Could tackling the empty homes epidemic help solve the housing crisis?

Lee Sugden, Chief Executive, Salix Homes and NHC Board member

At the last count, there were over 600,000 empty homes in England – that equates to two years’ worth of the Government’s targets for new home completions.

Of those, more than 200,000 are classed as long-term empty, in that they’ve stood empty for more than six months, and this represents around 1% of the total housing stock in the country.

At the time of a national housing crisis, surely common sense would say that a crucial tactic for tackling this growing crisis would be to make better use of this stock we’ve already got.

With more than a million people on housing waiting lists up and down the country, it’s a travesty that houses are stood empty in our communities.

Obviously, it’s not as simple as just moving people in, firstly we need to understand the reasons why a home may lie empty.

Properties may be empty because the owner is in hospital or moved into a care home, they could even be enjoying a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

There can be any number of reasons why a home is empty at any particular point in time, but we can’t ignore the fact that a good proportion of these properties stand unused and neglected, and with a little investment, could be brought back into use to not only provide homes for those who need them, but to help regenerate our communities.

In some areas there is a great deal of work being done by local authorities, housing providers and private landlords to tackle empty homes and the success of such projects can be seen in Salford.

Ten years ago, there were over 3,000 empty homes in Salford – that figure now stands at just over 1,000, a reduction of almost 70% – or about 1% of the city’s housing stock. Nationally, long-term empty homes have only been reduced by half that, so Salford is certainly doing something right.

We work with our partners here to utilise the Government’s Empty Homes Scheme, which ran until 2016, and provides grants to gap-fund refurbishment work. The condition being that the landlord has to guarantee the homes would be let as affordable housing for a minimum of five years. We then let the homes via our ethical private lettings agency – Salix Living.

It’s win-win for all involved. More affordable homes available for people in housing-need, a guaranteed income for the homeowner and the blight of empty buildings gone from our communities. On many occasions, this additional supply of homes to the market place has given a roof over the head of someone at risk of homelessness – an outcome that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

But it’s not just empty homes. In Salford we’ve set our targets on empty buildings in general, which have so far included shops, pubs and even an old job centre, which we’ve successfully transformed into housing.

And the success of such schemes is now capturing national interest, after Salix Homes was this month featured in a new BBC1 documentary series – The Empty Housing Scandal – presented by the tenacious Matt Allwright, of Watchdog and One Show fame.

The series shines a spotlight on Britain’s empty homes scandal, and we were incredibly proud to show Matt some of the work we are doing to turn the tide and transform these eyesore buildings into desperately needed affordable housing.

It’s a reflection of the times, but society has changed. High streets are in decline and last orders are being called at boozers up and down the country, leaving these once thriving community hubs deserted and neglected.

Repurposing these abandoned buildings, which are often in key central locations, is about more than providing much-needed homes, it’s also about tackling the effects these eyesore sites have on communities, where they are often a magnet for anti-social behaviour.

With a little investment and creative thinking, such projects are helping to breathe life back into our high streets, regenerate communities and crucially helping to tackle the housing crisis.

You can catch The Empty Housing Scandal on iPlayer and Salix Homes features in episodes three and four.

Government safety guidance on tall buildings

Advice was published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG)  on 18 December last year on ‘external wall systems that do not incorporate Aluminium Composite Material’ – in other words, buildings where the type of cladding used on the Grenfell Tower is not present. Despite this, MHCLG has advised that there are still a range of other materials and risks that pose a threat to buildings over 18m in height (tall buildings). Here we discuss the steps that RPs can take to ensure that they keep their buildings and their tenants safe.

Advice Note 14

The advice was produced by an independent panel of experts who laid out the decisions and steps that must be taken by the owners of buildings and a building’s ‘responsible person'(for buildings that fall within the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005)– the people who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that they and their residents remain safe from fire. The MHCLG’s panel is chaired by Sir Ken Knight, former London Fire Commissioner and former Government Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, and includes other esteemed experts such as Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council and Ann Bentley MBA MICE FRICS, Global Director of Rider Levett Bucknall.

