We are an independent consultancy providing high quality advice and support to housing providers, charities, commercial businesses and higher education establishments across the UK. Our mission is to help businesses improve and deliver better services to their customers – by offering a different perspective.
We have been trusted by some of the UK housing sector’s biggest names to provide innovative and refreshing approaches to the way they run and finance their organisations. We believe this differentiates us from our competitors and gives us a unique insight into the market. We recognise the need to provide practical, innovative solutions and to support their implementation. At its core, our approach is simple: we use knowledge and innovation to deliver excellent results. In short, we can provide a fresh approach to the challenges you face.
DTP is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Our key people are:
Andy has more than 30 years’ experience in housing, both as a finance professional in the housing sector and as a strategic advisor to housing associations and local authorities. Andy was a partner at EC Harris LLP and previously he was a director with Tribal Group’s housing consultancy team. Andy took on the role of Managing Director in January 2017.
Andy is experienced in financial and business planning, strategic planning, due diligence, business efficiency and improvement, project management, mergers and partnerships, housing stock transfers and governance and organisational structures. Andy has brokered and project managed several mergers and he has led on the establishment of a number of new group structures and housing stock transfers.
07977 464 459
Adrian specialises in social housing funding, corporate finance and project management. He is a recognised expert in treasury management in the social housing sector.
Prior to becoming a Director of DTP in 2008, Adrian had 10 years’ experience as a senior consultant funding advisor and director of Tribal Treasury Services, and before that 20 years’ experience in financial services, working at a senior level in Barclays Bank and Nationwide Building Society.
He is treasury adviser to some of the largest housing associations in the UK and advises on a wide range of banking and funding related issues.
Adrian is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is a registered Corporate Finance Advisor.
07771 641 841
Angela has more than 23 years’ experience in housing within the public and private sector, including three years in a regulatory role. Angela’s work has addressed wide ranging issues affecting strategy and performance, including stock rationalisation and transfer, merger, governance and asset management. Angela was a director in Savills Housing Consultancy and previously she was a Director with Tribal Group’s housing consultancy team.
Angela worked with the CIH to develop the resident-led self-regulation methodology and to publish research into low cost home ownership products. Angela also wrote the board members’ guide to asset management and maintenance with the NHF and contributed to HouseMark’s publication, “Social Hearts, Business Heads”.
07702 213 809
David started DTP in 2006. He was previously the Managing Director – Housing, Local Government and Regeneration for the Tribal Group Plc, where he led a team of 150 consultants and associates.
Prior to that, David was the Group Director (Finance) for what is now the Places for People Group, one of the largest housing groups in the UK. He was also a board member of Barnardo’s for six years, where he chaired their audit and risk committee.
David has extensive consultancy experience and specialises in governance, strategy development, financial management, organisational reviews, group structures and mergers, business planning and social enterprise.
07775 745 747
Sam has more than 26 years’ experience in the social housing sector. Prior to joining DTP, she was HouseMark’s Deputy Chief Executive for nine years. Sam’s experience and expertise is wide-ranging, from housing management and organisational development issues to performance management, strategy and change management. Sam has held a variety of senior level interim management roles, turning around failing housing organisations, and before that worked for a range of social housing landlords in housing management.
Sam has an excellent knowledge and understanding of the operating and regulatory environment, and is well connected with a wide range of sector bodies and groups. Sam is currently a member of the HCA’s Advisers’ Panel and the CIH Policy Advisory Committee. She has also co-authored publications on value for money in the sector.
07961 204 771
Andy has worked with housing associations and local authorities for more than 20 years. Prior to joining DTP in 2010, he gained experience with Deloitte and Touche, PWC and Beha Williams Norman.
Andy is a specialist in financial planning and modelling. He is an expert in the use of the Brixx financial planning tool and provides support to retained clients using this. He has developed many bespoke spreadsheet models for areas such as rent setting and asset management, through to full business planning models.
Andy also has expertise in local authority housing finance and in new approaches for local authorities in the development of affordable housing. Andy has worked on more than 50 housing stock transfers, as well as numerous options appraisals.
07974 766 723
Clive has worked in financial services for more than 30 years. Since 1989 Clive has been involved in the social housing sector, initially in the social housing lending teams at Halifax Plc. and Birmingham Midshires Building Society, where he was involved in more than £1bn of private finance commitments to the sector. Clive was part of the Tribal Treasury Services before joining DTP.
