As I embark on my new life as an ‘independent’ in our wonderful housing world, I have had the luxury of being able to take time out to contemplate what it’s all about. Partly because I wanted to work out how I can help organisations improve the experience of their tenants, without competing with all the brilliant consultancy organisations already out there. But also, having been involved in our fabulous housing sector for almost 30 years (yikes) I wanted to take learning from my own career journey and share this to hopefully get people thinking, talking, agreeing and of course, disagreeing.
So, you may be asking, what did Simone come up with in her quest to find (in the words of Douglas Adams) “The answer to the great question...of Life, the Universe and Everything...”? – and, in particular, what on earth have weeds got to do with it?
So, here’s the thing. I have always seen myself as an open, approachable and collaborative leader. I always had an ‘open door’ policy for people in my teams, regardless of where they sat within the great corporate landscape. I would invite all new starters for a coffee and a chat and one thing I would always say is ‘come and talk to me about how we can improve the way we do things round here’. I would organise staff awaydays to get people talking and sharing about their ‘sweet spots’ and areas for improvement. And I would take time out to wander round offices for a chat with my people, to check in and at the same time, try to get a feel for what’s happening on the ground.
So hopefully you are now beginning to get what the weeds reference is all about. The fact is that no matter how open and collaborative leaders are, how can they really be sure what is happening on the ground, or out there on the front line, or however you wish to phrase it?
I believe the answer is that mostly, it is difficult. It’s not for the want of trying. But there are always other priorities, those high level matters which leaders are there to deal with. So, organisations hire the best people they can, support and trust them to keep the operational ship afloat. It’s called delegation.
But I have concluded that to be an effective leader we need to have our own clear insight about what is happening out there. Leaders somehow need to be in the weeds, and not just when there are major problems or complaints that warrant direct involvement. I guess you could liken it to having your own internal proactive regulation (to coin the words of the Regulator), that goes beyond formal internal audit arrangements.
Leaders need to find a way to give employees the confidence to be really open with them. And then to find a method of triangulating honest employee feedback with the views of tenants, contractors, partners. Not via performance reports that find their way up to board or council committee meetings or get published in annual reports. Nor even via staff conferences, or ‘all singing, all dancing’ reporting frameworks.
I believe that as a sector we owe this to customers. And with the regulator ‘knocking on the door’ with the new consumer standards and the accompanying proactive approach to regulating them, along with the ‘naming and shaming’ in the media and now regular publication of ombudsman findings, it really is the time for action, for re-thinking how we can do this.
In fact, recently I attended a webinar focusing on the new tenant satisfaction measures soon to be launched. One of the messages shared by the Director of Consumer Regulation was… you guessed it - the importance of executives and Boards having a clear understanding of what’s happening out there, on the front line. Or, as I call it ‘down there in the weeds’. So, clearly, I am not alone in this thinking.
Gladly my period of self-indulgent reflection has not been in vain!
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 21/12/2020.
The Social Housing White Paper represents a big change but we should fully support a new, more standardised system of assessing tenants’ satisfaction, says Simone Chinman Russell
In my previous couple of columns, I have unsurprisingly been focusing on the pandemic. Not only has coronavirus had a significant impact on our housing services here at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, but I have become involved in helping to address a much broader range of challenges in my capacity as corporate director.
Since March, I have been juggling the competing demands of a 9,000-home landlord service and housing development programme, with our corporate, borough-wide response to the pandemic, from managing homelessness and bringing ‘everyone in’ to supporting the efforts of the county-wide resilience forum and implementing the government’s various COVID plans and policies.
However, I have been feeling a bit detached from my housing roots and I have to admit that the publication of the housing white paper – the much-anticipated Charter for Social Housing Residents – has put a spring in my step. A new challenge!
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I guess most readers out there will think I’m a bit strange. Few people welcome additional regulation and closer scrutiny. I remember all too clearly my pre-council days, when the last thing I did for my previous housing association employer was to co-ordinate our short-notice Audit Commission inspection – hands up if you remember those!