Main recommendations:

  • Limited combustibility materials should be used in existing buildings UNLESS they have passed a BS 8414 test, gaining a BR135 classification
  • Check wall systems have been installed and maintained correctly
  • Obtain an up to date fire risk assessment (FRA) under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005
  • A wall material with a Class 0 rating alone does not evidence a safe wall system

Only materials of ‘limited combustibility’ should be used on the external walls of tall buildings. There are particular classes of materials and tests that those materials must pass in order to meet this standard.

The Advice does emphasis that the safety checks can be carried out by competent professional advisors as well as building owners; so it may be prudent to defer to expert advice if there is any confusion about the materials used. The competency of such advisors, however, is not defined. This could leave RPs in a difficult position; essentially determining the competency of experts themselves when they are seeking to defer to a party with more knowledge than themselves. It is therefore recommended that RPs read the Government’s own information on where to find appropriate professional advisors contained here at Annex A.

Where desktop studies or technical assessments have been carried out by professionals on the likely performance of external wall systems, the building owner must still ensure that a check of the technical basis of such tests has been made. The assumptions should be based on established scientific and engineering principles and supported by reference to relevant BS 8414 fire test data.

Further regulation

The Government also decided in December that it would be implementing the entire suite of recommendations contained in the Hackitt Review. The Hackitt Review was led by Dame Judith Hackitt to provide recommendations to the regulatory system after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

This means that building owners could be liable for tougher sanctions if they are found to fall below safety standards. In light of this it is paramount that sufficient steps are taken, likely to involve taking advice from independent experts as discussed above.

Enforcement recommendations in the Hackitt review included the ability to serve Improvement/Correction Notices and Prohibition Notices on individuals or organisations responsible for buildings. Failing to comply with these notices within a particular time period will be a criminal offence.

Future recommendations are expected to come from the Industry Safety Steering Group, a panel made up of housing, construction and fire experts headed by Hackitt. The Group was established in January 2019 to hold the industry to account and accelerate change.

In summary, those responsible for tall buildings must ensure they have a clear knowledge of the building materials used, procure that checks are completed and that the walls are regularly maintained. RPs should regularly carry out FRAs and obtain professional advice where necessary to comply with the MHCLG advice and the law.

For example, Type 1 FRAs are carried out on common areas only. Type 3 FRAs ensure that common areas as well as a sample of the individual flats are checked for hazards. Although completing Type 3 FRAs as well as Type 1s is a helpful measure in and of itself, this physical presence in flats may also provide an extra level of reassurance for tenants.

The full range of the MHCLG Advice Notes can be found here.

Thirteen Launching County Durham Employment Routeways for Young People

Thirteen’s employability service has launched a new scheme to support young people aged 16-24 from County Durham into work (funded by DurhamWorks as part of the Youth Employment Initiative).

Over recent years Thirteen has extended its employability portfolio, delivering services for both tenants and the wider public.  Our support progressing individuals into work has provided many benefits to both communities and Thirteen in terms of social inclusion, health and wellbeing, financial stability and tenancy sustainment.

More recently Thirteen has commenced delivery of Routeways in both Hospitality and Customer Service, which provide a level two qualification and guaranteed interviews for live job vacancies with local employers.

Both Routeways are being delivered monthly in various localities across County Durham. Courses are initially scheduled to be delivered in central Durham and future delivery is likely to include Newton Aycliffe, Bishop Auckland, Chester le Street, Spennymoor and Stanley.  Delivery will also be expanded to other areas based upon need.

One of the first businesses to offer employment opportunities upon Routeway completion is the Radisson Blu hotel in Durham City.

Karen Kenmare, Senior Housing Related Support Manager, from Thirteen said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for young people in County Durham to gain valuable skills and a qualification that will stand them in good stead in the future.”

