In support of last week’s blog (You never get a Second Chance to make a first Impression), last week I attended the CHC #onebig17 Conference event in Llandrindod Wells. An event which was booked for me, prior to me starting in Coastal, as part of my induction.
Unfortunately, I missed the opening session on the Thursday Morning, having attended my first Local Area Coordination Leadership Group meeting in Swansea at the fantastic new Swansea Bay Campus on Fabian Way.
This gave me the opportunity to meet the expanding Local Area Coordination team and partners in Swansea University, as well as the Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing in Swansea Council, Councillor Mark Child, who in true support of his portfolio, had cycled in from his ward of West Cross.
The meeting discussed the role Local Area Coordination has played in creating a supportive network of resources for communities across the Western Bay area. I’ll be talking more about the work of LAC in future weeks.
Following the meeting, I headed North to the beautiful town of Llandrindod Wells for the conference.
Having spent the last 3 years in a secondment in an RSL and a stint in the Third Sector, I was very much looking forward to the programme, and in all honesty, felt I had some catching up to do, having been absent from similar events since around 2014.
I arrived at the Metropole Hotel at lunch and caught up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a very long while. I was delighted to hear that ‘Rooms4U’ – a Shared Housing project for under 35’s affected by LHA, funded by Crisis UK and hosted by Newydd Housing – had won the Pat Chown ‘Capturing Creativity’ Award. It was lovely to get to meet the staff who worked on this project and clearly their passion went over and above the requirements of the role. Well done guys! (Remember to take the award home).
The first session I attended was a Sub-Plenary discussion discussing ‘Housing Association’s Approach to Social Impact’. This is a major priority for me in my current role. If I am to embed the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach across Coastal, then it is incumbent on the Community Asset Team to be able to demonstrate the impact we have made. At a time of Universal Credit, rightly so, others will be sceptical about its relative importance, but I am firm in my belief it is intrinsically linked and digital inclusion/employment support can facilitate a reduction in worklessness which allows tenants to grow their own disposable income, increase their quality of life and pay their rent on time. Community cohesion is best achieved when those communities are settled and people live in the same places for longer periods.
I’ve heard Steve Cranston talk several times and always find him engaging and intriguing in his assessments (this was no different), but this was the first time I had heard Stephen Russell, from HouseMark speak. Stephen has previously worked in Midland Heart and outlined his thoughts on how HA’s approach social impact. Stephen challenged the audience to understand “How do you know your work makes a difference?”.
Social Impact is not just an opportunity for us to pat ourselves on the back and practice good PR (although it IS that), but it is also a worthwhile tool to understand your customers and the difference you have, or haven’t made.
Core messages from this session included strong advice to talk to lots of staff and not be passive in your approach. Duly noted!
How do you go about this? Stephen was less precious about this, describing ‘methodologies’ as “like iPhones. Something new every time but fundamentally, they’re all the same”.
Steve then knitted these messages in with the work currently ongoing at CHC’s Housing-led Regeneration Network (a group I had signed up to earlier in the week). Steve added that the credit we give ourselves as landlords is ‘limited if our communities are blighted by poverty and worklessness’. I couldn’t agree more.
The easiest way to make a difference to these communities is to deliver ‘what matters’. The easiest way to achieve that is just to talk to our tenants.
Debbie Green, Chief Executive of Coastal Housing, called upon the sector to make better use of research and the role of universities in understanding this subject to a far greater extent, something Coastal is doing in conjunction with Manchester University to strengthen the Foundational Economy in Swansea.
Again this will be a future area I’ll cover in due course.
A quick coffee and it was on to the next session – The Legal Implications of the Renting Homes Implementation Phase – with Jamie Saunders, Coastal Housing.
I’ve worked alongside Jamie for 2 weeks and inevitably when someone presents to a group of people you see another side to them. Jamie is a brilliant legal mind, and a natural presenter to people. Think L.A. Law meets Tom Selleck. (Not sure how that’s going to go down to be honest).
Renting Homes will come into force in Wales in ‘Autumn 2018’, hardly definitive. I suppose my attendance at this session was two-fold. 1. As a previous Head of Housing in the Third Sector, I wanted to better understand the implications of the legislation to see the extent of how it will change the housing landscape, and 2. (linked to the point raised earlier) Housing Management in Coastal are going to feel the brunt of this, and in asking them to buy into the Community Asset Team’s journey, we all HAVE to better understand the pressures they are going to face on a daily basis, and be a part of the solution.
Earlier in the day, Simon White from Welsh Government had given some indications on the next steps for Renting Homes and Jamie’s session put the meat on the bones of the practical implications of this legislation. Safe to say there were a few concerned faces by the end of the talk, and I wouldn’t mind betting a few Directors/Chief Executive’s absent from the conference received a few emails on Thursday from their managers who were in attendance stating “We need to talk!”