However, I do feel that no one can argue with the principles set out in the white paper. It will also certainly help me and other colleagues up and down the country to press the ‘reset’ button, challenging us to critically assess our own services.
“If the new framework can prevent another Grenfell, we should embrace it”
I appreciate that there will be differing views and that some may consider the white paper to be somewhat paternalistic, passing harsh judgement on our sector, which largely is only trying to do its very best in challenging circumstances. But I take great comfort in the fact that residents have been listened to in the white paper and if the new framework can prevent another Grenfell, we should embrace it.
I get the point about needing to provide a consistent approach to performance management and reporting. Having worked in the housing association, ALMO and local authority sectors, it is clear to me that there is a disparity in how the regulatory regime works across different types of organisation. This needs to be addressed, to create a level playing field for tenants, regardless of who their landlord is.
To this end, I feel it is right that a more proactive regulatory approach is on the horizon for consumer standards. I hope that the new framework will facilitate better consistency in how performance metrics are reported and interpreted, so that genuine accountability and benchmarking is possible.
Finding a balance between creating consistency, while having regard for the rich diversity of our sector, will be a challenge. But ultimately governance arrangements in all organisations should be fit for ensuring that tenants do not lose out because of who their landlord is.
“Our scrutiny is mainly delivered by elected members, not the regulator”
This will particularly be the case now that the scrutiny of local authorities’ performance will be more closely aligned to that of private registered providers. I believe the new regime will present a bigger culture shock for local authorities, which have not been subject to proactive regulatory visits since the demise of the Audit Commission housing inspection regime.
Local authorities, like our housing association counterparts, promote residents’ involvement in scrutinising services. But our scrutiny is mainly delivered by elected members, not the regulator.
Moving forward I believe we should fully support a new, more standardised system of assessing tenants’ satisfaction. Consumer-friendly complaints processes are a fundamental right, especially where our customers have little choice and where our product, housing, is a basic human need.
The requirement that tenants wishing to escalate their complaint to the ombudsman had to do so via a ‘designated person’ created a barrier to swift and fair resolution of problems. Removing this barrier will have the effect of speeding things up and ‘keeping us on our toes’ in doing everything we can to satisfy and (dare I say it), even delight our customers with the least possible fuss.
With no clear ‘end date’ for this dreadful pandemic in sight, I appreciate that being encumbered with a heftier regulatory burden will not please everyone. But overriding this is my passion for equality, fairness and the right of everyone to live in a safe, well managed home in a healthy, attractive and secure environment. As such, I welcome the challenge that we have been set as a sector – and I hope I am not alone in this.
Source: Inside Housing - Comment - The new regulatory regime will be a culture shock for councils
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 01/10/2020.
At its heart, the world of social housing is not about markets, shares and GDP, it’s about trying to put food on the table and keeping a roof over people’s heads. With Universal Credit claims up and the eviction ban lifted in England, here’s how we are trying to protect tenants, writes Simone Russell
The financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will clearly be severe. The UK is now in the deepest recession for years.
But as we in the social housing sector know, to households struggling to make ends meet this is not about world markets, shares and GDP. It’s about trying to put food on the table, paying essential bills and a keeping roof over heads.
A number of our tenants often find it tough to manage their budgets. But for those already in difficulty, the pandemic has dealt a swift and potentially final blow to any chance of holding things together.
We know that those most affected financially as a direct result of COVID-19 are most likely to be people in low-skilled, poorly paid employment. The carers and caterers, those in the retail and services sector. Those who haven’t had the luxury of working from home, as I have in my little office-cum-spare bedroom.
The level of financial hardship since March is clearly demonstrated through the sharp increases in unemployment and new benefits claims.
Office for National Statistics figures reveal that 400,000 more families with children started claiming Universal Credit (UC) in April and May, meaning that 58% of all single parents and 10% of couple parents have enrolled for the benefit since the end of March. The figures showed that 5.6 million people were claiming UC, and with the government’s furlough scheme being scaled back, the problem is likely to get worse over coming months.
