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Listening, hearing and acting


By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO

That’s what a tenant in Wales told me she needs to see a lot more of. And she makes a fine point. Tenants do tell us what is going on. But do we listen and then fix it? Grenfell suggests that we don’t try hard enough. Do we give tenants the tin ear? Is this what lands us in trouble time and again? Yes, it is.

I’ve been in this game for more than 35 years so I’ve seen a lot of screw-ups. They’ve one thing in common: someone was always trying to tell us what was going wrong. Whether it was Connaught or Circle, the tenants were warning us of dire problems. What did we do? Well, it was too much, too little and too late every time.

Of course we need to get better at this. And we seem to be trying. You can’t move in most landlords now for polls, focus groups, scrutiny and staff beavering away on complaints. All of this was ditched the last time the money ran short. So we wait to see if this is heartfelt or just a sop.

There’s one very easy way to find out what is going wrong: why don’t you talk to the people in the call centre? They hear it all. But the top brass hardly ever go near them. Yes, you can tell how quickly they pick up calls and reply to emails. And you can pull out the rates of satisfaction. But that’s just filler for your board reports.

What you want to know is about the blocks with lots of repairs. Is that a sign of a bigger problem down the line? Are disabled tenants marooned by lousy lifts? The young people in the call centre will know. They can also pinpoint the ASB hotspots. So you’ve got to use them. Many of you have the software to pull off reports on trends on these things. Goodness know where they go. If and when inspection comes back, their first port of call will be the call centre.

That’s where you get the real stuff. Everything that comes afterwards is filtered to the point of uselessness. It passes through too many hands. In truth the landlord is defined by the young underpaid staff in the call centre, not the executives. That’s who the tenants deal with day to day. So try listening, hearing and acting on what they say.

It could save lives. Why do I say that? Do you remember when Toyota had to recall six million cars after a fatal crash? They’d seen two thousand reports about that defect. Crucially, the top brass ignored the suggestions made by more junior staff. By the end of it, 31% of Americans believed that Toyota cars were unsafe. Don’t let this happen to you.

It’s easy to avoid. Talk to the tenants and the call centre. Walk into that room now and see how hard they’re working. You might learn yourself something. Find out what vexes them and fix it. That’s how you keep out of the headlines.

(Source of data on Toyota: The Intelligence Trap – David Robson)

Are you on standby for the next IDA?


HQN Chief Executive Alistair McIntosh provides his top tips on how to be prepared for your next In-Depth Assessment

“When I first became a Member of Parliament, I was astonished and dismayed to find I was effectively the post-box for local housing associations’ complaints service. Were I the chief executive of such an organisation, I would be mortified if local Members of Parliament were receiving the level of correspondence that some of us do, and I would be taking action” – Kit Malthouse, Minister of State for Housing (Hansard, 14 March).

That’s the message from the top. What’s next? Well, the RSH says it’s going to check you out more often. How should you prepare for these IDAs? You’ve got to be on standby all the time. So what should you be doing? Here are our top tips:
Work out what you need to spend on homes and make sure you have the cash to do it

That’s your basic job in a nutshell, isn’t it? So no wonder the RSH is all over this.

Obviously you’ll need to convince them your homes are safe. And they are painfully aware of the lamentable standards in a lot of new homes. Do you have this problem? If so, what are you doing about it? Ensure you have an up-to-date stock condition survey.

This needs to be independently validated too. Then the numbers should be put into your business plan. The RSH will check to see that you have the money to pay for the works. And they know all the tricks in the trade about smoothing the numbers to get you through any tight spots. Don’t forget that Hackitt was scathing about socalled value engineering. And with good reason. We’ve put this right at number one on our list.

If you don’t know what you need to spend here the RSH can pull the rug from under your feet on the business plan. It won’t be on rock-solid ground and this can harm your Governance and Viability ratings.

Prove that your homes are safe

Are you sorting out legionella, electrics, gas, asbestos, fire and lifts too? How can you be sure? Are these being checked out by technical experts that know what they are doing? Do you act on their findings quickly?

The RSH will also want to see the internal audit reports for these. If they are based on tiny sample sizes or the level of assurance seems too high they will sniff this out and ask questions.