“The courses will give training and confidence, with a genuine job interview at the end.  Following the course young people will also be given intensive 1-1 support from Thirteen’s employability service to help progress them into work.”

“It’s important that local and national companies invest in the career prospects of our young people and we’re pleased that the Radisson Blu is working with us to offer potential roles for willing and enthusiastic candidates.”

Shirlynn Lim, General Manager from Raddison Blu, said: “The culture of our business worldwide is to provide meaningful employment, develop our team’s talents and increase young people’s employability and that is why we are pleased to be working with Thirteen on this important project.

“We are very much looking forward to meeting the young people who complete the course and who, hopefully, may become valued members of our team in the future.”

Places on Thirteen’s Customer Service and Hospitality Routeway courses can be booked via:

Telephone:      07789 923490 / 07876 006086

Facebook:       ThirteenGroup

Website:          www.thirteengroup.co.uk/durhamrouteways

Email:              durham-routeways@thirteengroup.co.uk

Focus on…. Housing Health and Safety Rating System

Landlords have a legal requirement to ensure that a property is safe before letting it to a new tenant and local authorities have a statutory duty to keep the housing conditions in their area under review. It is now almost thirteen years since the introduction of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). Introduced under the Housing Act 2004 and implemented in April 2006, it is the approach used to assess risks to health and safety in the home.

The rationale for its introduction was to standardise the way Environmental Health Practitioners (EHP) rated the risk to health and safety to occupants of dwellings and in doing so, replaced the more basic housing fitness standard assessment tool, introduced in the Housing Act 1985, which was based on whether the conditions in a property met a defined minimum level.

The new system was designed to be more comprehensive, and a range of different issues are now banded under a set of 29 categories which range from the more serious Category 1 and 2 where there is a serious danger to health and safety, through a range of other problems decreasing in severity such as design that might cause sprains and strains (Category 28). Some of the hazards include:

  • Excess cold (because of increased heat loss)
  • Fire (by allowing fire and smoke to spread to other parts of the dwelling)
  • Lead (from old paint)
  • Domestic hygiene, pests and refuse (by providing access and breeding places for pests, which are a source of infections), and
  • Noise

MHCLG’s Local Authority Housing Statistics Data Return provides useful information on the presence of Category 1 hazards in each local authority area in England. The data for 2017/18 showed that out of a total of 2,676 local authority owned dwellings in England with a Category 1 hazard, only 49 could be found in the North.

The total estimated cost of removing the Category 1 hazards from these dwellings in the North amounts to £97,450 – an average of £1,989 per dwelling.

There was a total of 6,533 dwellings in the private rented sector which, following an inspection, were found to have one or more Category 1 hazards according to Local Authority Housing Statistics Data Return. In the absence of an estimated cost to remove hazards in the private sector, I have used the average cost for the local authority removal as a proxy to give an indication of costs. Using this £1,989 average above equates to an indicative cost of £12.9m to remove Category 1 hazards from private rented dwellings in the North.

Whilst tackling the most dangerous hazards is expensive, Cambridgeshire Insight carried out analysis that shows there are wider benefits to doing so. Taking one example, their analysis shows that tackling all instances of excess cold would cost some £6bn. However, this would result in savings of £848m per year to the NHS and would pay for itself in 7.14 years.

Despite the more stringent assessment system that the HHSRS introduced, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health found that the vast majority of EHPs felt that the HHSRS should be updated. Subsequently, MHCLG has now commissioned a review to identify the extent to which the HHSRS needs to be updated and revised, including exploring the scope for setting minimum standards as part of the HHSRS framework.

The MHCLG project specification sets out to:

  • Identify which parts of the HHSRS are out of date and need to be revised
  • Demonstrate whether there would be scope for introducing a sampling and cloning approach – and where this approach might be appropriate
  • Indicate whether the current penalties for non-compliance are appropriate and proportionate
  • Show whether there is a need for additional worked examples in the guidance
  • Help establish the feasibility of using digital technology to develop an app for the HHSRS, and
  • Consider whether minimum standards should be included in the framework.

