Protecting Consumers in the Letting and Managing Agent Market: Call for Evidence

On 1st  October 2017, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, announced proposals to address the imbalance of power in the private rented market by regulating letting and managing agents.

A call for evidence sought views on a new regulatory model and how best to protect and empower tenants and leaseholders.

The Northern Housing Consortium has responded to the Call for Evidence and you can read the response in full here.

The NHC has welcomed an approach to a more professional managing agent market and believe that, if framed correctly, there are benefits for property management agents as well as for tenants and leaseholders. We believe that regulation creates a level playing field, and will help responsible agents to not be undermined by a minority of agents with poor practice and will help improve the reputation of all.

The Government will bring forward detailed proposals early next year, following analysis of the evidence submitted.

Homelessness Code of Guidance – we want your views

The Homelessness Reduction Act recently became law and is due to be enacted in April 2018.

The Draft Homelessness Code of Guidance provides direction on how local authorities should meet the requirements of homelessness legislation and has been updated to include information on the Homelessness Reduction Act.  The revised draft guidance is now open for consultation until 11 December 2017 and will be finalised for publication in spring 2018.

NHC will be submitting a response to the consultation. Given the knowledge of NHC Members in supporting people experiencing homelessness, we would welcome your views and expertise to inform our submission, particularly on the following questions:

The guidance outlines that advisory services must be designed to meet the needs of persons in the authority’s district. What information could be included in the guidance to ensure that the content of the information provided via these advisory services, and the way it is delivered, is appropriate for different groups of people who are at risk of homelessness? (Sections 3.4-3.5)

The duty to refer requires public bodies to identify people threatened with or experiencing homelessness and pass information on to the housing authority (with the individual’s consent). How this works in practice is to be determined at a local level, but what guidance could be included about how public bodies can identify people who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, and how public bodies should work together to share information? (Chapter 4)

Housing authorities will be required to conduct assessments and develop personalised housing plans, developing a positive and collaborative approach towards applicants. Assessments will include assessment of an individual’s support needs. What guidance could be offered to housing authorities to ensure that an assessment of support needs is effective and that applicants are empowered to disclose information?  (Sections 11.2, 11.11)

People can be penalised if they ‘deliberately and unreasonably’ refuse to co-operate with the housing authority. Do you think it is clear from the guidance what it means to deliberately and unreasonably refuse to co-operate and how housing authorities will ensure particular groups who may find it difficult to co-operate are not penalised?  (Sections 14.41-14.51)

Applicants can review decisions made by the housing authority. What information could be included to ensure a review process is fair? (Chapter 19)

The guidance includes specific sections on providing homelessness services for people who have experienced domestic violence or abuse (Chapter 21), care leavers (Chapter 22), people in contact with the criminal justice system (Chapter 23) and guidance on modern slavery and trafficking in relation to applicants who are threatened with homelessness or homeless (Chapter 25). Do you think there is any specific information that should be removed or added to these sections?

Please contact Karen Brown by 4th December 2017 with any views you would like to share with us on these issues, to ensure the Code of Guidance supports local authorities effectively to discharge their duties.

GuestBlog: Ward Hadaway brief — consultation on draft homelessness code of guidance

DCLG publishes consultation on draft homelessness code of guidance

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has published a draft statutory code of guidance which will accompany the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA), due to come into force in April 2018.

The DCLG has now published a revised draft the Homelessness Code of Guidance (“Code”) for consultation ahead of publication of the final Code in spring 2018. The Code is aimed at local authorities to ensure they intervene earlier in order to prevent families and individuals becoming homeless in the first place and also sets out how councils should be implementing the HRA when it comes into force.

What will the new act require?

The new HRA places duties on local authorities to try and prevent homelessness in their districts by intervening at earlier stages. Housing authorities are also required to provide their homelessness services to all of those affected, without the need to consider whether the applicant has ‘priority need’.

