Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Universal Credit - a bit like England losing on penalties

Mark Hendeson, Director of Housing at Wolverhampton Homes

Every so often it's nice to get the views and opinions of other people on my blog so I'm handing over the reins today to my Director of Housing, Mark Henderson - and he's already talking about football!

Preparing for Universal Credit over the past eighteen months or so has felt a little bit like England losing on penalties to Germany – it’s an inevitability; it will happen in the future; we’re just not too sure when.

So earlier this week when it was announced that we’ll be part of the final tranche of West Midlands authorities transferring over, there was a strange element of relief that at least we now know.

For some time now we’ve been bombarding our staff and our tenants with the message that Universal Credit is on the horizon - it’s on its way! But it’s a tough sell when you can’t say for definite when. The definition of ‘Coming Soon’ has been stretched somewhat – given that the start for new, single person claimants in Wolverhampton will be sometime between December 2015 and April 2016. 

But despite the frustrations of not knowing exactly when this is happening – what it does do is provide us with an opportunity. We’ve got a little bit more time than most to prepare as best we can. Unlike the under-occupancy charge where we had data and knew 90% of those who were likely to be affected; with Universal Credit it’s much harder. The first claimants of ours may not even be tenants at the moment and could well be in work and not claiming a penny of benefits right now.

What we do know though is that eventually, as claims for other benefits such as Job seekers allowance and tax credits are closed, around 1 in 3 tenants – that’s 8,500 – will end up transferring to Universal Credit; that’s a logistically tough challenge (and a huge business risk).

So without knowing who our first Universal Credit applicants will be, being focussed and targeted is tricky. What we can do though is set out three clear messages:

1) You need to be online
2) You need a bank or credit union account
3) You need to put a bit aside each month in preparation for Universal Credit being paid monthly.

For how long can you say 'coming soon'?
But what we do have already is buy-in from across the company. Colleagues know how this could impact our customers and our business so we’re drawing Universal Credit champions from tenants, staff members and customers alike to make sure that we’re as ready as we can be. And as part of our preparation, where customers may struggle, we’ll be encouraging them to apply for a short-term benefits advance, to give a buffer, and not allow arrears to build up, in advance of their first Universal Credit payment.

We’re also working with our neighbouring authorities – and that’s key. It’s like a Universal Credit self-help group. But aside from the opportunity to vent frustrations - it’s actually a really useful way of learning, sharing ideas and building effective networks.

We’re also re-focussing our business objectives. More than 5,000 tenants are signed up to our do-it-online account and we’re making a big push to get more and more services accessible through our website. No doubt mobile-apps and so on will follow – the next two or three years will see a revolution in housing terms when it comes to technology, of that I’m sure.

Employability is right at the top of the agenda too. We’re already linking in with local job clubs and utilising our double-award winning LEAP apprenticeship programme to get more tenants ready to get back into work and training.

But to a degree there’s only so much preparation you can do. At some stage you just need to get your head down and get on with it and see what quirks the new system will throw up.

But – with an election on the horizon – maybe there will be some tweaks and changes before our live date. The NFA’s call this week for payments to go directly to landlords for those tenants who’d prefer it to is a sensible suggestion. After all, individual choice is important – and if a direct payment to landlords is the best way for them to make sure their rent is paid and their home is secured, then surely that’s a win-win all round?

Whatever happens in the next 12 months – we’ll be as ready as we can be.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Dear Prime Minister...can we have more houses please

With the General Election just 65 days away – the issue of housing seems to be creeping back up the political agenda.

Over the past few days we’ve seen housing re-enter the top 10 list of voter concerns according the pollsters at Ipsos Mori. I’m delighted to see housing enter the political fray again. Over the last six months it seemed to have dropped off the radar but now it’s back; and the political parties seem to be taking note. All of the parties have been talking about it over the past few weeks and if the polls are to be believed, we could be heading for another coalition; so maybe it’s a good sign that there’s common ground amongst them when it comes to recognising that more needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis.