Clive’s experience in treasury, finance and business planning is far reaching and includes staff and board member training, evaluation and renegotiation of loan portfolios including covenants, and creation of group borrowing vehicles.
Clive is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is a registered Corporate Finance Advisor.
07977 050 858
Richard is a qualified Chartered Accountant with 30 years’ experience in the housing sector, working for and with many housing associations in the North of England and Scotland. He is an experienced financial model builder and advanced spreadsheet and Brixx user, specialising in finance and business planning.
Richard worked for 16 years at a senior financial level at Home Group. Since then he has worked as a consultant in various firms, the last of which became part of Capita in 2011. Richard has advised many traditional associations on business planning and has worked on more than 15 LSVTs focussing on the financial aspects of the transfer process. He specialises in business planning and has worked with a further 20 transfer organisations on post-transfer business planning support.
07932 640 664
Sue is an experienced senior finance manager, having worked in social housing for more than 18 years. Her roles have included the head of financial planning and development finance and the treasury manager at two large North West housing organisations. Her specialisms are financial planning and treasury management and providing interim support. She has also been the internal financial lead on numerous project appraisals, including PFI and PPP contracts for both local authority and healthauthority partners.
Sue has had responsibility for managing large group loan portfolios. She has experience in the implementation and update of both individual and consolidated business plans of complex group structures using either Brixx or Excel. Sue has also undertaken several interim finance roles for clients.
She is a Fellow of the Association of the Chartered Certified Accountants.
07525 910 102
Alison is a treasury specialist with more than 18 years’ experience in the social housing sector. Prior to joining DTP, she worked for the Homes and Communities Agency as a Senior Financial Analyst and has first-hand experience of leading In-Depth Assessments and the analysis of regulatory returns.
Alison has also worked in a number of treasury roles for North West housing associations, most recently spending eight years as Head of Treasury at the Sovini group. She has experience in the management of group loan portfolios, cashflow forecasting and liquidity management and business plan modelling using Brixx.
Alison is a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Association of Corporate Treasurers.
0749 444 6179
Paul Hackett has almost 20 years’ experience of social housing finance with a background that encompasses both Local Authorities and Registered Providers. Prior to joining DTP, Paul was a director at BWNL and before that was a Principal Accountant in Walsall MBC Financial Services Department.
His main specialism is financial analysis, in particular, supporting organisations that are building or developing their future plans. He has undertaken several interim senior finance positions to director level in Registered Providers.
Based in the Midlands, Paul has extensive experience in long term financial planning, financial modelling, capital scheme appraisals, housing transfers, compiling bids and risk analysis. He has expertise in both Excel and Brixx based models and can also provide training for Brixx users and custom courses for advanced Excel functionality.
Longhurst Group operates in more than 45 local authority areas across the Midlands and East of England. It owns and manages more than 19,000 homes.
Longhurst Group commissioned DTP to help them prepare for an In-Depth Assessment (IDA) from the HCA (housing regulator).
The support included the following activities:
DTP also provided advice and assistance to the senior team in terms of their approach to the IDA, presentation of the Group’s activities, and the level of detail and weight which should be given to key issues.
Longhurst Group underwent its IDA over January/February 2017, and while no formal feedback has yet been received from the HCA, the Longhurst team felt it went very well, that both Board and Executive were very well prepared, and that as a result of the DTP support, were able to present the organisation in the best possible way to the regulator.
DTP supported Longhurst in their preparation for an IDA by working with us and the business, proportionately and methodically. They helped to focus the team on likely topics to be discussed and provided some useful insight and feedback. They were incredibly helpful, supportive and responsive and I would highly recommend using them.
Julie Doyle, Group Chief Executive
The University has more than 27,000 students and has three campuses, including one in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and one in London. The campus in Coventry is currently undergoing a significant redevelopment programme. The University comprises four faculties, and manages a number of commercial subsidiaries that provide business services to local and national organisations.
The University has a relatively complex operating model comprising a range of subsidiary companies delivering a diverse range of activities in support of the interests of the University. Governance oversight of the group of companies sits with the main board of governors of the University and its sub-committees. However, Coventry University wanted to put in place a clear framework for subsidiaries to work through, which provides assurance to the main board, effective use of governance resources, clarity on delegations and accountability and an appropriate risk and control framework. The project was focused on ensuring current arrangements are appropriate and future-proofing governance to provide for straightforward development and application to any further growth in the University’s structure and activity.