In 2017/18 the total number of private sector dwellings with Category 1 hazards which were made free from hazards as a direct result of action of local authorities was 5,559 in the North and 18,582 nationally. Whatever the outcome of the review and any subsequent change to legislation, it is clear that there is an ongoing battle for EHPs and NHC members to ensure that people are safe to live in their own homes.

In 2005 the World Health Organisation estimated that in the UK over 2.7 million people were injured at home, almost twice as many as those injured at work and over eight times those injured on the road. Consideration clearly needs to be given to wider health and safety issues in the home. But how are landlords and local authorities to determine what is a safe home in future?

Bookings are now being taken for the NHC’s 4th Annual Health and Safety in Housing Conference which will be held in Leeds on 13th June. Delegates will be given an update on the HHSRS from the Regulator and issues such as the implications of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2019 will be discussed. We are running a session looking specifically at the legal aspects of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2019 with our Supporter members Ward Hadaway on 7th March – you can see more details here.

Independent Affordable Housing Commission

The new independent Affordable Housing Commission (AHC) is chaired by Lord Best and includes housing experts and parliamentarian commissioners.   The Smith Institute will act as secretariat to the commission and the NHC will be supporting the commission by holding an event on 1 March 2019 (this event focuses on the North East and Yorkshire and Humber – there are other events taking place in other regions)

In preparation for its launch, the AHC published the results of a national poll, showing that two thirds of people believe that there is a national crisis over affordable housing and 52% believe it will get worse over the next decade.

The AHC has identified four key groups for whom the affordability of their accommodation is causing serious difficulty:

  1. Struggling renters: these are required to spend more than a third of their income on rented accommodation; they are often in the private rented sector (PRS), although the problem is also evident in in the social housing sector.
  2. Frustrated homeowners: those unable to buy a property without spending over a third on housing costs; many, who struggling to save and without significant parental support, are destined to remain in the PRS.
  3. Those reliant on state support: households that rely on Housing Benefit/the housing component within Universal Credit, but current arrangements provide inadequate support, taking many below the poverty line.
  4. Those who face affordability issues in older age: whose incomes drop suddenly in retirement but whose rents remain the same (something which could become a bigger issue for generation rent in the future), but also older owners in unsatisfactory homes who cannot afford to upgrade their property or acquire somewhere suitable.

The AHC is keen to hear a range of views on how these problems of housing affordability can be ended and is hoping to bring together a small number of major policy initiatives which could make a dramatic difference. The AHC is keen to ensure that attention is focussed on the issues that matter most.

The AHC has produced a note providing more detail on the scope of the AHC’s research and further information on the Commission can be found on the  Affordable Housing Commission website.

The NHC has been invited to submit evidence to the AHC and we are keen to seek views, comments and evidence from members to inform our response.

The deadline for NHC to submit its views to the Commission is the 4th April 2019.

You can feed into the work of the Commission by

  1. Attending the AHC/NHC event on 1st March details here – to book please email events@northern-consortium.org.uk
  2. Submitting your comments directly to the Commission via the Affordable Housing Commission website
  3. Submitting your comments to the NHC to contribute towards our response on behalf of members – please submit comments by 22 March

If you have any queries or wish to submit your evidence, please email to Karen Brown, Senior Policy Advisor  karen.brown@northern-consortium.org.uk

All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Housing in the North looks further at impact of housing on health

The cross-party forum for parliamentarians to discuss and advance northern specific housing challenges, the APPG Housing in the North, met again this week to explore further how housing can play a central role in supporting personal health. The group, made up of MP’s and Lords of all political persuasions, heard from a range of speakers outlining how we can achieve this ambition whether in identifying where funding should be targeted or understanding what good practice already exists and how it can be disseminated across the region.

