What landlords can learn from the winning approaches to working with residents to raise awareness of safety issues
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The first and most important priority for social landlords is to build high-quality homes that are safe to live in.
But last year’s green paper made it clear that in order to achieve this it is vital for residents to have a strong voice and ability to provide independent input into landlords’ safety policies.
Earlier this year, Inside Housing launched a competition, in association with Aico, that sought to uncover good practice from social landlords on how they have worked with residents to raise awareness of safety issues.
The idea was to flag up the very best approaches from across the sector and then help to spread the learning.
Our judges picked five housing associations looking at a range of different solutions as examples of learning that other landlords could pick up on. The five winners were: Hyde Group, Optivo (pictured above), WHG, Tamar Housing, and ForHousing.
Here is a summary of the approach they have taken in specific areas in order to provide some ideas for other landlords looking to up their game on safety.
Garland Court, one of the five towers in Gosport that needed the insulation replaced
Immediately following the Grenfell fire, Elaine Bailey, chief executive of Hyde, convened and led a taskforce with a remit to find out what fire safety remediation works needed to be undertaken on the group’s properties.
As part of this work, the group tested the cladding on five tower blocks in Gosport, Hampshire. It found that the external wall insulation behind the cladding on each building was highly flammable and needed to be replaced.
This was not an easy job. The towers all face the Solent coastline, which meant covering the buildings with protective sheeting to protect both buildings and those working to replace the cladding from the elements. This was a disruptive and lengthy project – which meant keeping residents informed and safe throughout was doubly important.
For the duration of the replacement programme, Hyde put roaming fire safety patrols in place, 24 hours a day. Staff also visited every home in each of the affected blocks to ensure every resident knew what to do in the event of a fire.
“I liked the commitment to engage with residents, with numerous reassurances through information and staff available to help residents feel safe. They now have something that is industry-leading”
Judge Michael Hill, business development manager, Tpas
The work took longer than planned – largely thanks to the current high demand for specialist cladding operatives across the UK as well as some inclement weather – but Hyde’s commitment to keeping residents informed, both about the works and the aim behind them, helped to mitigate the inconvenience for those affected.
“A recent survey of all Gosport’s five tower residents carried out by the residents’ associations showed that 85% of our residents felt that being safe from fire risk was most important to them, which agrees with Hyde’s number-one priority: for residents to be safe from fire risks and be safe in their homes,” says Janet Dempsey, chair of the Five Towers Residents’ Association. Nearly three-quarters of residents said they feel safer since the start of the work, she adds. “Despite the work falling behind schedule, Hyde’s ongoing resident engagement means that the majority are pleased that Hyde started this work.”
The time that Hyde took to engage with its residents – and the ongoing nature of that engagement – was key to the programme’s successful outcome, says Liz Oliver, interim director of compliance at Hyde.
“We brought a group of experts together to answer residents’ questions, which reassured them that we were doing the right thing,” she says. “When things didn’t go right we really listened to our residents and stakeholders and made changes to ensure that everyone involved was satisfied. This meant that what was originally negative feeling resulted in residents understanding that their safety is Hyde’s utmost priority.”
Fire safety has loomed large over the housing sector since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower two years ago. But there is more to it than the physical infrastructure, such as sprinklers and building materials. Communication is also fundamental to residents’ safety – and just as important to how safe they feel.
With this in mind, earlier this year Optivo’s resident-led scrutiny panel undertook an investigation into the organisation’s fire safety communications to see how well-informed residents felt and to make recommendations for improvements based on their findings.
Having residents at the front and centre of this process was absolutely key, says Charles Glover-Short, head of public affairs and corporate research at Optivo.
“With fire safety communications, getting the messaging right is absolutely vital,” he says. “And the most effective way to do so is to work closely with residents to see what forms of advice they understand and trust. You can spend huge amounts of time crafting different fire safety messages, but if they’re not understood by residents – or delivered through channels they’ll access – then much of your time is wasted.”
“It was really pleasing to see residents put at the heart of a review into communications on fire safety. [This] evidences how [they] can play a huge part in working collaboratively on some important issues”
Judge Michael Hill, business development manager, Tpas
The panel members explored the effectiveness of Optivo’s fire safety communications by speaking to their fellow residents and asking them if they knew what to do in the event of a fire. This was done both through focus groups that included residents from across Optivo’s tenures –including sheltered housing, general needs and shared ownership – and over the phone. In total, the panel received responses from 43 residents, which were then analysed and used to prepare recommendations for improvements to Optivo’s fire safety policies, as well as highlighting areas of best practice that were already in place.
“This was a really high-quality piece of work that demonstrates the very practical and topical impact of resident engagement,” says Paul Hackett, chief executive of Optivo. “The real benefit for me was that this piece of work looked at fire safety from the ‘other end of the telescope’… Our resident population really benefits from a review led by customers, rather than consultants.”
Following the review, the panel made a number of recommendations that have been acted upon by their landlord. These include training for staff in communicating fire safety procedures clearly, overhauling and flagging fire safety information on Optivo’s website, using social media to disseminate information, and including fire safety information in every edition of Optivo’s resident newsletter.
Tamar Housing uses social media to advise residents on keeping homes safe
At the heart of Plymouth-based Tamar Housing’s entry is the organisation’s desire to reach more of its residents in a more meaningful way. Last year, a focus group, which included residents, told Tamar that residents were keen to engage with their landlord through social media – and Tamar responded with a commitment to improve its digital offer.
In 2018, the association began to put out weekly repairs and maintenance advice for its tenants on Facebook. These posts, tagged #MaintenanceMonday, proved to be a success. Residents read, engaged with and shared the posts, and Tamar received plenty of positive feedback. So when the landlord decided to better promote health and safety information to its residents – something the organisation recognises can be challenging – it knew what to do.