Jamie’s passion for this subject is evident but it has scaled the dizzy heights of him now joining Twitter (@JamieSaunders01). He’s promised not to tweet pictures of his kids, and his phone will remain off during #BBCQT. But in all seriousness, follow him to keep abreast of developments with regards to ‘Renting Homes’. You won’t regret it.
Fashioning Foundational Economies in Wales
The final session of the Day was hosted by Kevin Morgan from Cardiff University. I always relish being in Kevin’s company because I always learn something and admire him greatly as a gifted public speaker.
My first 2 days in Coastal were spent travelling to Manchester with Kevin and Steve Cranston for a conference discussing the ‘Foundational Economy’ with some tremendous examples on show in Manchester from various industries.
Kevin spoke passionately about how Housing Associations can play a fundamental role in encouraging an inclusive and strong local economy. Again this is so closely linked to the ABCD philosophy and challenges HA’s to invest in a path towards identifying and mobilising community assets.
If you aren’t familiar with the work of Cormac Russell (@Cormac Russell), you should follow him on Twitter for some truly inspirational examples of ABCD in the UK and beyond.
Wales is a small country and for years top-down subsidy has been the answer to alleviate community concerns, or worse, we do nothing until someone else does something for us. But ABCD concentrates on what is present rather than what is missing. What’s strong, not what’s wrong. Cormac’s TedTalk explains this better than I could ever hope to
Coastal is fundamentally built on the principles of systems thinking, a bottom up approach which befits the values of ABCD and requires a relationship. As Kevin put it, these ‘relationships have a value but no price’.
To give this issue the traction it needs to make a difference, organisations would benefit from identifying their allies, to share the journey and the belief. We are far more capable in greater numbers. In order to achieve this, good practice has to become a better traveller.
This will be a big focal point for us in Coastal in the near future and I’m keen for anyone interested to make contact and build those allegiances.
True to our word, Kirsty Ellis and I took in the sights of Mid Wales with a 3 mile run. We saw a beautiful…. Industrial Estate and a Tesco Garage. I think we took a wrong turn but our evening meal was well and truly earned as a result.
I spent the evening in the company of proud Newydd Housing staff, fresh from their Pat Chown success and met some CHC staff I hadn’t met before, discussing personalised number plates, ‘how much is an acceptable spend on a watch?’ and ‘why was last year’s naughty table so well behaved?’
Alan Evans (@Alane_Newydd , Senior Housing Officer, Newydd Housing) is one of the nicest, funniest people I’ve met in a long time. But to his own personal misfortune (and I say that literally) he is evidently unaware of said monetary limit on a nice watch.
Following the meal, we retreated downstairs in the Metropole Hotel to savour the delights of the casino, disco and Wii activities which me to the inevitable conclusion that Welsh Housing is extremely competitive. Following a successful hour on the blackjack table, but paying the price with some mysterious ankle injury, I retired to bed at a modest 1:15am. With my ankle increasingly more painful I berated the fact my room was on the 4th floor of the hotel and the lift was out of service.
With several high-quality sessions on the agenda the conference continued in abundance on the Thursday Morning.
Session 1 was scheduled to be presented by Dr. Gea Sijpkes, CEO of Humanitas Deventer to give the inspirational story of the Residential and Care Center Humainitas, a long-term care facility in the riverside town of Deventer, Netherlands. Unfortunately, Dr Sijpkes was victim to a cancelled flight (I never found out whether this was down to the collapse of Monarch or Michael O’Leary’s inability to do a staff rota). However, credit to CHC staff, the workshop went ahead with a Skype session, where the audience heard the wonderful tale of how, in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month, students were able to access free accommodation in an elderly Residential Care scheme.
Regrettably I missed this session, as I was told it was cancelled (culprit will go unnamed) but I’ve since found this wonderful video, entitled ‘My 93 Year Old Flatmate’, telling tales of beer pong and the amorous tendencies of the elderly clients (all in good fun), but it is a truly inspirational story, and as an example of how to facilitate Intergenerational activities.
The UK clearly has an awful lot to learn. And until we see the elderly as a huge value to society and not a blight, we don’t stand much chance.
Supporting Communities in Crisis – Lessons Learnt from Grenfell
Clearly still an emotive subject in UK Housing, following the fire in West London on 14 June 2017, the session was expertly handled by Tony Thompson, Chair, Emergency Planning Society and discussed how asset management and maintenance teams can meaningfully respond to the landscape changing events and ensure that tenants are safe in their homes.
A huge crowd, understandably, listened to Tony talk about the immediate reaction from the community, in the apparent wake of inaction from the system, but emphasised “the role of the public was key but management of spontaneous volunteers is a huge risk in itself”. The conversation progressed to the new risk management environment which is predictably undergoing significant change and pleaded for organisations to prepare – “Response is a product of preparation” – and left the session with 4 priorities for those listening
1. Know your tenants
2. Listen to your tenants
3. Respond to your tenants
4. Review and act on Fire Risk Assessments
The first 3 of these are a must for all areas of HA service delivery to help strengthen community cohesion.