These new duties include:

  • Free information and advice on preventing and alleviating homelessness to all residents within the local authority.
  • The prevention duty is doubled from 28 to 56 days for households that are threatened with homelessness.
  • Those who are already homeless now will receive help in securing accommodation for 56 days from local authorities.

How will the implementation of the HRA be funded?

The total amount of funding now available for local authorities to implement the HRA is £72.7 million. An increase of £11.7 million was injected into the fund after discussions with local authorities on the resources that would be required to implement the HRA. This funding is to be shared across local authorities for two years to meet the cost of implementing the HRA.

Funding of £3 million is also being provided so as to allow local authorities to upgrade their data systems, enabling local authorities to assess more accurately how the HRA is changing homelessness prevention in their districts.

This comes on top of, and in addition to, a Government investment of £550 million until 2020 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Minister for Homelessness, Marcus Jones, has said “the guidance and Government funding will support [local authorities] in making sure people will get the help they need earlier to prevent them becoming homeless in the first place”.

The draft Code and consultation

The draft Code aims to provide guidance on how authorities should fulfill their statutory duties under the HRA and exercise their functions and services relating to homelessness. The draft Code, if published in its current form, will streamline guidance from 268 to 170 pages. Dependant on its final form, it remains to be seen whether this makes the legislation clearer and more accessible.

Whilst the Code is geared towards local authorities, it is still of direct relevance to registered providers as they are required to co-operate with housing authorities in exercising their homelessness functions.

The consultation is seeking views and responses on the draft Code and the new duties local authorities will be subject to including:

  • Ensuring information and advice about homelessness is available at no cost to all residents within the local authority;
  • Producing a personalised plan, if the authority is satisfied that the applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness and are also eligible for assistance;
  • Providing advisory services to all applicants, not just priority applicants, including those considered ‘intentionally homeless’;
  • Securing suitable accommodation for homeless applicants, or supporting applicants vulnerable of homelessness to stay in their current home, whenever possible.

The 8-week consultation closes on 11 December 2017 and a final version of the Code will be published in spring 2018. Free training on the HRA is also being provided by the Government for local authority staff up until April 2018.

If you have any questions on the above and how it will affect social housing providers, or any other questions as a social housing provider, please do not hesitate to contact John Murray, Social Housing Partner, Ward Hadaway.

Guestblog: Support your digital transformation with centralised software procurement from COMPAREX

 

As housing associations battle reduced government subsidies and increased regulatory requirements, they face an uphill struggle to increase productivity without a significant outlay. One way in which organisations are looking to increase output and reduce expenditure is through digital transformation.

By updating processes related to IT and procurement, housing associations and housing groups in local government can also make substantial savings.

Reduce expenditure by taking stock

Digital transformation relies on the use of new technologies, software and services, delivered on-premise or via the cloud, to modernise and simplify business operations. The growth of the cloud has also enabled employees to communicate and collaborate from wherever they are – whether conducting inventories or inspecting new properties – which is particularly important for modern housing associations and groups that are often spread across different locations.

However, while adopting new technologies can drive down expenditure, procuring, managing and maintaining the subsequent software licences inefficiently, can erode any cost savings. Therefore, reviewing software use frequently is essential for housing associations.

To do this comprehensively and ensure they maximise the benefits of digitalisation, housing groups may need to enlist expertise from outside the organisation. After all, the prowess of housing associations lies in providing social housing for tenants, not detangling the complexity associated with software licensing.

Get secure support from a proven track record

Having just a single software provider can hugely reduce the complexity associated with software procurement and licensing. Additionally by enlisting a global partner, taking advantage of its global footprint and network of distributors may provide the best sourcing option, agreement option and agreement type suited to the organisation’s specific needs.

With a trusted and knowledgeable partner, housing associations can ensure they stay compliant with industry regulations, do not fall foul of licensing T&Cs, and reduce the cost and legwork associated with digital transformation.