Last October the Smith Institute published the Hidden Costs of Poor-Quality Housing in the North.  Commissioned by the Northern Housing Consortium and supported by Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and Karbon Homes, the report highlighted the nearly 1 million owner-occupied homes in the North that currently fail to meet the decent homes standard and the health impacts this can have on residents.

In the time since, the prevention agenda in health has only grown in importance with the recently released NHS Long Term Plan announcing a focus on prevention which could save 500,000 lives. The challenge outlined at the APPG was to now underline and acknowledge the role housing should play in this approach.

It is clear that sub-standard housing can have negative health and wellbeing impacts on any household. We all could suffer at some point from falls or respiratory problems because of poor housing conditions. Similarly, households pay more if their homes are not energy efficient and there is a growing body of academic literature from organisations such as Public Health England and the Kings Fund linking poor housing to health inequalities.  Despite this evidence, Northern Housing Consortium members continue to tell us of the challenges they face in striving for greater collaboration with health services.

One area the North can look to for inspiration is Greater Manchester, where housing providers have established a key partnership with the GM Health and Social Care Partnership.  ‘Connecting health and housing’ has become a central tenet of Greater Manchester Housing Providers highlighted by the ambition to reduce the pressures on health and social care by investing in new modern homes and support packages for an ageing population. With this in mind, the APPG was delighted to welcome colleagues at the centre of this collaboration to discuss what learning we should take when it comes to the integration of health and housing and how good practice can be spread across the North.

The benefits of a collaborative approach are widespread. Homes with a category 1 hazard are estimated to cost the NHS £1.4 billion.  The impact of poor housing on residents’ health, such as the development of respiratory and circulatory diseases, set against the treatment costs, if the causes of the ill health are not dealt with, are significant. For example, the relatively small cost of fitting a handrail on the steps of a vulnerable person’s home to prevent a fall will be far more cost-effective than treating the subsequent fall injury. This is not simply about monetary gain; it is about a respect for people in aid of assistance and support, demonstrated through the prevention of illness and injury.

The All Party Parliamentary Group Housing in the North took place 26th February 2019 at the House of Commons, Westminster.  Meeting notes and further information will be available soon via the Northern Housing Consortium website.

Focus On – Housing Health and Safety Rating System

Landlords have a legal requirement to ensure that a property is safe before letting it to a new tenant and local authorities have a statutory duty to keep the housing conditions in their area under review. It is now almost thirteen years since the introduction of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). Introduced under the Housing Act 2004 and implemented in April 2006, it is the approach used to assess risks to health and safety in the home.

The rationale for its introduction was to standardise the way Environmental Health Practitioners (EHP) rated the risk to health and safety to occupants of dwellings and in doing so, replaced the more basic housing fitness standard assessment tool, introduced in the Housing Act 1985, which was based on whether the conditions in a property met a defined minimum level.

The new system was designed to be more comprehensive, and a range of different issues are now banded under a set of 29 categories which range from the more serious Category 1 and 2 where there is a serious danger to health and safety, through a range of other problems decreasing in severity such as design that might cause sprains and strains (Category 28). Some of the hazards include:

  • Excess cold (because of increased heat loss)
  • Fire (by allowing fire and smoke to spread to other parts of the dwelling)
  • Lead (from old paint)
  • Domestic hygiene, pests and refuse (by providing access and breeding places for pests, which are a source of infections), and
  • Noise

MHCLG’s Local Authority Housing Statistics Data Return provides useful information on the presence of Category 1 hazards in each local authority area in England. The data for 2017/18 showed that out of a total of 2,676 local authority owned dwellings in England with a Category 1 hazard, only 49 could be found in the North.

The total estimated cost of removing the Category 1 hazards from these dwellings in the North amounts to £97,450 – an average of £1,989 per dwelling.

