Another Year Over………

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So as Christmas fast approaches and another year draws to a close it’s always worthwhile using the lyrics from one of those Christmas songs you hear everywhere you go to stop for a few moments to reflect on the world around us.

For Halton Housing Trust it has been one of our best years since we were launched in December 2005.  Many of the highlights I covered in my earlier blog to coincide with our 8th birthday earlier this month.

I am continually surprised and impressed by how my colleagues are responding to the rapidly changing environment in which we operate. Our Board have also faced up to these challenges by embedding the principles outlined in Our Direction.

Our longer term plans are now underpinned through the delivery of our new £130m funding facility. This will see further investment in addition to the £115m already invested to date as well as an additional 800 much needed homes being added to our portfolio.

At a national level the economic signs are now looking more positive.  However there remain several areas where close attention still needs to be paid due to the fragility of the economic recovery. There are concerns that a housing bubble is forming in some areas of the country. This could be compounded as interest rates are predicted to increase in the New Year.

Everything in the housing garden isn’t rosy.  This has been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks through the publication of three reports.  All of these highlight the growing gap between the haves and the have nots in the UK.

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First came the JRF New Policy Institute Report  that shattered the illusion that poverty was only linked to those receiving welfare benefits. The report highlights that more than half of the 13 million people living in poverty in the UK in 2011/12 were in a working family.

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Then hot on the heels came the Second Report from the Real Life Reform Study.  I remember tweeting when the first Study was launched that if you aren’t moved by reading this report then call an ambulance as you have no heart. The second report makes for even more hard hitting reading. It is like being slapped in the face with a brick as the comments from real people trying to make the best of their lives in increasingly difficult circumstances really does hit home.  How many of us could live on a food budget of just £2.10 per day?

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Shortly afterwards the NHF published its Home Truths Report. This highlights how the headline messages on the health of the UK economy are masking a much more complex set of underlying issues. Each day an extra 310 working people are having to resort to applying for housing benefit.  Rising rents in growth areas such as London are pushing more and more working people over the edge, forcing one working person every five minutes to turn to the Government for housing benefit to keep the roof over their heads.

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Then earlier this month there was the W&P Select Committee hearing. Looking to the future PlaceShapers alongside other witnesses from the housing world made four key points:

  1. The under-occupation deduction should be based upon a ‘common sense’ bedroom standard, which allows households an additional bedroom above the standard adopted by the Government for the purposes of calculating housing benefit.
  2. All households entitled to disability benefits should be exempt from the impact of the under-occupation deduction, bringing it into line with the operation of the overall benefit cap.
  3. There needs to be a major rethink about the way direct payments of housing costs to claimants works under Universal Credit (UC).
  4. Any realistic approach to developing a workable Alternative Payment Arrangement (APA) mechanism for vulnerable tenants under Universal Credit, should be founded on the principle of two way data sharing between DWP and landlords

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If that isn’t enough evidence then also reflect on the concept of food banks. Five years ago if you had said to me I would be supporting organisations without whom people living in the UK in the 21st century would go hungry I would have laughed at you. But that is the stark reality for a rapidly increasing minority in the UK this Christmas. Food bank usage in the Liverpool City Region has increased by 50% in just the last three months.

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So what does 2014 hold in store for us? Well I’m no futurologist. However it is a fab career choice as whoever goes back to prove what you predicted 20 years ago to have been wrong?

However what is clear is that the importance of housing associations and what we do each and every day will increase still further as for many people in the communities in which we work we are now the last organisation standing. Without our help and support how many of our customers would fall through the net and their lives become even harder?

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So the housing world has changed more in the last 18 months than probably at any point in the preceding 40 years. We have been given the flexibility and freedom to do much more than we have ever been able to do before and take charge of our own destiny. We have the tools and the resources. The explosion of social media and the wider digital platforms also means we now have a much louder voice. The challenge for us all is to use all these ingredients wisely and where they produce the most impact.

8 Years On……

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So eight years ago today on 5th December 2005 Halton Housing Trust was formed.  Consequently I’ve taken a few moments to reflect on the journey so far.  As we approach the end of another year I’m also starting to think about what the next eight years may bring.

When asked I always describe my eight years at Halton as being in three phases.

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The first of these can only be described as turnaround. The services, culture and performance were all in need of a drastic shake up. As with any turnaround type role there was sometimes a daily feeling of everything you picked up being like the proverbial can of worms.