Our offer to NHC members

The NHC has teamed up with COMPAREX to offer their members a significant discount on a Proof-of-Value exercise for the Portfolio Management Platform. This ‘health-check’ for your organisation will provide a valuable insight into your organisation’s use of software, licencing of software, security risks and potential savings. It will provide you with reports and data around where your organisation can make considerable cost reductions and how to eliminate security risk. For further details download our flyer.

To take advantage of COMPAREX’s procurement services, and to support your digital transformation as part of the Northern Housing Consortium’s Business Improvement Services, please contact Nigel Johnston.

Guestblog: Texthelp – Digital inclusion builds stronger foundations for housing associations and protects revenue

Texthelp logo

More services like Universal Credit are being transferred online – but at what cost to providers and end users? Mark McCusker, CEO of assistive technology specialists Texthelp highlights the importance of digital inclusion for housing associations and their residents.


To describe the ongoing rollout of Universal Credit as an interesting challenge for UK housing associations and their residents is something of an understatement. Exclusively administered online, it puts huge pressures on many vulnerable people who until now have only been familiar with making benefit claims face-to-face with an advisor.

Claimants must apply for and manage universal credit  online – a major deterrent right at the outset for people who for various reasons are unable or unwilling to use the Internet. Payments are made monthly into a claimant’s bank account, who in turn pays the landlord themselves. For any resident who’s less than digitally literate it’s a daunting prospect.

At Texthelp our own survey shows unequivocally that housing associations see Universal Credit as posing a significant challenge to their future revenues. And it’s no surprise that most providers we polled identify lack of access to the Internet – together with a shortfall in digital skills for many claimants – as the biggest obstacles to claiming credit online.

The reality is that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the Internet live in social housing. A lack of confidence online is compounded by several factors: old age, physical disability and literacy challenges like dyslexia, plus the additional burden for many people of speaking English as a second language. Neither is it always an easy task earning the trust of users on low incomes who may be unwilling or distrustful of sharing personal and financial information online.

As a consequence, housing associations countrywide are already embroiled in the rollout of universal credit with the costly provision of extra resources and training for staff and residents. Many are already establishing digital hubs within their communities, serving as focal points for residents to access the Internet and learn valuable digital skills in a welcoming environment. The choice for housing associations is stark. Without making these often significant investments, their revenues are endangered as tenants struggle with a system that seems unfairly loaded against them.  

‘Digital Inclusion’ describes the use of technology to improve the lives of otherwise disadvantaged people. But what does it mean in practice for housing associations? Simply providing access to the Internet is a start – as is training for residents who may have never encountered a computer before.

But what’s also needed are the tools to engage residents, encouraging them to make use of Universal Credit and other online services. And this is where assistive technology can play a hugely powerful role in promoting digital inclusion. Low-cost PC screen reader software can literally ‘speak’ a web page out loud to help users with dyslexia, poor literacy or visual impairments. Some products can even translate online information into a range of languages, providing support to readers with English as a second language. We have tools that can do all of this and more, highlighting and magnifying words and sentences on screen, making online forms and instructions easier to follow.

It looks like Universal Credit is here to stay. With minimal extra investment in assistive technology, housing associations can protect revenues – and provide a more welcoming service – by ensuring that digital inclusion embraces their residents who need it most.

Find out more at Innovate North – the NHC Northern Housing Summit 2017. We are on Stand 4.  Or drop us an email at housing@texthelp.com.  

Guestblog: Ward Hadaway – Disrepair

Ward Hadaway logo

In its guest blogs, NHC Supporter Ward Hadaway offers the legal perspective and some guidance on some of the social housing sector’s most pressing issues. In this edition: disrepair.


Asset management is a fundamental issue for Registered Providers – the quality and quantity of their housing stock have a direct impact upon their finances and reputation. Many providers have reliable and robust procedures in place to ensure that their properties are maintained (and improved where appropriate) on both a reactive and proactive basis.

However, ever-decreasing budgets and increasing financial constraints, coupled with large portfolios, means that sometimes maintenance matters do ‘slip through the net’ and are not dealt with as quickly or efficiently as they might otherwise be.