Aside from the financial impact on household incomes and associated risk of poverty and homelessness, the reduced income being seen by social landlords as a direct consequence of increasing rent arrears poses long-term risks to other activities, including of course investment in new homes for the future.
Thankfully the government put a hold on evictions for rent arrears during the worst of the pandemic, but with these restrictions lifted in England, the question I ask myself is how can we as a sector provide the right type of support to families struggling to pay their rent through no fault of their own, while protecting the financial viability of our businesses, continue to deliver excellent services and meet our longer-term ambitions for new housing provision?
Here in Welwyn Hatfield, despite seeing nearly 500 new UC cases since the beginning of March and more than 700 new arrears cases, our rapid response, strong engagement and flexible approach has helped to mitigate the effects on our tenants and the council’s income stream.
Despite the abrupt change in working methods brought about by lockdown, our team has worked tirelessly to prevent arrears spiralling out of control. Through the intensive support our income team provided during the pandemic, we have seen more than 1,400 households (representing more than 15% of our tenants) either clear or significantly reduce their arrears since March.
Our approach has been to develop a bespoke approach on a case-by-case basis, intensive out-bound calls to tenants at risk before arrears became a problem and increasing referrals to our tenancy support service, Citizens Advice and other voluntary agencies.
As well as the passion and drive of each and every team member, I think that part of this success rested upon the transformational changes within the team which took place prior to the pandemic, coupled with our wider corporate modernisation work which was already taking place across the council, including our clear commitment to more agile working.
Our aim is to focus on services delivered around the customer and not around the needs of the council. And this has without doubt reaped benefits during these unprecedented times.
The new specialist income team we set up two years ago is led by an innovative, team-focused manager who has instilled in his team a culture of collaboration and creativity. There is friendly competition within the team, and whenever I visit the team there is a real ‘buzz’! For anyone thinking that working in income management is dull, think again!
“Our aim is to focus on services delivered around the customer and not around the needs of the council”
In supporting tenants to meet their obligations for paying their rent, the team helped them sustain their tenancy and sort out their financial problems overall, leading to better quality of life all round. In doing so we have achieved continued low eviction rates, and this has in turn has reduced the number of potential homelessness cases in our borough.
When asked, my team attributes their success to excellent partnerships, both within and outside of the council, close working with Department for Work and Pensions in sorting out benefits claims, effective use of analytics and, most importantly, embracing the team’s collective motivation, drive and dedication to succeed.
I know that this great work is happening all around the country, and although we are indeed in hard times we can be proud of the part we are all playing to support our most vulnerable households get through.
Inside Housing - Comment - How we’re working to protect tenants struggling to pay rent through no fault of their own
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 17/06/2020.
As we navigate through the new operating environment, let’s not forget housing’s key workers, who have kept the show on the road through the toughest times, writes Simone Russell
I want to give a ‘shout out’ to a group of key workers who have not been given a public mention during this terrible pandemic. They are, of course, our fabulous housing heroes!
What has struck me most, as I have tried to navigate my way through this new and scary world, is the dynamic and innovative way in which my teams, along with their other council colleagues, have mobilised in response. Not only have they pulled out all the stops in their efforts to continue to deliver essential services, they have successfully and quickly started delivering new services from scratch, to protect the welfare of our tenants and the wider community.
Here in Welwyn Hatfield, within one week of lockdown being announced, they reimagined a local community centre into a ‘lockdown’ hostel for rough sleepers with drug and alcohol issues. After cajoling ‘head office’ to reopen it, they bulk-booked our local Travelodge for homeless families – many of whom had been living with other households and had found themselves homeless as a result of the pandemic.
To make sure our homeless and other vulnerable households never went without food and other necessities, they turned our local roller-skating rink into a food distribution centre.
“They have willingly morphed into support teams for vulnerable households and food distribution specialists”
To support all this new work, they have willingly morphed into support teams for vulnerable households and food distribution specialists; operational staff with less to do during the pandemic have been trained as call handlers and our community buses have become food delivery vans.