Embrace possimism!

“A way of thinking in which one is basically pessimistic, but manages to use it to his/her advantage.” Yes, you’ve got to sign up to the national obsession with Brexit. You need to stress test your business plans for any fall out here.

The usual things we see in stress testing are sales stalling and repair costs soaring while income tumbles. You need to come up with the right crises for you. And you need to pile them on top of each other. What does this do to your plans and how do you get back on track? The RSH has been asking you to run these tests for years now.

So they expect it to be done to a high standard. Really you should be testing and updating your business plan pretty much continuously. Saying that you run an annual stress test is a prime example of an oxymoron.

Sort out value for money – it never goes away for long

The honeymoon period for the new VfM metrics is over. Now you need to calculate each one accurately, know why you differ from peers, act to close any gaps, and collect extra metrics that show you are meeting your strategic objectives.

If your costs look high then get beneath them. Don’t offer up glib one liner justifications. That won’t wash. You need a proper analysis of the knock-on impact on costs of things like running care and investing in new IT.

By the same token you can spend too little. The RSH will not be at all happy if they think you are being penny wise and pound foolish on repairs.

Don’t kick the can down the road

No one likes to take tough decisions. Many try to put these off for as long as possible. But what will become of you if the RSH pops in at the wrong time? There is no time to lose on sorting out a badly-behaved board member, shabby service, tricky development or some other thorny problem.

And you need to think about the future. When the Green Paper finally grinds out it will raise the bar on service standards. Are you ready for that?


HQN can help – we’ve carried out more than 50 mock IDAs and almost 100 stress tests – contact Anna Pattison for more information: anna.pattison@hqnetwork.co.uk

Social landlords are building homes and boosting finances – yet are still being slammed. Why?

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO

Associations are working harder than ever to bulk up financial strength and build more homes. So why are you getting criticised so much?

In many ways, you are trapped by a couple of paradoxes. To get stronger you may need to merge, and that means you deal with a wider set of people in many different places.

Can you keep them all happy? It’s a tall order. You try to build homes quickly and that means working with developers. Time and again their standards of building fall well short of what any reasonable person would expect.

All too often it’s the association that gets hammered as the developer runs for cover. Then you try to sell homes to subsidise rented ones. And those leaseholders go over every bill you send with a fine toothcomb, as is their right.

So, you wind up covering bigger areas than ever and managing the expectations of a wider demographic than you imagined you would. In many ways, that’s all good news.

But in the days of phone cameras and social media, everyone is a journalist. If you screw up, there is no hiding place. And the board and chief executive are usually the last to know. On top of this we have febrile politics. So Momentum and others are boosting tenant campaigns. And there’s no point whinging about this as that’s their job.

So, what do we do about it? That’s what our reputation management event in London this month will explore.

There is no doubt that we are losing the reputation battle. We’ve seen savage criticism from MPs, massive social media campaigns, tabloid exposes and brutal documentaries on UK and even Russian TV lambasting us. It’s painful to watch, regardless of the rights and wrongs of it.

The housing minister, Kit Malthouse, tells us he’s tired of being the post bag for complaints about his local associations. But he also praises L&Q for their honesty and determination to sort things out. That’s why we’ve invited L&Q to share their learning – good and bad – at this event.

Karen Buck will also tell you about her vigorous work over many years to make sure social and private landlords do the right thing for her constituents. All too often, it’s been an uphill struggle. What are her dos and don’ts?

This won’t be a day for the fainthearted. You’ll hear a lot of home truths. As you know, there are plenty of well-funded private landlords waiting in the wings to replace you. It’s essential that we recover our reputation to prove that councils, associations and ALMOs are the best option. We’ve a lot of ground to make up and our speakers will help you to do that.

Hosted by communications expert Helen Reynolds, our ‘Reputation rollercoaster – how to stay on track’ will cover:

  • How to build a trusted brand
  • Practice what you preach – clarity of mission and sticking to your values
  • Putting residents at the heart of decision making
  • The importance of engaged employees and a happy workforce
  • Stakeholder engagement strategies – working with politicians and the media
  • Making social media a friend not an enemy
  • Understanding where reputational risk comes from and how to deal with it

To learn more and to book, click here.