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Then came the second phase which was where we worked to deliver consistently good outcomes for our customers across all service areas.  This ran in tandem with enhancing our employee offer which ensured we were able to recruit and retain the very best people.

We have now reached the third phase which is where we are driving through innovation and playing our part in shaping what our future and service offer will look like.  This includes working with a number of organisations outside the housing world.  This is both exciting but also slightly unnerving as you move out of your traditional comfort zone to find solutions to some longstanding challenges.  This is within a landscape where we arguably have more control over what we do and how we do it than at any other previous time.

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So how would I sum up the last eight years in one phrase? It’s been a real rollercoaster ride.  Like all good rollercoasters it has had some amazing and exhilarating high points. Some of the more recent ones have included achieving Investors in People Gold Standard and the Health and Wellbeing Award, being described as “a world class employer across all sectors.”

There have also been a few lower points where it was scary and full of uncertainty what would happen next! It certainly tested one of our behaviours: ‘Adapt to Change.’

The one constant is change. No longer can you stand still and assume that what we were doing just a few years ago will be right for where we are now or indeed where we are heading. That’s why we’ve previously reconfigured our customer offer in accordance with what our customers actually told us they wanted rather than what we assumed based upon some outdated assumptions.

It’s also why we are making some radical changes to our Customer Involvement Team.  This builds upon the progress we’ve made in embedding our customer focus across all aspects of how we work and our people taking ownership. It also ensures we are able to fully apply our two guiding principles set out in Our Direction  of ‘Choice’ and ‘Responsibility’.

This will continue the shift we have already started to provide differential services to our customers.  For the “can’t dos”we will offer increased levels of support.  For the “won’t dos” we are adopting a much firmer approach.

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Looking ahead the Digital First changes we are piloting will ensure we’re able to take full account of customer feedback on this significant next stage shift in how we deliver our services prior to full rollout. The formation of our Digital First Team demonstrates our commitment to this ‘channel shift’ and will underpin the delivery of this Project.

It’s not just front line services that need to meet the changing needs of our business model.  At last month’s Northern Housing Consortium’s Northern Summit there was a clear message to be bold, make decisions and take more risks if you want to flourish. In response that’s why today we are announcing changes to our Finance and Performance, Business Improvement and QL Teams  that will ensure we have the right support networks in place to support our business transition.

So what may be ahead?

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Whatever is ahead of us we can now face with a renewed confidence and optimism.  Last week saw the completion of our new £130 million funding (£70m bank facility and £60 private placement) from start to finish within just three months.  This now takes our Business Plan to 2020, delivering just under 1,000 new homes as well as continued investment in our existing homes and neighbourhoods.

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As the generational mix of our customer and employee base really starts to change with the rise of Generation Y and Z, coupled with the impacts of welfare reform really starting to take hold, we need to adapt what we do and how we do it.  This is what some refer to as channel shift, which we refer to as Digital First.

This Programme is one of the most important strategic projects we need to deliver over the next 18 months.  This will develop our services to ensure they are accessible to all customers online.  It also aims to encourage as many customers as possible to access services this way.  This will also free up capacity and enable us to use this more effectively.

For the Trust this means we will be able to focus activity on rental income collection, providing financial advice and much more intensive tenancy support to those who really need this in response to the ongoing Welfare Reforms. This meets one of our strategic aims of protecting current income.  For our colleagues this will offer some an opportunity to develop their career into other business areas as well as ensuring they continue to enjoy their job and the difference they make.

The future will also see the shift from reactive to proactive/ preventative services as we focus our resources and services to deploy these much more intelligently. One of the keys to unlock this transition is undoubtedly the better use and interpretation of ‘big data.’  More to come on this in the New Year so watch this space!

Working with others we are looking at some ground breaking initiatives that will significantly reduce the costs our customers face to heat their homes. This could lead to an exciting application of technology that intelligently controls the way heating systems are used.  If successful this could dramatically reduce their fuel bills.

With the increasing pressures on finances and focus on value for money, we also need to focus on reducing costs and improving the effectiveness of what we do.  Our focus on replacing internal email by the end of 2014 with a more proportionate and appropriate communications channel is one of several mechanisms we have in progress to help us achieve this and has certainly tested our mantra of ‘challenge how we do things.’

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So it’s been a fantastic journey to date which has been a real privilege to be part of. If the next eight years are anything like the last eight have been then in the words of all good rollercoasters…. “hold on tight”!

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