Within days, my team created a brand-new call centre to take calls from concerned vulnerable households. They created yet another new service with the sole purpose of reassuring – and persuading – tenants to provide us with access for essential repairs and annual gas check visits, when they were previously too afraid to do so.
This type of ‘mass mobilisation’ would have been tricky at the best of times, especially given the added pressure on teams trying to keep major functions going, such as managing increased homelessness cases and, amid rising hardship, rent income management. We have still been letting homes to the most vulnerable housing applicants and so my team has been out and about in the community, while millions of workers remained safely ensconced in their own homes.
“Taking all this into account, it’s clear they have achieved truly remarkable things!”
There has, of course, been the wholesale disruption to the lives of colleagues, including home-working, home-schooling and the general anxiety experienced by all in these unprecedented times. Taking all this into account, it’s clear they have achieved truly remarkable things!
Essential to the smooth introduction of these new arrangements has been the willingness of everyone to do what has been needed, often leaving their comfort zones with the sole aim of serving our local community.
As we hopefully see our country emerge from the worst, I believe it’s time to think about how this tragedy has resulted in at least some positives.
The government has stated its commitment to build on the work done by councils up and down the country with homelessness, to ‘bring people in’. But we – like, I am sure, others – were already ‘on the case’.
This experience has given us the opportunity to engage people we previously we were unable to. We are hopeful we can really turn lives around for the better.
The new make-shift hostel for street homeless has been a huge success. The residents have established a new community. Having been in group self-isolation for many weeks now, they have come together in the most positive way, voluntarily landscaping the gardens and engaging in group activities.
“A recent staff survey showed that most have seen the benefits of less travel and a better work-life balance”
Our aim now is to support them into permanent, self-contained accommodation and use the lessons learned to help more people in a similar way.
The enforced home-working for our staff has also enabled us, like countless other organisations, to accelerate our planned vision for more agile working and digital connectivity.
After a few hitches initially, we have our remote-working arrangements running smoothly and effectively. A recent staff survey showed that most have seen the benefits of less travel and a better work-life balance. Moving forward, now is the time to harness these achievements.
I, like everyone, have applauded our amazing NHS workers and carers from the safety of my doorstep. But let us not forget our own housing heroes’ commitment and continued willingness to ‘go the extra mile’.
Source: Inside Housing - Comment - Let’s not forget housing’s heroes
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 28/02/2020.
With the private rented sector still growing, Simone Chinman Russell explores the best approach for councils to protect tenants
The local authority I work for recently launched a private sector housing strategy. To us who work in housing, the role of councils in driving up standards in the private housing sector is often overlooked.
So, I thought I would highlight the crucial but often unrecognised role of local authorities in protecting the ever-increasing number of households who rely on the private rented sector to meet their housing needs.
In a country where nearly five million households have affordability issues and where there has been a 48% rise in homeless acceptances since 2010 and where 8.4 million people are waiting for a suitable home, it is clear that we need a mix of tenures to satisfy demand.
This includes the private rented sector, which has an important role to play. In 2011, the private sector became the largest rental stream in England and continues to grow.
It is now housing a broader group of people for longer terms. By 2016 it accommodated 4.8 million households.
Used in the right way and by diligent landlords, private rented accommodation plays a special and much-needed role in the housing market, offering ease of access and flexible options for people seeking short-term housing.
Unfortunately, though, there are downsides. In addition to a lack of security of tenure and affordability issues, there is often health inequality among private renters, as an increasing number of properties failing to meet the Decent Homes Standard often because they include a Category 1 hazard, constituting a severe or immediate risk to health and safety.
Many tenants are too fearful to complain because they’re afraid of being evicted and sadly some landlords are disinterested and only motivated by profit. The most acute problems are found in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs).
Although the ideal solution for long-term tenancies is more social housing, this is not currently the reality for many households due to lack of supply.
The private rented sector could provide a suitable solution for longer-term occupation, if managed properly. With the right legal framework it can give tenants more security so they enjoy a settled life for themselves and their families.