There was a total of 6,533 dwellings in the private rented sector which, following an inspection, were found to have one or more Category 1 hazards according to Local Authority Housing Statistics Data Return. In the absence of an estimated cost to remove hazards in the private sector, I have used the average cost for the local authority removal as a proxy to give an indication of costs. Using this £1,989 average above equates to an indicative cost of £12.9m to remove Category 1 hazards from private rented dwellings in the North.

Whilst tackling the most dangerous hazards is expensive, Cambridgeshire Insight carried out analysis that shows there are wider benefits to doing so. Taking one example, their analysis shows that tackling all instances of excess cold would cost some £6bn. However, this would result in savings of £848m per year to the NHS and would pay for itself in 7.14 years.

Despite the more stringent assessment system that the HHSRS introduced, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health found that the vast majority of EHPs felt that the HHSRS should be updated. Subsequently, MHCLG has now commissioned a review to identify the extent to which the HHSRS needs to be updated and revised, including exploring the scope for setting minimum standards as part of the HHSRS framework.

The MHCLG project specification sets out to:

  • Identify which parts of the HHSRS are out of date and need to be revised
  • Demonstrate whether there would be scope for introducing a sampling and cloning approach – and where this approach might be appropriate
  • Indicate whether the current penalties for non-compliance are appropriate and proportionate
  • Show whether there is a need for additional worked examples in the guidance
  • Help establish the feasibility of using digital technology to develop an app for the HHSRS, and
  • Consider whether minimum standards should be included in the framework.

In 2017/18 the total number of private sector dwellings with Category 1 hazards which were made free from hazards as a direct result of action of local authorities was 5,559 in the North and 18,582 nationally. Whatever the outcome of the review and any subsequent change to legislation, it is clear that there is an ongoing battle for EHPs and NHC members to ensure that people are safe to live in their own homes.

In 2005 the World Health Organisation estimated that in the UK over 2.7 million people were injured at home, almost twice as many as those injured at work and over eight times those injured on the road. Consideration clearly needs to be given to wider health and safety issues in the home. But how are landlords and local authorities to determine what is a safe home in future?

Bookings are now being taken for the NHC’s 4th Annual Health and Safety in Housing Conference which will be held in Leeds on 13th June. Delegates will be given an update on the HHSRS from the Regulator and issues such as the implications of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2019 will be discussed. We are running a session looking specifically at the legal aspects of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2019 with our Supporter members Ward Hadaway on 7th March – you can see more details here.

Ward Hadaway Guest Blog – Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018

On 20 March 2019, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 (The Act) comes into force in England and Wales amending sections 8 to 10 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. The Act creates an obligation on landlords to make sure dwellings provided are fit for human habitation from the start of their tenancy and remain so throughout.

Failure to do so will provide tenants (both private and social) with a statutory right to take action against their landlord for breach of contract and for compensation. A landlord cannot contract out of the covenant implied into the tenancy agreement or levy any contractual penalty on the tenant for relying on the Act.

Landlord and Tenant Act 1985

Currently landlords have no contractual obligation to keep a dwelling in a condition that is ‘fit for human habitation’. Section 11 Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 contains obligations to keep the structure of a dwelling and installations for supplying heat and water in repair, but no positive obligations to deal with improvements, design defects and other issues that affect fitness for habitation, such as poor ventilation or fire safety.

 Definition of ‘fitness for human habitation’

The scope of the Act is broad; ‘fitness  for human habitation’  takes into consideration factors such as repair, stability, freedom from damp, natural lighting, ventilation, water supply, drainage and sanitary conveniences and facilities for preparation and cooking of food and disposal of waste water.

In addition, the Act goes further to include ‘any prescribed hazard’ under s.2 (1) of the Housing Act 2004. So, in deciding whether a dwelling is ‘unfit’ regard shall be had to whether there is a risk of harm to the health and wellbeing of the tenant.  Previously such hazards could only be enforced by local authorities.