We undertook a desktop review of governance information to assess it against best practice requirements, including the requirements of governing bodies as set out in the HEFCE Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability, the Companies Act and the Charities Act where applicable. We tested the documentation against five elements which encapsulate these requirements:
We then held a number of workshops with subsidiary representatives to work through our recommendations for change, gain feedback on subsidiary views on the proposals, input in relation to practical application and practice and alignment in relation to a timeframe for implementation and adoption.
We provided a template for a new, coordinated and comprehensive Delegatory Framework and supported the University in the collation and implementation of the new documentation. The University actively and positively engaged in process and has implemented the new Delegatory Framework as the one point of reference for all its companies.
DTP played a pivotal role in supporting us in our endevour to strengthen the governance of the University Group, particularly our subsidiary companies. Their knowledge and expertise have enabled us to develop practical solutions to meet the governance challenges we faced as an organisation.
– Matt Challoner, Clerk to the Board of Governors and Company Secretary
One Manchester was formed in 2015 when Eastlands Homes and City South Manchester Housing Trust joined together in partnership. Together they manage a wide range of neighbourhoods, and over 12,000 homes across central, south and east Manchester.
They required external support to undertake a review of financial regulations to ensure that:
We reviewed a range of relevant documentation in order to inform our understanding of the delegations structure at One Manchester. We tested the documentation for appropriate consistency, cross referencing and application in line with the requirements of the review. We fed back any opportunities to implement best practice from inside and outside the housing sector that we noted in the course of the review, which were supplementary to this project, but useful to One Manchester. We developed a revised format for the financial regulations as a template for population with updated financial regulations and delegations. This template was populated in detail and through an iterative approach we identified any additional information sources to ensure that One Manchester had a comprehensive document. Our project approach was tailored to One Manchester’s needs that included leading discussions at their Audit & Risk Committee of proposals and consultations with staff teams to ensure the alignment of the proposals to the business requirements.
One Manchester approved and formally adopted the new Delegatory Framework. It is available on their intranet and is being rolled out across the organisation through a structured programme of briefings and training.
DTP’s approach throughout the project was professional, flexible and tailored to meet our expectations. The lead consultant brought significant best practice sector knowledge and challenge that was drawn together to provide an accessible and thorough Delegatory Framework that seamlessly brings together our scheme of delegation and control environment. Beginning to end the project was excellent.
Luminus Group started in 2000, with the large-scale purchase of homes from Huntingdonshire District Council. Today it serves more than 45,000 people, in 7,500 homes throughout the east of England.
DTP was asked to undertake a review of Luminus’ Asset Management Strategy (AMS) and associated Action Plan. The purpose of the project was to provide external critical challenge to the AMS, to ensure it is ‘fit for purpose’, and to provide intelligence on best practice in this field from elsewhere in the sector. DTP consultants undertook a desktop review of the two documents, following a telephone briefing with the Executive Director (Operations), giving detailed feedback on where the documents could be improved, and examples of what other providers were doing. A particular focus was placed on regulatory compliance.
Luminus welcomed the challenge and feedback, and thanked DTP for their excellent work. The comments were judged to be very helpful. All the objectives of the project were met in full.
The service was fast, friendly, efficient and competitively priced. We were very pleased with the work of DTP and would be happy to commission them again on other projects.
Warwickshire Rural Housing Association is a small, rural housing association with almost 600 homes. We were asked to facilitate a board away day.
The Board wanted to discuss and assess impact and progress in a number of areas, including:
WRHA is unusual in that despite being small, it is an active developer. It also collaborates with other housing organisations to minimise costs.
However, like many in the sector, WRHA is facing challenges around how to continue to develop social rented housing in the absence of government grant; the key principles and values that would shape any merger considerations; and determining future strategic direction in the light of ongoing risk and uncertainty. DTP was able to provide information, analysis and assurance in a number of these areas as part of our role at the away day.
Both the Board members and staff found the event useful and informative. The approach used was conducive to stimulating debate, and gave focus to the issues the Association will need to address. Key considerations were openly discussed and these will shape the business plan moving forward. All who attended felt the process was worthwhile, engaging, and well facilitated.
Railway Housing Association (RHA) owns 1,500 rented homes in 24 local authority areas, mainly concentrated in the areas of Darlington, Doncaster, Durham, East Riding, Hull, Leeds, Newcastle and York.