By providing good-quality and secure housing to the people who can afford it the sector can also relieve pressure from housing needs registers, ensuring that people with the greatest need have a shorter wait for social rented housing. In turn, hopefully this can cut the increasing use of temporary accommodation – which has risen more than 50% in the past 10 years.
It would also reduce the burden on councils’ budget books. Currently, tens of millions are spent each year by councils in managing homelessness and providing temporary accommodation.
“Many tenants are too fearful to complain because they’re afraid of being evicted and sadly some landlords are disinterested and only motivated by profit”
This brings me back to why we here in Welwyn Hatfield Council (and of course all the other local authorities up and down the country) are doing such a great job in helping to make private renting a better and safer option for people who access it, either through choice or necessity.
So, for those who are not in the know: what is the role of local authorities in ensuring that private tenants live in safe, good quality and well managed homes?
A team member at Welwyn Hatfield Council sums it up nicely: “It’s fantastic to see how our job really can help improve tenants’ lives. From seeing a new stair lift being fitted under a disabled facilities grant, to helping a tenant get their disrepair resolved.
“We can help educate tenants and landlords to encourage a positive relationship between both parties. I enjoy seeing the standard of properties in our borough improving and striving to make tenants happy and comfortable within their home.”
Although councils have different structures in place, with enforcement often carried out by the environmental health teams, in our council we have a dedicated private sector housing team.
The team’s primary role is to identify and then licence HMOs, a priority due to the relatively high number of such properties in our borough, which hosts the University of Hertfordshire and on the basis that HMOs present a much higher risk of fire hazards and other health and safety issues.
Many landlords do not voluntarily register HMOs and the part of our work to seek out and identify is arduous and time consuming.
More than 800 inspections were carried out last year, plus hundreds of unannounced door knocks that equated to thousands of hours of pounding the pavements for our small team.
The team also deals with complaints from private sector and housing association tenants and will carry out investigations, dealing with all issues from unlawful eviction, harassment, poor management and disrepair.
“The use of enforcement is not the best answer for driving up standards in private rented housing. The way to improve lives for tenants is to be proactive”
Our team will work closely with tenants and landlords to help resolve issues.
Where problems are identified, the council has statutory enforcement powers. These have been successfully used by us and large fines and enforcement notices have been issued to landlords.
However, the use of enforcement is not the best answer for driving up standards in private rented housing. The way to improve tenants’ lives is to be proactive.
Here in Welwyn Hatfield, we take the lead on an innovative voluntary private landlords’ accreditation scheme – which is nicely called PALS.
Currently 30% of the borough’s private rented homes are covered by the scheme. PALS is unusual as it combines an assessment of the competence of the property manager with the inspection of their portfolio to check that it meets the required standards.
This is done on a rolling programme and depending on the portfolio size we would aim to visit 20% each year. This enables the team to focus its formal enforcement powers on the parts of the sector which may not be responsive to the informal approach.
The team is also always ready to give advice and support to any landlord so that they can help make better lives for their tenants.
The private sector team is not all about standards in private rented homes. We also manage disabled facilities grant applications for all private residents in the borough, helping people to remain independent and safe in their home.
So, hats off to the fabulous work carried out by local authorities which, through a combination of proactive engagement and persistence in dealing with bad landlords, are helping the private rented sector effectively fill the gap in housing demand.
Inside Housing - Comment - How councils play a crucial role in driving up private rented sector standards
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 26/11/2019.
The idea of ‘customer is king’ may sound like it is from the private sector, but it is a useful mantra for those also operating in social housing, says Simone Chinman Russell
It is said that ‘customer is king’. Organisations across the world invest massively in perfecting their customer offer with the aim of attracting new business and maintaining customer loyalty. And it’s not just about what they provide in terms of range and quality.
Increasingly, it’s all about how the service is delivered.
To achieve this, providers of goods and services must understand customers. What are their aspirations? What do they need? What is most important to them when trying to access a service?
This is a moving feast because customer expectations are changing. When it comes to services, we are told that people want to get what they need quickly, with minimum effort and at a time that suits them most – a smooth, almost instantaneous ‘first point of contact’ transaction.