Disrepair claims in these circumstances are nothing new. However, up until around 2011 these were largely dealt with under Legal Aid or in the context of counterclaims (for example, where a tenant had been taken to Court because of significant rent arrears). Now that the scope for Legal Aid has been whittled down, disrepair claims are commonly funded by Conditional Fee (“No Win No Fee”) Agreements. The significance of this is disrepair claims can be harder to resolve by way of practical solutions where the tenant’s solicitor has a vested interest in the claim – particularly the payment of their costs by the landlord.

Even in fairly severe cases (which are relatively few and far between) it is uncommon for compensation in disrepair cases to exceed £10,000. However, legal costs (on both sides) can quickly exceed this amount – often, the parties’ legal costs significantly outweigh any compensation the tenant might claim. In 2016, a disrepair claim settled at trial for just £2,000 – however the landlord was ordered to pay £25,000 on account of the tenant’s legal costs, pending an assessment of those costs by the Court (and the tenant’s solicitors made a further (albeit unsuccessful) application for a further payment on account of their costs of £80,000).

As always, prevention in these circumstances is better than the cure. Time and money that is invested in ensuring you have reliable systems in place to log and raise repairs and keeping detailed notes as to the progress made and completion of those works will be well spent if it means that disrepair claims can be fended off quickly and at an early stage. One of the key factors for a successful system is to make sure frontline staff receive adequate training around disrepair. They should be taught the importance of logging and raising repairs (and providing adequate detail), the process that must be followed upon receipt of a disrepair claim, the time limits that apply and the potentially costly consequences that might follow if this is not done.

For those matters that might slip through the net, the same systems can be used to identify problem cases at an early stage and allow landlords to take a commercial view as to the merits of early settlement, balancing the potential costs of litigation and compensation against any reputational risks.

These issues can appear confusing or daunting. However, the process can be simplified through an understanding of how disrepair claims arise in the first place and the structure of a claim. Ward Hadaway and the NHC will hold its first Disrepair conference on 21st November 2017 at The Studio, Leeds where we will present a number of workshops discussing both the practical and legal aspects of disrepair claims in order to give you the tools and confidence to prevent, and deal with those claims.


For further information, please contact Howard Walker, PR Manager at Ward Hadaway, on 0191 204 4446 or howard.walker@wardhadaway.com.

Guestblog: Abode – Back to Basics?

Building on the leadership and management training opportunities running over the next few months, the NHC has partnered with Abode – the home of education and training for the housing and community sectors, to offer three new courses designed specifically for those on the frontline of housing management. Here, Abode training consultants Gill Bramfitt and Claire Harvey talk us through why, when it comes to the housing sector, now is the time to get back to basics.


In recent months the housing sector has seen a renewed focus on what could be considered the bread and butter of housing management. Those core features that make up the landlord-tenant relationship that may have been taken for granted in the past have now returned to the forefront. While all housing associations have responded to organisational challenges in ways which meet their own individual circumstances, all agree it is more important than ever that rents are collected effectively, arrears kept to a minimum, voids turned around quickly, and repairs carried out efficiently.

On top of this, a new Parliament means housing management officers are again faced with getting to grips with new and evolving legislation. This means not only having to make sense of policies before implementing them, but having to explain them to tenants and customers. Welfare Reform for example, has many implications for allocations, arrears and support staff, while the range of new tenancy types and the obligations placed on landlords can leave heads spinning.

It is vital that frontline staff have the knowledge and skills to tackle these potential obstacles. Organisations will know the importance of ensuring that legislation is interpreted correctly, policies comply with requirements and are less open to challenge, all without impacting on levels of customer satisfaction. Well-trained, knowledgeable employees will also have the confidence to implement these changes and deliver good quality services in an increasingly pressurised environment.

Working with the NHC, we have developed a range of courses to meet these needs. Delivered throughout November and December, these sessions will equip staff and supervisors with the knowledge and skills to meet current and future challenges.