RHA wanted to start the process of appointing a new Chair of the Board. The post holder was approaching the end of his term of office and RHA was keen to ensure that, for continuity reasons, there would be some overlap between the retirement of the existing Chair and the full installation of the new Chair. We recommended the appointment of the successful candidate as a “Chair Designate” to facilitate this hand over process We recommended RHA undertook a process which was open to both internal and external candidates in order to ensure a fair and accountable approach and to ensure RHA had access to a pool of skilled and experienced candidates.
RHA appointed a Chair Designate and a Board Member.
We received an excellent and professional service from DTP and achieved the desired outcome and would happily recommend DTP to other organisations looking to recruit to board positions.
Wythenshawe Community Housing Group (WCHG) provides homes to more than 20,000 people across Wythenshawe, Manchester.
WCHG made the decision to move to a common board governance structure where all entities within the group are governed by one co-terminus board. DTP were appointed to assist in the process of appointing members to the Common Board from the existing Group Board and two subsidiary boards of WCHG. DTP developed and agreed a process with WCHG which involved all existing members providing an expression of interest in roles within the common board, evaluating themselves against an updated skills, competency and experience matrix and then undertaking an interview with a panel comprising the three chairs, the Chief Executive and DTP as the independent advisor. This process was subsequently followed by a further recruitment process to appoint a new resident member to the board. DTP then provided advice and guidance to the new board on governance within a common board structure.
The new board was fully populated with members who met the required competencies for the new governance arrangements in the agreed timescale.
DTP provided a sensible and tailored approach which board members appreciated. It greatly assisted a smooth process and timely appointments, whilst meeting the demands of a robust and rigorous exercise to satisfy good governance principles.
Hanover is a national provider of housing and services for people in later life with around 19,000 properties for rent, sale and shared ownership in approximately 600 locations. We were appointed to undertake a review of their governance.
The aim of the review was to identify strengths and gaps in practice and make evidence based recommendations for improving governance. How we achieved this: Each Board Member and the Chief Executive completed a self-assessment questionnaire to assess their skills and views of the effectiveness of the Board. This was followed by one to one meetings and a joint meeting with the Executive Team. Board and Committee Meetings were observed using a structured evaluation and a critical review of the papers for each of the meetings was undertaken. We completed a desktop review of a range of governance documentation and benchmarked this against the National Housing Federation (NHF) Code of Governance.
The recommendations in our report were extensive, but Hanover embraced the changes and DTP were further commissioned to support the governance team in implementation. All the recommendations were implemented by November 2015. Feedback from the Chief Executive has indicated that the changes have had a positive impact. Members feel the structure provides clarity and makes better use of their skills and governance resources.
I can say without risk of contradiction that without you we would not have made anything like the progress that we have, so thank you for all your stirling work!
Byker Community Trust (BCT) owns and manages 1,800 plus homes in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Working with our IT partner, 3C Consultants, we were asked to carry out a due diligence review into their service delivery.
The review focused on plans to take tenant and estate management services back in-house; and to run a number of business services, including repairs and maintenance, through a cost sharing partnership with a housing group. We needed to provide a review of long term financial plans; evaluate any difficulties in establishing the cost sharing partnership; provide an initial opinion on the terms of the cost sharing; and assess the capability of current ICT systems needed for the proposals. The process had to ensure that the right technology and systems were in place to support BCT in attaining its corporate objectives and service quality ambitions over the next five years.
We undertook a thorough review of all corporate plans and strategies, including IT. We also examined in detail the current arrangements and compared these to the arrangements likely to be provided in the future. A series of workshops with directors and key stakeholders were held, to consider the financial robustness and business credentials of the proposed housing group, commenting on the likely scenarios for improvements and highlighting key areas requiring attention before embarking upon the project. The results were presented to the BCT board.
In an agreement of this sort we want to be able to predict the outcome with some confidence and be able to offer our tenants a better deal. There are lots of things to think about and having independent experts look at the key areas of operation was beneficial for us and highlighted a number of things we were able to take forward into the new agreement.
Alpha Homes provides sheltered accommodation for older people and currently owns and manages 852 homes in 25 developments in the North of England, primarily in the Wirral area.
The objective of this project was to obtain the funds to enable Alpha to remodel some accommodation and generally improve its stock to an enhanced “Alpha Standard”. Alpha had already identified the need for additional loans but needed support and advice to identify and swiftly arrange the new funding. It was looking to develop a new supportive lender relationship with flexible financial covenants. The new lender would become the biggest lender to the Association.