Clearly, the increasing move towards digital channels for service provision has many benefits to both the consumer and the provider, including for the latter on long-term cost-saving through things such as reduced staffing and premises overheads.
So, where does the social housing sector come in? Last week I was having a discussion over dinner with senior housing leaders about whether social housing tenants have the same aspirations when it comes to accessing our services. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
But there was a difference of opinion on the degree to which there should be a largely ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to providing access to housing services.
There was particular debate about the ‘digital offer’. One school of thought was that it is patronising to assume that just because some customers may be older, or have fewer financial resources, they needed ‘hand-holding’ or don’t also want instantaneous, preferably 24/7, remote access to services.
The other perspective was that because of the very nature of the services we provide, it is imperative that we continue with the multi-channel offer.
My personal view is the latter. I don’t think we’re ready yet to flick the switch to make digital the only channel into our services. And interestingly, even though there is a huge push towards ‘digital by default’, many housing organisations (including the biggest promoters of digital connection) continue to invest in ‘customer segmentation’ exercises.
This is where customers are categorised by age and other factors such as location and even tenancy history, as a basis for designing services.
I guess that being a local authority provider is different to being a housing association and maybe that’s why I am hanging on to the traditional approach to customer service for a little bit longer. For example, as well as the landlord function, we, along with the other 188 stock-holding local authorities in the country, have statutory functions such as preventing homelessness.
And no matter how far I stretch my imagination, I can’t see how a digital solution can be found to accessing this service.
Before you call me old fashioned, I’ll point out that I am a champion for customer service modernisation. I lead on our local authority’s customer first strategy. A key theme for this is how we provide that smooth, first point of contact transaction for all the council’s customers who want it, delivered 24/7, blending seamlessly with back office systems.
In achieving this we can encourage more people to access our services in this way. However I am also passionate about equalities and ensuring a level playing field when it comes to service access. As such I fear for those who may be left behind as we bound forward to embrace our digital age.
“Our customer first strategy does what is says on the tin. It encourages our people to design services around the customer, not around what is convenient for teams or the physical location of offices or existing technology provision”
To resolve this quandary, our customer first strategy does what is says on the tin. It encourages our people to design services around the customer, not around what is convenient for teams or the physical location of offices or existing technology provision.
Simply, it’s about how we can deliver the most benefits to the customer, through understanding their needs and wants and then working out how this can be achieved within the boundaries of our operating context, and of course, budget considerations.
This is a journey and there’s no quick fix. It’s about challenging our teams to cast aside their experiences of ‘how things have always been done around here’ and think about where we want to be. And, unlike solely commercial organisations, it’s not about beating off the competitors because many of the services we provide cannot be found anywhere else.
Aside from our responsibility towards our tenants and the wider community, it’s simply about us being an organisation that people want to do business with. An organisation where customer is king.
Source: Inside Housing - Comment - How to be an organisation people want to do business with
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 11/06/2019.
There is a greater need for housing organisations to be more commercial, but ‘housing people’ are still heroes, writes Simone Russell
As we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which aimed to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’ in the aftermath of World War I, I am reflecting on our ‘housing people’, who, in my view, should also be celebrated as heroes.
For it is our housing people who deliver not only the ‘bricks and mortar’ of housing to those who may not otherwise be able to access a decent, affordable, secure place to live, but also so many different community, social, educational and employment opportunities that they would not otherwise have, to the detriment of themselves, their families and – I believe – our society as a whole.
When I reflect on my 25-year housing career or indeed (as a result of my social history/housing geekiness) on the beginning of the social housing movement itself, it is clear that the role of housing people has changed – adapting itself to our ever-changing social, economic and political environment.
For example, the role of the Octavia Hill-inspired housing manager in the socially and economically turbulent Victorian era, and the management approach taken in the workers’ villages such as Bourneville, Saltire and Port Sunlight founded by industrialists, focused on righting social ills and instilling ‘moral goodness’ into their tenants.
Then the traditional local authority housing management provision (there was only really local authority housing provision up to the late 1970s) was focused on rules and procedures and the strictest enforcement of standards.