What type of tenancies does the 2018 Act apply to?

The Act will apply to all leases of less than seven years granted on or after the 20 March 2019 (the commencement date), including new periodic tenancies; all fixed term tenancies granted before the commencement date that become periodic tenancies after the commencement date; and all periodic tenancies in existence (at the commencement date and 12 months after the commencement date).

Impact

The Act will not affect the terms and conditions of the tenant’s agreement with regards to the tenant’s responsibilities, and landlords will not be liable for the property being rendered ‘unfit for human habitation’ as a result of the tenant’s behaviour and actions.

What we can expect to see is a raft of new claims in relation to condensation dampness, which can clearly have a negative impact on tenant’s health.   Currently, condensation that is not caused by disrepair is not a matter of or contractual breach.  In the future, we can expect to see complex, technical arguments over the cause of condensation; whether it arises as a result of design or construction defect, could be improved by better heating, insulation or ventilation or as a result of how the property is being utilised.

Registered Providers need to be very much aware of their obligations under the Act, and review their asset management strategies to consider how best to avoid such claims (by prioritising improvement programmes) and how best to defend such claims (by responding to, and accurately recording complaints, and where possible using technology to monitor use of a property).

To book your place on this event click here.

Plus Dane and Refugee Resettlement

 

In 2016, Plus Dane, in partnership with SHAP, was awarded the Refugee Resettlement Contract for Halton Borough Council; Halton are a great Council to work with and there was a coalition of the willing. The contract fitted well with the social and moral purpose of our organisation. And so began a new strand of work for us. It has been challenging and we’ve needed to be open to continuous learning and readjustment as we evolve our knowledge and skills – but more than anything, it has been hugely rewarding.

So far we have supported 107 people from 25 Families, helping them settle into new homes and new communities. A plethora of statistics and evaluation surround them, many of which I could cite, but the key for me is these people are like no others we work with. The majority of these families have left Syria. It is unimaginable for us to contemplate the personal horrors they have experienced, the lives and families they left behind and the absolute enormity of the step they took to flee their own countries.

As the main service provider, we are responsible from the moment families have been identified as coming to live in Halton. I know that without a second thought our team has been up at the crack of dawn waiting at the airport to welcome people into a new life that must feel so alien to them.

Our role includes sourcing new homes. We did this in a way that avoided taking away properties that had already been advertised on property pool, as we really wanted to increase our chances of smoothing community cohesion. We work successfully with both social and private sector landlords to achieve this, sharing tips and advice all the time.

These homes need to be decorated and furnished to a standard set by the Home Office. This is where being the main service provider as well as a social landlord proves a real asset. Our initial supported housing team are able to draw on the expertise of colleagues right across the business, often with limited notice and usually to very tight timescales.

Our Trades help assemble furniture and put up curtains and poles. They bring our apprentices along too, which in turn helps them appreciate and achieve some of the wider Corporate Social Responsibility we strive to embed in their training. Environment teams help clear large quantities of recyclable cardboard and often give a helping hand to move items within the home, remove dumped items from some of gardens etc.

As for colleagues who are sometimes referred to as ‘not front line’– our Finance colleagues helped to completely re-evaluate the way Home Office funds were provided to the families. Previous providers had pre-loaded cash onto cash cards. In our view, this was creating a dependency culture and provided a false sense of household income, rather than giving the families a chance to learn the value of English money for everyday long-term living. Our finance team have developed a programme of delivering steady amounts of cash over a period of five weeks (the average waiting time for benefits). This also gives the opportunity to do training around setting up and using bank accounts, cash points, using contactless etc. The families have said they find this of real value.

Our resettlement support enables us to enrich our wider workforce. For example, learning that we needed better language skills saw us employ bilingual staff that now also provide support to other areas of the business, including translating some of our tenancy advice documents.

