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Staying positive in challenging times

Is a leap of faith the correct response when you find yourself at the cliff edge? Natalie Farr reports back from Big Question 2017.

This year’s Big Question acknowledged the current challenges faced by housing professionals across Wales, and each session responded to the pertinent question of the day – ‘Are We at the Cliff Edge?’

The final session focused on identifying solutions, with each of the three speakers imparting expert knowledge and examples of their organisation’s response to challenging circumstances.

Lee Robson, head of neighbourhood housing services at Norwich City Council, set the scene by outlining the numerous challenges he encountered in 2015, when starting in his new role after a 16-year departure from housing.

These included a two-fold increase in rough sleeping, welfare reform, 1% rent reduction and significant withdrawal of Supporting People funding from sheltered housing. Furthermore, he found Norwich Council housing services were somewhat regimented and driven by processes and paternalism. Thus, with the situation not dissimilar to being ‘at a cliff edge’, effective solutions were required.

Reflecting on his approach, he advised moving away from too many process-driven services, exploring outsourcing services, rationalising interventions to better meet individual needs and empowering tenants and staff by investing in tenant participation and staff training. As such, he described housing management as an ‘art, not a science’.

The importance of housing officers possessing attributes outlined by CIH’s ‘Frontline Future’s’ report was emphasised, with driven, insightful and resilient staff viewed as integral to addressing the underlying challenges common across the sector.

Lee concluded his presentation by highlighting some of the impressive outcomes achieved, noting a £500,000 decrease in management costs, a 10% decrease in staff sickness, a 25% decrease in noise complaints and a 72% increase in ‘involved’ tenants.

The second presentation was delivered by Matthew Owens, manager of Mill Bay Homes in Pembrokeshire.

Challenges faced in 2010, such as significant increases in housing need and considerable reductions in social housing grant, led to the establishment of Mill Bay Homes. This is a house building subsidiary, entirely funded by Pembrokeshire Housing Group and set up to develop and sell open market housing, with all surplus redirected to the group for reinvestment in affordable housing.

Operational by 2012, Mill Bay has since sold 150 homes, targeted particularly at first-time and retirement buyers. Furthermore, the company has registered with Help to Buy Wales and partakes in shared ownership schemes, for which take up has been good.

In terms of performance, by 2016 the company was successfully returning just under £1.1m to Pembrokeshire Housing Group, a trend which has continued up to the present.

Frances Hipple from HACT Housing was the third to present and suggested technology and digital engagement could be used to the sector’s advantage, and could help soften the blow caused by current onslaught of challenges.

For example, the Cloud can enable mobile working and, when well managed, new ways of working can save money, resources and facilitate better work/ life balance. Furthermore, the use of big data and analytics was recommended, not least for its capacity to segment customer base and tailor services correspondingly.

She pointed to the imminent action required by housing associations in relation to the forthcoming implementation of General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which will substantially replace the Data protection Act (1998) and will demand well-managed, robust policies to be put in place.

Overall, the three presentations reflected an overriding theme – that innovative solutions and a willingness to diversify and take risks are necessary responses to challenging conditions.

There was general consensus from the panel that the sector should be receptive to taking well-managed risks, starting with small steps, then analysing, evaluating, modifying and improving along the way. Indeed, taking a leap of faith can deliver highly successful outcomes which can, by extension, help mitigate the impact of current challenges.

Natalie Farr is a housing studies student at Cardiff Metropolitan University

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