During this time council housing was earmarked for the ‘respectable working class’ and the highest of standards were expected from them in the way they ran their homes, and up until the introduction of the ‘secure tenancy’ in 1980 tenancy enforcement could be much sterner.
Following the introduction of the rent rebate (also known as housing benefit) in the 1970s and the introduction of Right to Buy in 1980, which saw the most affluent tenants buying their homes, there was a shift in the demographic profile of council tenants, with more and more social housing being occupied by people who were economically inactive and who needed support to help manage not just their housing but also other aspects of their lives.
Housing people were therefore needed to take up support-related roles not only for the specialist housing schemes that were springing up but also in general to the sector, to meet the growing demand for more than just basic housing management.
In the past decade or so, things on the face of it have changed again, thanks largely to ‘austerity’, the ending of the prescriptive housing inspection regime and now all the Brexit uncertainty which has resulted in many social landlords battening down the hatches and focusing on core service delivery.
“I know that behind the scenes our housing people are still as passionate about supporting and caring for their customers as far as they can”
I don’t dispute that there is now a greater need for housing people to become more commercial in their approach.
But what is so important is that they do not lose sight of why we are here.
I have heard from many a sheltered scheme manager (yes, they do still exist here in the leafy suburbs of Welwyn Hatfield) that they miss being expected to provide pastoral and practical support to residents, largely because of historical changes to funding rules and new legislation such as the Care Act and the dreaded GDPR.
However I know that behind the scenes our housing people are still as passionate about supporting and caring for their customers as far as they can.
Housing people are a unique breed. Many are housing managers, social workers, mediators, benefits advisors and event managers, all rolled into one. I think that it takes a really special (if often quirky) individual with a desire to change things for the better, to make their career in housing.
Even the most commercially minded, hard-dealing property/development-type person will, once they have been around long enough to become part of the fabric of our sector, take on this housing-esque attribute, and here’s to them!
So, from an employer’s perspective, what do we need from our housing people and how should this be reflected in our recruitment processes?
Although our sector has indeed become more commercial, and quite rightly so, we cannot dismiss the importance of our housing people being socially responsible and understanding the outcomes we are aiming to achieve as social housing providers.
Also, we need to consider the anticipated regulatory changes in light of the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the recommendations of the Hackitt Review and the measures that will come from the Social Housing Green Paper.
On the horizon is much greater resident involvement and a drive to help reduce the stigma of social housing.
The key qualities we should be looking for in our housing people is a real drive to improve our society for the better, a willingness to be flexible and a great attitude.
Life experience and empathy for people in a range of settings is also something that my managers and I look for. These are things we cannot teach people. Of course many roles require technical skills but often skills are transferable.
For example, a recent recruitment drive we undertook in response to the Homelessness Reduction Act led us not to compete with all the other local authorities all seeking homelessness specialists at the same time, but to recruit people with a wealth of life experience, drawn from a wide and diverse pool.
“Life experience and empathy for people in a range of settings is also something that my managers and I look for. These are things we cannot teach people”
Among them we have a former businessman who ran a number of retail outlets, a paediatric nurse and a former teacher. What they all have in common is a passion to make a difference, natural empathy and great problem-solving skills.
In closing I would like to share one of the proudest moments of my housing career – and it was all about our housing people.
I received a letter from an older resident of the borough telling me that although he is not a council tenant, he called into our office in a distressed state last thing on a Friday evening because his benefits had not come through and he had no food.
Our team did a whip-around from their own food in their desk drawers and made him up a hamper to keep him going over the weekend.
I rest my case.
Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 04/09/2019.
Local authorities and housing associations may have different priorities, but a common goal is increasing housing capacity. Simone Russell explores how to break down the barriers.
“I would encourage housing associations to get out there and engage proactively with their councils. Even if there isn’t a project in the pipeline yet,” says Simone Russell of @WElHatCouncil #ukhousing
The Building Bridges report from the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2017 said: “Local authorities and housing associations share a common purpose: to ensure that the communities they serve have access to good-quality, affordable housing. By working together rather than apart, they can achieve far more.”