Exactly one month after appointment a Funding memorandum was issued and this resulted in competitive offers being received from four potential lenders by the end of month two. After undertaking analysis and comparison between the offers. Alpha selected Lloyds bank to provide a 15 year term loan. Lloyds was selected because they offered a combination of financial covenants, pricing and flexibility. They were also able to modify their lending proposal to accommodate Alpha’s needs during the investment phase of this project. All the objectives of the project were met in full and the project completed within one week of the date set in the initial timetable.
Adrian became a full member of the delivery team; he was always available when needed and helped managed the whole process from start to finish. He provided guidance on the possible pitfalls, supported both the executive and the board’s decision making and providing challenge and proactive encouragement to Alpha throughout.
South Liverpool Homes (SLH) owns and manages just under 4,000 homes. We were appointed to provide treasury advice and facilitate a loan refinancing.
To completely refinance an existing syndicated loan facility to obtain maximum freedom for SLH. This would allow SLH to manage its business without the business plan consent or the constraints of LSVT-style financial covenants imposed by the original loan. How we achieved this: The project had to be completed within a short timescale. It involved a tender to replace the existing loan with a flexible 10-year loan facility and a 30-year fixed rate private placement loan. It also involved a bridging loan facility, completely recharging the whole of the property portfolio and negotiating new financial covenants.
South Liverpool Homes increased their capacity to invest by completing a £35million deal with two funders – M&G Investments and Yorkshire Building Society. It secured a 30-year fixed rate loan with M&G Investments, giving SLH long term certainty and lower interest rates; as well obtaining a flexible 10-year loan with Yorkshire Building Society.
The experience and expertise of DTP was invaluable. They gave us creative and practical support and delivered on the agreed objectives, giving us sound advice at every stage. They were a pleasure to work with and their strategic and considered approach was key in securing a positive outcome to the transaction.
Alliance Homes Group (AHG) owns and manages 6,000 homes in the West of England. Working with our IT partner, 3C Consultants, we were asked to provide a ‘fit for purpose’ review.
We were asked to identify efficiencies and ways to improve performance, as well as opportunities for growth and increased revenue. The review was required to challenge AHG to deliver some services differently by either ceasing them and/or outsourcing the delivery of others. We were also asked to look at the possibility of delivering services offering commercial returns.
We undertook a thorough review of all existing strategies and associated documentation, as well as the existing IT services along with care and support and repairs arrangements. A series of workshops with directors and key stakeholders were held to agree a menu of likely cost saving initiatives in order to produce operational recommendations for the next three years. The report presented to the AHG Board showed the potential efficiencies the benefits technology could provide in achieving corporate objectives.
Although the Executive Team and staff at AHG have worked very hard to identify efficiencies required in the current environment, we are always open to the possibility that there is a better way of doing it and accept that there might be things we have missed. Having independent experts review our proposals adds an extra dimension to the decision making process and gives further challenge to what is a very difficult process. DTP and 3C were able to critically examine our proposals and, in some circumstances, enhance our thinking and we are always grateful for that.
The Sovini Group comprises both not-for-profit (including One Vision Housing which owns and manages more than 13,000 homes), and commercial enterprises in Liverpool and the North West.
Our team, led by Clive Eccleston was tasked with providing support and advice to inform the strategic direction and decision making of the organisation. The work has included providing support and advice on:
Through our work with the group we were able to help them secure more than £170m in funding. As part of this, we were also able to agree flexible funding arrangements that support the Board’s corporate priorities and ambitions.
Clive has a wealth of experience in the housing. He is extremely approachable, always professional and has developed effective relationships with board members at Sovini and the executive team
Local Space is a housing association that delivers homes in east London, predominantly in the London Borough of Newham. We were asked to prepare a VfM Self-Assessment Statement for 2014/15.
The objective to prepare a VfM Self-Assessment Statement followed a Governance downgrade (from G1 to G2) as a result of submitting a Statement for the previous year 2013/14, deemed inadequate by HCA. Our brief was to develop a new Statement that would meet the regulatory requirements and secure a regrade from G2 to G1.
The client had limited resources to support us during the process. Our approach was to gather all the data and information in one simple process. After preparing a first draft, it was discussed with the executives and then went to the board for review. Minor amendments were made following the input from the board and the executives. The final draft was prepared for board approval.