Later this month I’m heading down to London to take part in what’s being billed as one of the largest housing rally’s for a generation. The Homes For Britain campaign is uniting the housing sector as one voice – for the first time projecting one simple message – whoever has the keys to Number 10 in May – they need to set out a plan to solve the country’s housing crisis within a generation.

Some will say we need more aspiring homeowners, others will say we need more affordable homes and people like me will say we need lots more council housing to solve the problem. After all, in cities like Wolverhampton where there are 12,000 wanting a council house, there’s clearly a supply and demand deficit which only the government can address. The reality is, we probably need a little bit of all of these things – throw in a more regulated private landlord sector too - and you’d be well on the way.

But what we often seem to do is talk about housing as an asset or commodity – and what we really need to do is remind ourselves of the human impact housing has. Having somewhere to call home is, for me, a basic human necessity. Having somewhere that’s warm, safe – and that people can afford is a must for our society. What we do know is that the local will to make a difference is already there. Our council is an ambitious one and the 40 new homes they’ve just built in the city are a sign that locally we’re doing what we can – it’s the political will at Westminster that’s really needed now.

Not enough homes have been built over the year across the country. I think there’s been a recognition from all parties that this is an area they’ve struggled to deal with. And to be fair to them – it’s not necessarily an issue which has been at the forefront of the electorate’s mind either. The housing sector hasn’t pressed this forcefully enough – we haven’t got our message out there to the public.

But the tide is turning. Thanks to campaigns like Homes For Britain, more and more people recognise we’ve got a problem. Whether it’s young people looking to start a family, families getting bigger or older people desperate for a more suitably-sized home – people are more aware than ever that more needs to be done.

A lot can be achieved in five years - whoever enters Downing Street on 8th May may have just five years to leave their lasting legacy – wouldn’t it be something if that legacy was the solution to our country’s housing crisis?

You can find out more about Homes For Britain at http://homesforbritain.org.uk/.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Thirty years in the making

Thirty years in the making

I can’t describe the excitement amongst my colleagues when the council announced that it was going to be building its first new council houses for more than thirty years.

Sue (centre) and I were delighted to join Emma Reynolds MP  last October.
With more than 12,000 on the waiting list – there’s a chronic shortage of council housing in our city. There are a plethora of reasons for this – the evolution of Right To Buy being one – but I’ll leave the whys and wherefors to the politicians to debate.

What I do know though is that the 40 or so new homes being built at Thompson Avenue in the Parkfields area of the city are going to make wonderful homes for the families who received their keys earlier this week.

I’ve watched with real interest as the site has developed over the past few months and back in October I went for a tour around the development with the Chair of our Board, Sue Roberts MBE. We’re going to be managing the new homes so it was quite fitting that the day we went was the day before her wedding anniversary (she won’t thank me if I say how long ago her wedding was!) But what was fascinating is that her wedding reception took place at the pub where the new houses will now stand. I thought that was quite fitting. Council housing must run through Sue’s DNA!

It was lovely to see the new homes being built. They were modern and energy efficient with lovely garden areas and I’m sure there’ll make wonderful family homes for many years to come. But of course what we really need now is more.

Massive credit needs to be given to the council for building these new homes and I’m delighted that we’re going to play a small role in some small new-build projects with the council over the next couple of years. But of course this is really only tinkering around the edges when it comes to solving the housing crisis in the UK. The National Federation of ALMOs say that the next government has the ability to free council’s up to build more homes. In fact, they reckon that councils could build up to 60,000 much needed new homes over the next five years – just by increasing the amount of debt councils can borrow against their housing stock. The case is compelling. It says that 92p out of every £1 spent on building stays in the UK and that 56p of this returns to the Exchequer - with 36p of that bringing direct savings in tax and benefits. In times of austerity – building things seems like a very sensible thing to do!

Now of course Wolverhampton Homes is apolitical - but with less than 100 days until the general election you’ll no doubt be getting letters, phone calls and leaflets from your local candidates. It’s no up to me to say who you should vote for (but please make sure you go out and vote for someone) but if you get the chance to speak to your candidates ask them what their views are on the housing situation and what they’d do to help solve the crisis. I’ll certainly be asking candidates who knock on my door that very question.