I totally agree with this statement.
It is widely acknowledged that the housing needs of an area can only be met when all stakeholders join forces to deliver together.
This is on all fronts, including: planning, housing benefits administration, meeting strategic housing needs in housing allocations and as development partners.
Today there is a huge emphasis on how councils and housing associations should come together to help meet the huge shortage of affordable housing.
Aside from conversations about grant funding, this has only really gained momentum now the that shackles of the Housing Revenue Account cap have been consigned to the history books (well, for now at least) and local authorities are being encouraged by government to go forth and multiply.
This resurrection of council housebuilding has brought a renewed vigour in dialogue between housing associations and local authorities – which I think is great.
Although I am an optimist and have every faith that over time more and more new homes will be delivered through partnership working, my perception is that there’s often tension between local authorities and housing associations, of varying degrees, depending on the values and attitudes of the organisations involved.
At this point I should say that although I currently work for a local authority, my career was incubated in the housing association sector and I remain involved in a number of ways.
This includes mentoring housing professionals, attending roundtables on various issues and as a non-executive board member for a housing association.
I also spend a lot of time talking to the numerous housing associations that do business in our borough.
So I understand the passions and pressures of housing associations, many of which mirror our own.
With my team I run a landlord service to around 10,000 households (all on social rents) and we are spreading our wings into the world of intermediate rentals through our new local housing company. However, everything we do is with and for our own borough and that, I believe, is where the difference lies.
I see the role of the local housing authority primarily as a placemaker.
Our main purpose here in the borough of Welwyn Hatfield is to make sure that our ‘place’ meets local housing need and helps to create sustainable, happy, healthy and thriving communities.
On the other hand, although there are still some locally based and locally focused housing associations around the country, more and more are merging to cover vast swathes of the country, operating across hundreds of local authority areas.
How could housing associations be expected to place a particular location at the heart of their vision?
I have total respect for these large organisations, providing great-quality homes and better life chances for hundreds of thousands of our citizens.
I also appreciate that they have so much expertise to share at a time when many councils are just emerging from the development wilderness without their own home-grown talent.
But I feel that the different organisational goals stand in the way of progress.
This isn’t helped by the fact that we all have different pressures to contend with.
For housing associations there are financial challenges in the wake of a slow property market, additional investment needs for fire safety measures, regulatory scrutiny, and pressures to meet ambitious development targets.
Stock-retaining local authorities are not immune to some of these pressures, they also have politics to manage, strategic housing needs to assess and meet, and the continued loss of homes through the Right to Buy.
My view is that there needs to be a better shared understanding between local authorities and our housing association colleagues.
“Councils need housing associations to get to know local priorities so they can go as far as possible in meeting identified housing need when building homes”
For example, local authorities need to understand why housing associations have a business case for building lots of shared ownership homes while the local authority’s housing strategy really cries out for more social rented homes.
And councils need housing associations to get to know local priorities so they can go as far as possible in meeting identified housing need when building homes.
This should include setting letting policies so that the most vulnerable people have access to a home and keeping councils informed when a tenancy is at risk. I’m not moaning, honest.
The solution? Let’s talk to each other.
When joining my council, I set myself a goal of engaging personally with the chief executives of housing associations operating in our borough – all 18 of them and yes, it took a long time.
I would encourage other local authorities to do the same. I would also encourage housing associations to get out there and engage proactively with their councils; even if there isn’t a project in the pipeline yet.
“I would encourage housing associations to get out there and engage proactively with their councils”
I am really pleased to see that different areas of the housing sector are starting to come together.
Recently I attended a joint event between the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association which focused on how we can all work better together to increase housing supply.
Nationwide, I would like to see a lot more of this so that we can encourage a wider dialogue, share good practice and break down barriers to deliver great partnerships.
I am excited at the prospect of us all achieving our goals together.
And that’s not just the optimist in me talking.
Source: Inside Housing - Comment - Councils and associations must talk more in order to increase housing supply.