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A creative approach to housing

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

Doncaster council has had many problems over the years, not least in its housing function, which was heavily criticised by the Audit Commission in its 2009 Comprehensive Area Assessment. But a recent re-inspection has shown progress in virtually every area thanks to creative new approaches and sector partnerships, as assistant director of housing Gary Wells tells PSE.

For much of the second half of the last decade, housing was a fragmented and problematic service for the people of Doncaster.

In 2005, the council established an arm’s length management organisation (ALMO) to run its housing stock. That move, however, created knock-on effects for the other housing functions.

Gary Wells, assistant director of housing, told PSE: “As in a lot of other councils, the rest of the organisation did not really understand housing: it was something that happened over in the corner.

“Particularly in northern authorities, people tend to think council housing is the only issue. So over the next couple of years after the ALMO was established, the rest of the strategic housing function – private sector housing, enforcement, empty homes, affordable housing, homelessness, all these other aspects – were retained within the council, but fragmented and spread around the organisation.

“They often went to parts of the council where housing wasn’t a core specialism, and we started to see a massive decline in housing performance – homelessness started to get worse; private sector housing got worse, and so on.

“In 2007/8, we brought the strategic housing function back together, so we could have a single service, and start to get some of that synergy and added value back. But by that time, there were a lot of things wrong, plus Doncaster Council’s wider issues and problems as an organisation.

“In 2008, we started on the journey of improving housing in Doncaster; fixing some of the issues that needed to be fixed, and those that had got worse because it had been left for two or three years.”

Comprehensively bad

But it was in 2009, when the borough had its Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) from the Audit Commission, that the scale of some of those problems came to wider attention. Everything that could be wrong was wrong, as Wells put it, and the CAA’s infamous ‘red flags’ were everywhere. He explained: “Improvement by then was very limited; a lot of the things we did in the first couple of years before the CAA were just basic management competencies. In the CAA, there was a recognition that some improvement had been made, but fundamentally, the core service delivery was still broken.

“In particular, the CAA flagged up too many empty homes empty for too long, causing problems in neighbourhoods. The problem was that wider ‘place malaise’; graffiti, flytipping, vandalism, anti-social behaviour.

“The other major problem was supporting vulnerable people in accommodation. Not enough people were being assisted, we had out-of-date commissioning processes, poor value for money, not the right provision targeted at the right people. They also waved a flag at the lack of decent homes and affordable housing.

“They were just the headline issues; underneath were more problems around capacity to deliver, the lack of a candid culture, too much insular thinking, not enough talking to partners or customers, not enough understanding of the market and issues that needed to be addressed, no performance management culture – serious stuff.”


This acted as a massive wake-up call, unsurprisingly, and since then there has been a dramatic turnaround, Wells said, to the extent that when the council asked the Audit Commission to revisit in autumn 2011, the news was good.

The October 2011 progress review said: “There are many areas of improvement in the Strategic Housing Service, and the Council is making good progress in increasing its ability to meet housing need in Doncaster. It is addressing all the recommendations in our August 2010 update report, and is putting in place the right building blocks to help it continue improvement for the future.”

It welcomed the link between housing and wider borough strategies, better stakeholder engagement, the improved evidence base for decisions, the way the council is addressing housing needs, the improving relationships with other services and partners, the work with private landlords, the review of the warden schemes and the “many other individual examples of improvement in meeting the needs of the local community”.

There remained areas needing improvement – wider community involvement in some aspects of housing, an unclear approach on affordable housing, excessive waiting times for adaptations, and missed targets on the use of temporary accommodation and improving private homes, for example.

But the overall picture was good, and 2011/12 has seen massive progress in some areas, such as restoring empty homes to use.

CIDA model

Wells explained some of the drivers behind the improvements, following the dire 2009 inspection. He said: “We tried to use the concept of innovation and creativity as a driver of change. We had low morale, low motivation, a workforce that had been around for 20 years who had always done things in certain ways and didn’t know why they had to change. So we wanted to fundamentally change the culture of the service.”

The council worked with CIDA, the Cultural Industries Development Agency, to design a bespoke housing innovation programme. It came up with a servicespecific and systematic approach to identifying the problems and potential solutions, for example on empty homes.

Wells said: “This part, for me, is the unique element of what we’ve been doing in Doncaster. It was designed to try to get people to think creatively and in a new way, but fundamentally, at its core, which was very subtle, it was also designed to change culture.” Wells had few good things to say about the previous working culture.

“If somebody said ‘we’re going to tackle empty properties’, I’d ask about getting a project group together, they’d ask why and say ‘getting people involved from another department – won’t they just ask lots of awkward questions?’ These were really fundamental blockages to better working. I don’t mean to be flippant, but don’t even get me started on ‘why would we talk to residents’!”