Our first course, Introduction to Providing Housing Services, delivers exactly that. Looking at the different types of housing organisations in the UK, the diverse range of services they provide, and the financial and regulatory environment in which they exist, this course is ideal for anyone looking to gain a background knowledge of affordable housing provision in this country.

Similarly, Tenancy Management Essentials is a primer for those wanting to ensure their knowledge of tenancy management is up to date and accurate.  Looking closely at recent legislative changes and the tenancy types they affect, this course will underline the responsibilities of landlords and tenants as well as discussing issues such as terminating tenancies and dealing with abandoned properties.

Finally, we have prepared our Developing Housing Policies and Procedures course with all those involved in the policy process in mind. This interactive half-day session will cover all stages of policy development from formulating policies and procedures, implementing them, and monitoring their effectiveness. This session will also look at the wider landscape of developing policy, from using data sources to inform strategies to knowing how and when to involve stakeholders.

Available to book now:

Introduction to Providing Housing Services – 15th November 2017, Leeds

Developing Housing Policies and Procedures – 30th November 2017, Leeds

Tenancy Management Essentials – 6th December 2017, Manchester

 


For further information please contact Gill Bramfitt or Claire Harvey at info@abodetraining.org or call 07966 367086.

Guestblog: Glynis Osborne – What starts when training stops?

“What if we train them and they leave?”

“What if we don’t and they stay?”

I love this quote as it says a lot about the way we approach training and development in our teams.

I often hear of businesses reducing the amount of training they provide when the pressure is on. Whether it is due to a staff shortage or spending cuts, training is one of the first and easiest things to cut. Reducing training often provides short-term gains such as saving on spending and possibly travel and accommodation, along with ‘no colleagues missing’ on training courses allowing all hands to be on deck. It is also seen to have few immediate negative effects and if performance is good at that moment, everyone will carry on as normal. There is however another side worth considering when training stops. These are some of the things we don’t directly see.

  • Colleague engagement

Training is often a good experience and colleagues say they feel more engaged with the business and more valued when they are encouraged to attend training. As training is focused on making colleagues more productive in their roles or developing new skills, the benefits can make them feel good whether they want to progress, take on more responsibilities or become more efficient at what they already do.  Stopping or reducing training has been seen to reduce morale and this often means a reduced work rate as well as colleagues feeling undervalued or not worthy of the time and money. These effects can be felt immediately or can take a while to surface and it is hard to tell if colleagues are feeling this way.

  • People sometimes muddle through

It can be great when colleagues learn from other colleagues as they find out the best way of doing things from those who are experienced and knowledgeable in that area. There is always the danger however that they are learning the wrong way of doing things or at least not exactly the best way. I am currently working with a business where there are several colleagues who have been highlighted as potential leaders because they have a good work ethic and are competent within their current role, often doing more than what is expected. They have also expressed a desire to move through the ranks and further their career. As part of the work I am doing, one of the actions set was giving each potential leader one or two colleagues to manage so they could learn the skills to be an effective manager. When observing them before the training started, I noted several occasions where colleagues managed their teams as they have been managed and using techniques that did not always yield the best results. This is because that is all they had known and things can continue in this way if no formal training is given.

  • Checking back

Another issue I see often is a lack of ‘check back’. When we have conversations with our teams and they seem to know what is expected and how to go about a project, we have confidence that they will go away and do a good job, particularly when they are enthusiastic when we set the task. I often see that due to time constraints, work load or regularity of conversations we do not ‘check back’. If we did, we could see how they are getting on and understand if they are doing the job to the standard we require. This is also a great opportunity for feedback and praise. A lack of ‘check back’ can cause errors or missed targets and this sometimes does not come to light until it is too late.

  • Working smarter not harder

I often ask leaders ‘If I had a magic wand, what is the one behavioural change you would love to see appear in your team?’ Nine times out of ten they say they wish teams would act more ‘empowered’, make their own decisions, create solutions to problems and not turn a blind eye to potential issues. Often when speaking with colleagues they say a lack of confidence is the main reason they don’t do these things.  They don’t feel like they have the skills to make decisions effectively or don’t see problem-solving as their role but only to bring to light problems for managers to fix.