Through one of our partners, we also have the use of a bank of skilled interpreters, one of which is a trained midwife. This enables us to provide up to date pregnancy, labour and post birth advice and assistance to our new mums … can you imagine arriving here as a new refugee and trying to navigate NHS maternity services and give birth to your new child without that level of support?

Housing remains one of the big issues for our families and we have learnt some key cultural lessons from them as we have progressed. One of the most important lessons has been to understand the women’s inability to socialise in a culturally acceptable way in the configuration of some properties we initially provided. This issue was made worse by the spread of the properties and the lack of existing diversity in Halton. By working with the women, we are now attempting to put on as many daytime events in conjunction with DWP and ESOL providers to give them a chance to meet and socialise in a safe environment in a bid to combat isolation.

Halton hopes to host around 60 more individuals under the program in the coming 12 months and we will keep learning lessons and applying them. Our existing families act as buddies and mentors for new arrivals, helping to cook traditional hot meals on their day of arrival (especially appreciated after such a long journey). We are now planning a big EID party to be hosted in Halton, with invites going across the Liverpool city region, to help give our wider Syrian community a chance to come together.

What has struck me most about this work is the collective partnership and pride I see all the time. At a recent celebration event, the families, our staff and key partners, such as the police, all shared the same openness to learn together and take forward a new life for people who need it so desperately. That pride was never more evident than in the face of a young man I met whose wife had just given birth to our first ‘refugee baby’. One of our team had been with them at the hospital, but the whole room celebrated this young life who will be able to give so much to her new community in years to come.

Now if that’s not what housing associations and councils working together should be aiming to achieve, what is?

Barbara Spicer CBE, Chief Executive at Plus Dane and NHC Board Member

(Written with the support of Laura Stanley, Senior Refugee Resettlement Coordinator, and John Foster, Supported Housing Manager)

A video link is as follows:  https://youtu.be/-Nn7IOiZ8PU

 

Guest Blog: The Housing Association Digital Forum wants new members

Karl Dickman, Product Manager at Home Group, explains why he set up the Housing Association Digital Forum and how already it’s been a great success.

I started the Housing Association Digital Forum in September 2018 with the first participants invited from the North East, and Yorkshire and Humber.

I set it up, primarily, because I was fed up of spending hours travelling to London, often requiring overnight stays, to attend conferences where all I heard were speakers telling me how amazing their digital journey had been. I’d never hear of any failures, nor get the chance to ask speakers questions. I wouldn’t learn much more than I could have from googling their company and looking at news about their digital transformation.

With 12 years’ experience in the digital sector I knew there were many failures we weren’t being told about.  It got me to wonder how many organisations who went to these conferences were about to embark on their own journey thinking that nothing would go wrong? Additionally, how many people were in the crowd trying to understand where others had made the same mistakes, and how to learn from them?

From that, the Housing Association Digital Forum was born.

The premise was simple. This was an open and honest forum where people involved in their own companies’ digital programmes could attend. It’s essential to collaborate and share knowledge. So, badges come off at the door, and all ideas and comments are respected.

With help from National Housing Federation we organised the first forum, and the feedback we’ve had so far has been excellent. There have been lots of candid and open conversations about when mistakes have been made, and what happened to recover it.

We’re now looking to expand the forum – we want more members from the North East, and Yorkshire and Humber, and we’re opening it up to members in the North West with the help of the Northern Housing Consortium. A Housing Association in London is now looking to set up a similar forum which is great.

The next forum will take place on Friday 29 March 2019 between 1pm and 4pm at the offices of Thirteen Group, Hudson Quay, Middlesbrough.  The suggested topics for the next forum are “How do we know we’re building the right thing?”, the need for a digital strategy and what this looks like” and “Digital skills for customers and colleagues”.

You don’t need to be in a digital role to take part in the Forum – this is open to anyone involved in new projects. To register your interest for the next meeting, please contact callum.smith@northern-consortium.org.uk