Managing to make a difference

This new report on social housing management. Are you already hunting frantically for the link?

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Perhaps not. There are more pressing issues in these times of much-too-interesting political and social turmoil, aren’t there?

And in a way, I’m pleased if you feel this way. It means that my colleagues across the social housing sector are doing a truly awesome job of papering over the cracks.

An example: in Doncaster, where NFA member St Leger Homes looks after more the 20,000 homes on behalf of the council, evictions have dropped by a quarter and arrears have not risen in the last two years.

One more: in Tower Hamlets, reports of anti-social behaviour have dropped by close to 50%. Among residents of the 21,000 freehold and leasehold homes managed by Tower Hamlets Homes for the borough, levels of satisfaction have soared since 2017.

Yes, of course – like all authors, I look for the man-bites-dog angle, the fact or statistic that will put a klaxon into the intro and then pull the wide-awake reader in to find out more. What I’ve told you so far may look very much like a dog-bites-man story.

But take a look at Managing to make a difference, published on the NFA website this morning. The most astonishing story it tells is that there is, as the saying goes, nothing to see here despite a decade of austerity and actually some significant successes to celebrate.

So, in Doncaster, one of the earliest pilot areas for the roll-out of Universal Credit, financial problems certainly threatened when St Leger were very suddenly faced with direct collection of £24m in rent a year previously paid directly to the ALMO by benefit agencies.

But the ALMO model is, as our members demonstrate time and again, responsive and flexible.

St Leger was able to make a swift, radical shift from traditional chasing of arrears to its Support to Sustain programme, a preventative assessment of residents’ financial wellbeing that offers up to 12 weeks’ intensive support from its new tenancy support team for anyone in difficulties.

A determined focus on anti-social behaviour was Tower Hamlet Homes’ response to a rising volume of fear, worry and anger from residents, particularly round the sale and use of hard drugs.

Funding was found for targeted policing and private security patrols to identify ASB hotspots; and the ALMO directed some of its community resources towards a dedicated ASB team and intensive youth engagement.

A common thread runs through both these stories; neither tenancy support nor youth engagement would once have been considered core housing management functions.

As you’ll see in the new report by Lisa Birchall – and in a wider examination of social housing management due to be published early in 2020 by our CIH partners – NFA members now see such initiatives as a routine part of their work and they have radically transformed the role of the frontline housing officer.

Housing staff are now expected to be case workers and safeguarding officers who have deep local knowledge and can build productive relationships with residents – while also doing the day job.

This increasing complexity bodes ill if staff are not given the time or resources they need to do all this well.

So beware. Behind all this ingenuity and success is the very real possibility of community collapse.

Local government spending power has fallen by over a quarter since 2010, and inevitably councils have responded to a 60% cut in funding from central government by prioritising core statutory services over preventative community services.

In areas such as adult social care, children’s services and public health, the consequences invariably feed directly or indirectly into housing management.

Many NFA members have told us that austerity policies left them ‘holding the baby’ of social welfare, and they were keen to show how they had adapted and innovated to make sure the baby was safe in their hands.

But space for innovation is finite.

One of our report’s key conclusions is that after a decade of austerity, our members – and other social housing providers – are nearing the limits of what ingenuity can deliver.

This is as pressing an issue as any that have been front and centre during this general election, because everything else – health, wellbeing, social stability, employment & financial security – depends on each of us having a decent, secure and affordable place to call home.

Any new government will neglect the social housing sector at its peril.

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