Often some targeted training can help with these skills, not only for colleagues but also for managers.  Training gives colleagues the skills required to be more empowered and the confidence to act when necessary.  It can also enable managers with the skills to encourage empowerment to support them in making these changes in behaviour. When I have delivered these types of programmes I also see a change in the managers as they become more confident in their teams’ abilities. This encourages them to become empowered themselves and work at a higher level.

The above points are just a few things to think about if you ever consider reducing training within your organisation. I think one piece of advice I would give to anyone planning training, is to really think about what you need to get from the training and ask yourself ‘what is my required return on investment?’ This will help you make sure that the time you and your colleagues spend and the money invested is maximised. I find having the answers to these questions helps the training to be targeted, measurable and delivered in the right way at the right level.


Glynis Osborne is the senior development consultant and founder of Thinking Success UK For more information please contact her on 07545 895 216 or glynis@thinkingsuccessuk.co.uk

The NHC and Thinking Success UK High Performing Leaders programme kicks off in September. For more information visit the events page here.

Guestblog: Ward Hadaway – Social housing risk profiling

Ward Hadaway logo

In its guest blogs, NHC Supporter Ward Hadaway offers the legal perspective and some guidance on some of the social housing sector’s most pressing issues. In this edition: social housing risk profiling.


What are the main financial risks facing social housing providers?

This is one of the things which the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) attempts to address with its Sector Risk Profile (SRP) 2017. The SRP focuses on financial risks that may cause a social housing provider to fail to comply with the regulator’s economic standards. It details the main risks facing the social housing sector and some of the actions registered providers should be taking to manage those risks.

Fundamentally, the SRP highlights how the HCA will seek assurance that boards are managing those risks effectively.

 

What are the risks?

The rate of policy change in the social housing sector, together with increased development activity and diversification into building for sale and other non-social housing activities, are flagged up as potential risks.

Also highlighted in the report is the potential impact of any future increase in interest rates and the resulting effect this will have on business plans and loan covenants. This is to be considered alongside the impact of rising inflation and ongoing rent cuts, which are likely to affect a registered provider’s overall business plan and delivery of forecasted cost savings.

Fiona MacGregor, Executive Director of Regulation at the HCA, says the regulator will have an “increased focus on the quality of stress testing”  and wants to see “that boards have a clear idea of the early warning signs or triggers that would lead to their carefully thought through mitigation plans being put into effect”.

 

What must social housing boards do?

Boards of registered providers must continue to ensure that they meet the requirements of the regulator’s consumer standards, including the obligation under 1.2(b) of the Home Standard (the requirement that a registered provider must meet all applicable statutory requirements that provide for the health and safety of the occupants in their homes).

While diversified activities can support registered providers’ core activities, boards must assure themselves that this is the case and it does not come at the expense of their fundamental role. Governance structures must evolve and boards must recruit the skills required of a diversified portfolio as the sector continues to enter into a range of new commercial ventures and relationships.

It was regarded as “essential” in the SRP that registered providers stress-test a wide range of potential scenarios that are inherent to their business, particularly when it comes to potential economic risks and risks to rental income.

As the adoption of Universal Credit builds up steam, preparations are to be taken to minimise any risk of cash flow problems as tenants are switched over to the new system.

 

What next?

The SRP is particularly concerned that:

  • the finances/cash flow of registered providers are stress-tested to ensure that mitigation plans are developed.
  • whilst planned de-regulation will grant certain freedoms upon registered providers, boards are to ensure that they are in full control of decisions around constitutional changes and disposals.
  • all applicable statutory requirements that provide for the health and safety of the occupants in their homes are met.

The sector is under particular scrutiny and in this climate, the HCA has a clear aim to promote a viable, efficient and well-governed social housing sector able to deliver homes that meet a range of needs.


For further information, please contact Howard Walker, PR Manager at Ward Hadaway, on 0191 204 4446 or howard.walker@wardhadaway.com.