Universal Credit Full Service – Lessons Learnt So Far
The single biggest threat facing UK Housing at the moment, who better to host the session than Bron Afon Community Housing, who participated in the DWP pilot study back in 2012/13 and gave an insight into what the rest of Wales can expect, as the Government progress with their policy, despite widely reported IT issues and operational failings.
Full service rolled out in Neath Port Talbot on Wednesday of this week and this was an opportunity to hear, first-hand, the experience of 2 organisations within their areas.
Ian Simpson advised that during the pilot study Bron Afon had 927 tenants on full service and it took 3 years to recover from the rent arrears it produced. This forced Bron Afon to revisit their pre-tenancy work, which it was acknowledged, now started ‘much further upstream’.
The session ran on the Thursday also, but such is its importance, it was repeated on the Friday, and very well attended. It was jointly hosted by Flintshire County Council who lay bare the failings of the system and the inability of the DWP to listen, having been the first Welsh area to roll out full service.
Jen Griffiths summed up tenants’ experience of the system and the attitude of the DWP, who were simply holding up their hands and saying “We don’t care, go away”. She struck a real chord when she reported that personal budgeting had now been brought in-house and that budgeting sessions were now being held in the job centres to …and I quote… ‘make them feel like a safer place’. This is an indictment on the destruction caused by this policy. Claimants know that their only chance to qualify for benefits entitlements means they have to attend the job centre, yet they choose not to do so because the place makes them feel unsafe. Unacceptable.
But what surpassed this was the determination that came from Jen when she spoke of how Flintshire continue to overcome the adversity they are presented with on a daily basis. It is no wonder HA’s are increasingly seen by many as a major lifeline.
Jen commented that it is imperative for staff to build a relationship with the work coaches in the job centre. Credit must be given here to Coastal’s Nigel Lewis, Digital Inclusion Officer, who brokered such a meeting this week between Work Coaches and Housing Officers in anticipation of the roll-out in Neath Port Talbot.
If the audience went away with two messages from the session it was these; 1. Universal Credit is going to affect us all, in one way or another, so in addressing it we need to involve the whole organisation. Spread the net far and wide to all frontline staff and beyond. 2. If you are finding failings… BUILD THE EVIDENCE! The DWP have proved they require evidence if the system is to change in any way so we need to record and report its failings.
We hold our breath.
Are Customer expectations growing faster than we can meet them?
It has to be said, the final stint of the conference is a difficult gig. Many delegates would, by this point, have tried to beat the Mid-Wales traffic, and those who remained may have been very low on energy (or suffering from the effects of the previous nights ‘Vimto’).
However, when Helen Reynolds is providing a session, CHC staff needn’t have worried.
Helen, or @HelReynolds as I’ve known her until now, is an award winning digital communications professional and this was the first time I’d heard her speak. She is wonderfully compelling and engages with a crowd in a way that few manage. It was a wonderfully energetic and passionate, and very funny, workshop discussing how the use of digital technology can change the relationships we have with our customers. I don’t like that word. But that’s just me.
Social Media has transformed the way in which we reach and engage with people. It took the Radio 38 years to reach 50 million users. It took the TV just 13 years, with the internet taking 4 years. The iPod, or the ‘evil little fridge’ as labelled by Noel Gallagher, took 1 year less.
In comparison, Facebook added 200m users in under a year.
In talking about how organisations can personalise their approach, I was reminded of the wonderful Eddie from Southern Rail who, as a work placement student, took over their Twitter account earlier in the year with wonderful success. Not 5 minutes later a gentleman in front of me asked a question and gave Eddie the recognition he deserved, commenting on how it had transcended Southern Rail’s public profile in a period where they were blighted with operational failures.
The message from Helen was clear. “Technology will not transform the relationship between tenants and housing. We will!”
Louise Chard from Linc Cymru quoted a tweet of mine later that day and asked whether it is possible for a tenant to ‘do an Eddie’ and run their social media for a day….. why not?
Until next year…
And with that, delegates faded away and made their journeys North and South, East and West, armed with coping strategies, lessons, tips or contacts with which to better their working lives and ultimately, better the lives of tenants across the Welsh Housing sector.
CHC staff should be very proud of themselves for a fully loaded and highly relevant programme. The racing car on Thursday evening was inspired, even if I couldn’t quite pull myself away from the Blackjack table.
On the way home, I stopped off in Brecon, 1. to rest my ankle, still shrouded into mystery into how it had even happened, and 2. To admire the breath-taking view of the Beacons on a clear Autumn afternoon.
CHC have provided a great opportunity to ensure Welsh Housing is now equipped with the tools to provide an equally positive outlook for their tenants.