Asking and listening

Breaking that silo mentality has been hard, but there is now more communication and collaboration happening with other parts of the council, the private sector, and residents themselves. Wells explained how useful this had been: “As an example, as a result of this work, we got a group of older people to look at everything we did on providing accommodation for an ageing population. They identified some useful ideas and issues they thought we should be doing.

“As it so happens – and this is the genius bit – the things people wanted us to do were less expensive than what we had been trying to do. Not only that, but by being able to show we’d engaged service users and partners, we were able to secure more resources to deliver those cheaper things.”

As an example, he said: “What people said to us was that when we refurbish existing properties, we should not install new windows with window catches above the sink in the kitchen and high up, so that older people have to stand on a chair to open the window and then may fall, which may cause stress and anxiety so they may not open and close windows, which affects ventilation and air flow and so on.

“They developed some standards and inspected some existing recently developed new build older people’s housing schemes against the standards to test them and this resulted in a range of issues that we factored into the redesign of a new extracare scheme at the point of initial concept.

“The cost of the scheme before we engaged the older people was a £2m funding gap; after we redesigned the scheme, mix, layout, property types, proximity to the health centre etc, the gap was reduced to £800,000, which the Homes & Communities Agency funded as they were impressed with the scheme and the approach used – working with older people, a private developer and housing association, planning department, wider community, other partners i.e. NHS Health and Social Care commissioners, and so on.”

Other features added based on this work included places to hang photos of family, giving people more flexibility over their own furniture, facilities for charging and parking scooters, more green space, park benches between the housing schemes and shops.

Wells said: “All in all, things talked about were how we should make the property comfortable to live in by taking account of older people’s specific needs when in the home, and how we should take account of their wider needs to encourage them to go out into the community.”

Wider roll-out

The model developed with CIDA was applied to empty homes and ageing population issues, and over the last year has been rolled out into other areas, such as housing options and affordable housing.

Wells said: “CIDA realised we’d taken the work we’d done with them to another level. Two years ago, they saw they had to talk to a lot of people and do a lot of encouraging. When they came back last year, they were amazed at the change – it was like it had become part of the day job.

“We’re now starting to use that work to anticipate the changes to local government; no grant, ways to commercialise the sector, mutual working with other local authorities or the private or third sectors. We’re really trying to embed a creative way of working as part of everyday life.”

The model has had genuine results. On empty homes, for example, progress was slow at first: in 2009/10, 62 homes were brought back into use, and in 2010/11, 68. But then by the end of February 2012, there had already been 206 empty homes brought back into use, smashing the target of 166 for the 2011-12 year.

Wells said: “Behind those figures are a range of new ways of working with the private sector and using money differently.

“Those figures have been achieved, too, in a context of no money. Instead, we’ve been talking to developers about things like free property inspections for private landlords, because that gives us the opportunity to have a conversation with them, where we can then talk to them about bringing the home back into use. These were ideas generated by the teams using the model developed with CIDA.”

The council has developed a managing agent scheme, taking the hassle out of returning empty homes to use for private owners. The ALMO delivers services from finding tenants to repairs and maintenance.

Wells said: “We think we’ve exhausted those property owners who want to work with us on managing their properties for them, and we now need to target some of the more difficult owners. We now need to de-risk it even more.”

One idea is for the ALMO to manage the property for five years at an agreed rate of return, transferring the risk from the owner even further.

Wells said: “The genius here is that we’ve got a shortfall of affordable homes: we can’t get enough people into affordable stock. It’s getting harder, we’ve got less resources, so by offering a service that gives them a guaranteed rate of return and no hassle, then through our ALMO we can have some control over the standards of the repairs, and get paid for doing it.”

Targets and cultures

Other achievements include preventing 54% of homelessness, up from 41% in Q1, securing £20m in external funding against a target of £10m, and hitting the target to deliver 180 affordable homes. HR issues are also improving, with an average of seven days absence against a corporate target of 10.48 days.

By 2013/14, the service wants there to have been a complete strategic overhaul, emphasising concepts like ‘co-opetition’ and the mutual development of services with partners, the establishment of a real housing brand, the embedding of a culture of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and nurturing talent.

Further commercialising the sector, and embedding partnerships with the private sector, remain politically controversial.

Wells said: “The solution isn’t outsourcing or letting the private sector run services. It’s working with those sectors to deliver complementary and supplementary services. That’s a critical phrase. You can then get private and third sector skillsets, but the public sector involvement gives that quality assurance.”

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