“Tamar is a great example of a small organisation doing great things. They understood that if residents feel engaged, they are much more likely to recognise safety risks, follow advice and co-operate to allow access for maintenance. They used an engaging social media campaign to provide practical information and advice – this proved to be both high impact and low resource”
Judge Debbie Larner, head of knowledge and product, Chartered Institute of Housing
The first #SafetySaturday post went out in May this year. Each post is seen by an average of 124 people – an impressive reach for a 600-home association. Since the start of the initiative, Tamar has shared information on everything from how to test carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms and prepare a fire action plan for families to avoiding DIY accidents and scammers.
“It was about trying to create something interesting and useable,” says Stuart Francis-DuBois, operations director at Tamar. “There is a reason for reading it. It’s about creating a buzz – and we do that not just by posting about what we are doing but by posting stuff that might be interesting to residents outside of that.”
Since the start of the project, the association has increased its follower count on Facebook by 40%. “We have found our posts get shared quite frequently,” says Mr Francis-DuBois. “And not just with residents or people who like what we are doing. It’s a way of getting our name out there and getting messages out about safety in all its forms – whether personal, emotional or financial.”
This level of engagement is not just good for residents and readers, it’s good for Tamar, too. The organisation has built a channel of communication through which they can reach a lot of residents quickly and easily, whenever demanded.
Project High Rise, which began in January 2017, is 21,000-home association WHG’s response to research that suggested there was a stigma associated with living in high-rise blocks of flats.
The three-year project has several aims: sustain existing tenancies and attract new customers, provide a comprehensive community safety service, encourage residents to take responsibility for their blocks, and engage with residents to identify safety concerns.
To achieve these aims, WHG assigned a community safety advisor to each of its 11 high-rise blocks, with a mission to understand and address any tenancy-related issues, including money advice, health and well-being services, employment, safety – particularly around anti-social behaviour (ASB) – and, latterly, fire safety. The project is of a significant scale, too: the advisors have engaged with 2.5% of WHG’s residents and made more than 100 referrals to other services.
“This was a great example of the impact that face-to-face contact can have to provide assurance. We liked the positive partnership that WHG has developed with the fire service, both to assure residents about the specific issues in their buildings, but to practically allay concerns about the safety of the cladding by inviting residents to watch the testing of fire sample panels”
Judge Debbie Larner, head of knowledge and product, Chartered Institute of Housing
“I think Project High Rise was a marvellous success and has made a huge difference – not just to myself, but to all of the residents,” says WHG resident Margaret Whittaker. “It was so reassuring to have WHG’s community safety team here, carrying out such positive work.”
The Grenfell Tower fire happened as the housing association’s project was under way, and some residents became concerned that the cladding on their buildings might also be unsafe. WHG’s response was to invite residents to watch a fire safety test of the existing cladding – the cladding passed and no further concerns have been raised.
The project has been a resounding success. One year after launch, the landlord conducted a short survey of residents in the 11 blocks, of whom 88% said they felt safe or very safe where they lived – an increase of 6% on a survey conducted before the project began. In addition, WHG has reported a 34% reduction in reports of ASB within the blocks and a 52% reduction in ASB cases.
The project’s holistic approach has reaped benefits, too: WHG reports a 10% increase in the number of debt-free customers, and says 87% of those surveyed are now happy or very happy with where they live – an increase of 2%.
A ForHousing safety officer explaining the new sprinklers to residents
Unsurprisingly, reactions to the Grenfell Tower fire have informed many of this year’s winning entries. Following the tragedy, it was clear that existing fire safety regulations were not always fit for purpose. Rather than wait for the rules to change, 24,000-home ForHousing responded quickly to its residents’ safety concerns.
In the days and weeks after the fire, 128 tenants living in ForHousing’s 17 high-rise blocks called their landlord to say they no longer felt safe in their homes. The association responded by knocking on doors and holding consultation events with residents to listen to their concerns. This process shaped ForHousing’s decision to launch a £5m programme to install sprinklers in all 17 high-rise blocks and replace the external cladding on 11 of them.
“Everything we do is for the good of tenants and communities, so we knew that it was the right thing to do,” says Nigel Sedman, group director of homes at ForViva – of which ForHousing is a subsidiary.
“The entries that stood out were those that prioritised direct tenant involvement and those where landlords had taken action to address safety risks. In the case of ForHousing, I was impressed by the practical measures taken to safeguard tenants through their sprinkler installation project and through the way in which tenants were informed and involved”
Judge Pat Turnbull, regional representative, London Tenants Federation
The blocks were already safe, ForHousing says, but the new sprinklers are about more than safety – they have given residents peace of mind. ForHousing says 97% of its tenants now feel safe or very safe in their homes.
“In the event of a fire we know we’re going to stand a really good chance of coming out of it,” says ForHousing resident Peter Memory. “To me and my wife, we really do feel a lot safer.”
Communicating with residents was absolutely crucial to the project’s success in both the consultation and installation phases, says Mr Sedman.
“We couldn’t have achieved it without tenant engagement and listening to what they had to say, and it was imperative that we involved tenants as soon as the scheme was approved by our board,” he says. “By listening to tenants across all 17 blocks we could ‘myth bust’ some of the misconceptions about sprinklers, introduce the contractor and landlord delivery team, clearly explain the proposed works and timescales and align our specification, and the way we carried out the work to address tenant priorities.”
ForHousing’s proactive approach to fire safety has won the backing from the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, which has written to the government to praise the landlord’s work.
The wider sector is taking notice, too. Last year, 40 social landlords toured one of the housing association’s blocks to see for themselves the benefits of installing sprinkler systems.