Matt Greaves, safety and assurance director at Sovereign, talks to Inside Housing about the vital role his team plays in compliance and its changing nature
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What does a day’s work for a safety and assurance director involve?
My role has changed over the time I’ve been doing it – this reflects both the way that Sovereign is working and what safety means: the sector has moved from ‘compliance’ to ‘safety’, wrapping together aspects of compliance with resident, colleague and building safety.
Being able to see the shift and improvement in safety culture in rapid time in the past few years has been rewarding for me.
The quality of conversations we have from top to bottom at Sovereign about safety issues is healthy, open and really pleasing.
It comes back to our core purpose: we are providing quality homes, and quality homes must be safe homes.
Sovereign has a diverse range of properties and residents including homes for older people, temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness, specialist support for people with mental health needs, along with social rent, affordable housing and private rented homes. Safety is a crucial part of their management.
My focus is to provide the tools and framework for Sovereign to deliver safety and to provide a clear conversation about it to our stakeholders, committees and senior leaders across the housing association.
Who is your team?
The compliance assurance team I manage drives our building safety programme and makes sure that Sovereign is responding to and ready for future legislation and recommendations, for example, from the Grenfell report.
It’s useful for there to be a team that has distance to contemplate the emerging opportunities to do all this better for our residents. The other part of my team is a traditional occupational health and safety remit.
It’s important to remember safety is not a centralised function; it happens every day and everyone is involved, across the whole housing association.
How do you involve residents in understanding safety in their homes and your compliance requirements?
Resident safety has always been extremely important to us. Now it is framed differently to five years ago.
We constantly challenge our processes and we’ve moved on.
Prior to the merger with Spectrum in 2016, our approach had been traditional and paternalistic when communicating with residents.
But the merger was the ideal opportunity to create a new resident involvement structure. It gave residents a voice supported by a community engagement and scrutiny team and put them at the heart of the organisation.
Along with the board, the executive and an expert external facilitator, we started the ‘triangle of involvement’ – a structure of three areas of engagement.
Part of the challenge for your department is to gain access to properties. How do you achieve this?
Our gas safety check record is very strong and our electrical inspection record is good but we’re always working hard to improve.
I think this is because residents understand that their gas has to be tested and the risks of not doing so, but they’re not so familiar with electrical inspections.
They often think that if there are no issues in their home, there’s no need to be inspected.
That’s why the wording of the communication we send out seeking an appointment is vital and we have a team that helps with this.
For some safety issues, residents might not understand the importance, so we have ongoing campaigns on safety-related issues to improve that.
We find that the more notice we give a resident to tell them we need access to their home, the more likely it is that we will be able to get into the property.
We give residents as much opportunity as possible to control the appointment. We engage in many different ways – letters, text messaging and on the resident portal. When we don’t manage to gain access, we have a case management approach that’s individually tailored between our compliance delivery team and housing officers.
It’s all recorded on our customer relationship management system. We have a tight and routine process of going down a legal route but, thankfully, we don’t have to do this too often.
How do you work with your contractors to ensure they are competent and safe?
It starts with the procurement process, then effective management and quality systems that highlight performance, along with site inspection.
We did a useful exercise at the end of last year when the safety team dropped in on our teams and contractors unannounced and that provided a great deal of genuine insight. Personally, I feel there is an opportunity to invest more deeply with some of our key contractors and learn from them because they are often the experts.
How do you ensure the housing association has the correct certificates in place?
There are lots of different people involved in making sure Sovereign’s performance is right and that we have the necessary certificates – these range from an administrator, a contact centre advisor or a housing officer – and what we’ve been doing recently, and getting great feedback on, is investing in those roles to ensure everyone is skilled.
There’s a tendency to focus on gas safety, electricians and the alarm testers who are delivering the work. As a result, the support teams in the office are sometimes overlooked but their role is equally important, not only because they can identify where there might be issues, but also because they can offer ideas and innovation to how we can do this better.
Has new technology had an impact?
Yes, it plays a big role. Since our merger we have consolidation systems, and now we’re looking to improve on them and how they are used to produce high-quality data.
Two or three years ago our focus was on a tactical level of data-checking and challenging our own data. This has matured into a more strategic approach.
We use our data to make sure we have the right certification in the right place, at the right time – gas safety checks, electrical inspections – through to secondary tiers of quality checks on our external providers, leading indicators of training and competency.
Headlines from the data flow through to our executive team and a mass of data goes to our health and safety leadership group.
Overall, this means Sovereign’s board has increased transparency and, ultimately, our residents have greater reassurance that the home they live in is safe – with all the necessary compliance and certificates.