The social housing sector faces a huge test over the coming years, with building safety, decarbonisation, resident engagement and the housing crisis all demanding housing associations’ attention in varying degrees. These challenges come while balancing more routine requirements like meeting regulatory compliance and keeping up on routine repairs.
With the resident landscape continually evolving, smart homes with connected devices could be the future. As Aico is demonstrating through its smoke, heat and carbon monoxide alarms, the development of smart tech and the Internet of Things (IoT) could prove crucial when it comes to securing residents’ health, safety, and wellbeing.
With so many balls to juggle and options available to them, might housing associations be wise to start taking a more holistic approach? That was the question we used to kick off our latest roundtable, as we asked our panel of guests how they are intending to deliver on the myriad of challenges they are facing at the moment.
Many housing associations are already thinking in a joined-up way – as Dr. Abdul Mohib, head of risk and assurance at Peabody, explained, Peabody has established sustainability as a “risk interdependency” across the whole organisation, asking every director at the housing association what they can contribute towards the housing association’s goals. Curo are phasing out housing stock that doesn’t fit into their plans, while others are planning multiple programmes to better understand their long-term journey.
“Our approach has been very much from the financial forecasting of all these challenges,” said Paul Dockerill, director of energy and programme management at whg. “We’ve then used our 30-year business plan to do the two-year, five-year, 10-year programme.
“If you put [plans] on a 10-year window you’re understanding the value of the work that needs to be done both financially and strategically.”
Long-term planning has proven easier for some housing associations than others which are still figuring out what to prioritise in the here and now. This might mean diverting funds towards their building safety portfolio, for example, or focusing on component renewal due to the new Decent Homes Standard rather than a fabric-first approach. While necessary in the short-term, this “Whac-A-Mole” approach can lead to higher spending down the line as customer dissatisfaction and urgent repairs grow.
“Where we have carried out investment, we’ve carried it out very much on asset management and on the ‘visibles’ – the face, the legs – rather than the heart,” said Alex Andhani, director of assets at Regenda. “That [holistic] change is the thing we need to look at as we go down that route of building safety and sustainability.”
For Julie Alexander, director of technology and innovation at Places for People, it’s a case of working out which homes are financially viable. Places for People is currently in the process of evaluating its 70,000 homes, deciding whether to invest in stock that fits into its plans or geolocate in locations where it already has a specific asset base – a problem surely facing several large housing associations.
“We are [very much everywhere] so we’ve got this huge spread of properties which makes that whole management piece a little more challenging,” Alexander said. “We want to look at prioritising our investment: what do we want to keep that really works for us, do people want to live there, and what do we need to do to bring it up to where it needs to be?”
Communicating effectively with stakeholders, especially with board members, is essential to help them understand the scale of work required. Curo have introduced a “traffic light” system for every element of their budget, outlining areas where funding is certain to others where far more is potentially required. With programmes liable to change over time, it seems essential to get buy-in at executive level.
“[Our] 10-year investment plan has been really helpful for me in terms of communicating all these challenges,” Dockerill explained. “If you get that [board] support I’ve noticed the difference. They know the background; they know the knowledge that sits behind all this, and I’m finding it quite easy to take business cases and investment plans to [them].”
Key to housing associations seeking a holistic approach, then, is acquiring culture change, overcoming reservations to embrace new ideas such as flexible working and data and technology. That’s not just the case inside housing providers; it includes taking customers on the ride with them too.
It’s clear that the sector doesn’t have all the answers as it adjusts to a post-pandemic culture where clear communication is more important than ever. Peabody is currently undertaking an audit of complaints, having put in place a new resident strategy and viewing customer engagement just as interdependently as it does sustainability. “We’re challenging ourselves,” Dr Mohib said. “How are residents being involved?”
Testing the water before diving in seems key to successfully mobilise large-scale projects. Daniel Boardman, building safety and property compliance manager at WDH, agreed that customer engagement is becoming a “first line of defence” for housing associations, with tenants now keen to engage via non-traditional means.
WDH recently piloted using smart tech to engage with customers in one high-rise block, allowing them to stay in text contact with residents. Whg have taken a similar approach when it comes to building safety, rolling out “digital twins” for each of their tower blocks. This means information about their buildings can be accessed not only throughout their organisation but also by the Regulator and fire services. In both cases, rolling out these projects as pilots first proved crucial in securing support from their boards.
“If I’d taken the concept to board they’d have asked ‘How much? ‘What’s the real value?” Dockerill explained. “One of the golden nuggets of the pilot was [the residents’ feedback], then we took it to the board and they couldn’t deny it… After the pilot, we could prove the concept.”
Getting the board on board is one thing, but getting customer buy-in is another, especially when it comes to the decarbonisation agenda and realising the benefits of retrofit projects. When it comes to winning over sceptical residents and board members as to the merits of technologies like heat pumps, Alexander admitted that it will be a “long and painful journey”. Our panel stressed the importance of good engagement, using tenant groups and workshops to show people the benefits of these technologies. The pandemic may inadvertently help with this too given its impact of reducing digital exclusion.
“What we’ve found when we’ve spoken to various residents [is that] it’s stating the benefits they will receive directly from the technology that’s key,” said Simon Flint, chief information and digital officer of HomeLINK. “Part of that is around indoor air quality, the carbon reduction… and also potential monetary savings as well. Combining all of those motivations depending on the individual you’re talking to is very important.”
While persuasion is important, it’s worth stating that engagement should work both ways. Dockerill explained how his housing association installed a new heating system in one of its blocks of flats but didn’t pick up data on what residents had been paying on their heating bills. It eventually realised that the change was leaving residents out of pocket. The same applies with the digital journey, as Jeff Goodby, compliance fire safety manager at Curo, explained.
“When we started our digital journey we had that expectation that we wouldn’t have engagement, and we made the mistake of not really asking our residents what they wanted and what they would use,” Goodby said. “We found our younger generation have particularly taken up the Curo digital platform. They just want to be able to report a problem and move on very quickly, so our expectations of what wouldn’t work well haven’t materialised.”
It’s clear, then, that work still needs to be done at executive and resident level for the sector to fully embrace innovative technology. Boardman outlined the value of taking a “leap of faith” rather than waiting to see what others are doing in the sector, while Alexander stressed the importance of making funds available and freeing colleagues up below board level: “There has to be budget put to these things to allow you to go on a journey of discovery.”
We ended by asking our guests what they thought was most needed for the sector to achieve that all-important holistic approach. The resulting list was wide-ranging: open, honest conversations between colleagues within housing associations; allowing leadership to flourish at all levels, and being bolder and less insular as a sector, using quality data as a tool to make the right decisions.
“If we don’t get the culture piece right and the engagement piece right we’re not going to change the sector, concluded Aico’s relationships manager Tina Mistry, chair of the session. “Today has reconfirmed for me that what we’re trying to do is going to help, but we’re not going to do it on our own.”
Image: Guests at our latest virtual roundtable in July 2021. Credit: Housing Executive.