Housing
Head of public affairs and corporate research, Optivo
Business development manager, Tpas
Head of knowledge and products, Chartered Institute of Housing
Resident representative, Optivo
Regional specification manager, Aico
Interim director of compliance, Hyde Group
Group director of homes, ForHousing
Hackney representative, London Tenants Federation