The final draft was considered to meet the objectives of the executives and the board. This was submitted to the HCA and published on the association’s website. In due course the HCA considered the Statement and Local Space was upgraded to G1 status as a result of the submission.
DTP worked quickly and effectively in producing this work and was responsive to our demands as a client. They maintained good communication throughout. We would definitely commission similar work from DTP again.
DTP has a strategic partnership with 3C Consultants. 3C Consultants are one of the largest providers of IT consultants to the social housing sector, providing both dependability and a wide portfolio of IT services.
Working together with 3C, we can support housing providers to review their business model, embracing the significant benefits that can be gained from offering digital services, as well as ensuring their organisations are robust and best placed to manage increasing governance requirements, particularly around information and data. Together, we are able to offer the complete range of business transformation services and support, from strategic planning to project implementation.
DTP also works in partnership with HouseMark, the leading provider of social housing data and insight in the housing sector. A membership organisation, its mission is to drive improvement in the sector by giving members the tools they need to respond to change. Around 950 housing organisations are a part of HouseMark. HouseMark is jointly owned by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation – two social housing sector not-for-profit organisations that reinvest their surpluses into the sector.
DTP is working with HouseMark on our Weather Forecast Group project – together we have created a sounding board of chief executives, directors and sector body representatives, whom we speak to on a regular basis to track the impacts the changing operating environment is having at a strategic level across the sector. As the project progresses we will produce analysis emerging from the study for our clients and HouseMark members.
In this second blog examining the key housing related issues in the forthcoming General Election, I want to look at welfare reform and how it is impacting on the sector. This policy area, along with measures to tackle under supply of new housing, demands the attention of all political parties putting themselves forward for election.
Two recent policies in particular are having an effect on many of the social housing providers we work with: restrictions on access to Housing Benefit for the under 35s (via the Local Housing Allowance cap limit) and a similar scenario for sheltered and supported housing. Registered providers are telling us that these key elements of government welfare reform have resulted in unintended negative consequences. The harm is being felt both by the benefit recipients and the organisations providing them with affordable housing. And in most cases, there is a north/south divide, with those in the north and midlands being much more adversely affected as LHA levels are generally much lower there than in the south, and therefore present a bigger differential in relation to social rents.
One aspect of reforms affecting single younger people with no children is proving particularly problematic and we would go as far as to say the plans should be scrapped. Under the change, Housing Benefit entitlement for the under 35s is now restricted to the shared accommodation rate (the upper age limit was previously 25). This means signficantly limiting housing choices for this group. Having a home of their own – even a simple one-bedroom flat – is therefore no longer an option for most of those who rely on this benefit. It would only be an option if the tenant was able to make up the difference from their own income – which is a rarity.
Most providers we speak to say this has been a disastrous policy. It is also making elements of some providers’ stock portfolio unviable. One stock transfer RP we advise has told us they have even been demolishing flats which had previously been let to single, often younger, tenants. They simply no longer have enough of the kind of tenants who can afford this kind of home – now the benefits they are in receipt of don’t cover the rent. Other RPs are looking at change of use for such properties, or in some cases even considering reducing their rents to the LHA level (with the consequential hit on rental income this will mean).
What is needed from whoever wins the election is a formal and compassionate review of the impact of these reforms. It cuts to the heart of issues of basic living standards and the right to safe and affordable housing.
The impact is being felt the most by those who need it most – namely young people who do not have stable families who they can fall back on for their accommodation needs. As the charity , staying at home is often not an option – with many homeless young people fleeing violence or abuse or trying to find their feet after leaving the care system. Discretionary exemptions do exist, but it is often difficult and time consuming for this group of tenants to navigate their way through the system.
The government’s review of how supported and sheltered housing should be funded is also causing uncertainty and problems for the sector. Its consultation document on this issue proposes the capping of Housing Benefit payments for supported housing tenants at Local Housing Allowance rates. Previously, all rent for those in supported housing was covered by Housing Benefit – with local authority budgets meeting the costs of additional care and support.
Again, this hits at some of the most vulnerable in society – in this case the elderly, those with mental health issues, the homeless and the disabled.
However, the lack of clarity is also hitting supported housing providers’ ability and willingness to invest in much-needed new provision. There is already an estimated national shortfall of supported housing places of 17,000. Without clarity and direction from whoever forms the next government on this issue, this will only worsen.
The government’s consultation document proposes that local councils will get top up funds to make up for the gap caused by reduced Housing Benefit payments. But the providers of supported accommodation who we speak to say they don’t believe it will result in the necessary funds being made available; as the funding won’t be ring fenced, there is a real fear that councils will simply use the funding to plug other gaps in their budgets.. Many RPs have already put developments on hold until they have had the necessary clarity from government. That certainly won’t come before June 8 – however a resolution to this issue must be a priority for any incoming administration.
The new government must also take immediate action to address the sharp rise in homelessness across the country. Practical, responsive and easy to implement measures are needed. A start might be to offer longer tenancies – perhaps three years – aimed at reducing the amount of homelessness created when 12 month tenancies come to an end.
These are the housing issues which those at the sharp end say must be addressed. As with any election campaign, these concerns will compete for attention in the coming weeks with other matters of state. The solutions which are proposed, and those which are ultimately implemented, will be watched closely by all those working in our sector. Their impact will be felt by those in receipt of our services. There is much at stake.
It may not have escaped your attention that a General Election campaign is currently underway. As I write, all the main manifestos have been published and we are beginning to get a clearer picture of each of the parties’ positions on a range of issues (notwithstanding the odd u-turn, of course!). Housing has been jostling for position against the nation’s other pressing concerns including (of course) Brexit, as well as health and social care, education, the economy and fiscal policy minutiae.
As I see it, there are two areas of housing policy which are demanding most attention from those who would wish to form the next government.
The first relates to the pressing need to build more homes. Chronic underinvestment in house building by successive governments has created the currently unsustainable situation we find ourselves in. House prices continue to inflate to levels beyond many people’s ability to pay – with the situation among first time buyers especially acute. While housing associations have been trying to do their bit when it comes to affordable homes, construction rates continue to fall short of what’s required. The construction of new homes by councils is so low in most cases as to barely even register.
The second area of concern relates to the impact of a series of government welfare reforms on the housing sector. I believe that policy makers of whatever political hue must confront the effect these reforms are having on social housing providers. And that isn’t to ignore the impact they are also having on individuals and families.
So what is to be done? That’s ultimately down to whoever forms the next government and I will of course refrain from passing any form of judgement on who that should be. But myself and my colleagues at DTP have at least a few ideas which might begin to address some of these concerns.
In this two-part blog I’d like to tackle first the issue of house building, with an obvious emphasis on the affordable end of the market.
In our view, the sector firstly requires clarity over what the government deems as ‘social housing’. Agreeing a common definition matters because it is critical to ensuring we build not just more homes, but more homes of the right type. When working out how many new ‘affordable’ homes we need, a future government needs to drill down into the detail. So, as well as traditional social rented homes, we also need to throw into the mix sub-market private rented homes, and low cost home ownership options, ensuring a ‘pathway’ and choice for those who need sub-market accommodation either in the short term or for most of their lives.
Next, there needs to be a focus on how we can get builders building. We’ve a few suggestions but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
A good start would be to stop developers sitting on land in order to profit from rising values. One solution might be to impose a retrospective Council Tax levy if developers fail to develop land earmarked for housing within three years. A corresponding incentive could grant a Council Tax ‘holiday’ for those who do build homes within three years of buying a plot.
A commitment from government to replace all social housing lost to Right to Buy and Voluntary Right to Buy would also help increase the supply of affordable homes. With housing waiting lists continuing to grow and owner occupier rates falling, not to mention a less than perfect private rented sector, this is essential.
Policy intervention is also needed to address the fact we have become too reliant on larger developers to deliver on housebuilding. Smaller developers used to account for a much greater proportion of new homes construction, and by addressing this we could kick start development on plots of less interest to the big players. Many LSVT providers, for example, inherited smaller plots of land which could be sitting vacant or where you might find rented garages now in low demand. Large developers, seeking the economies of scale of large development sites, might not be interested in this type of scheme. But smaller developers might be. On their own these might not amount to much, but added up across the country they could result in significantly more additional homes.
We might also be able to find ways to financially support these developers – with for example a loan guarantee offer by government. Similarly, partnership arrangements whereby larger developers supported smaller developers to deliver schemes could also be an idea worth pursuing.
In addition to these top level responses, there are other less obviously related issues which will require government action in the next parliament whoever wins the election. All will have a bearing on the social housing sector’s ability to deliver on house building.
The post-Brexit trade deal which the government strikes with the EU, and future immigration / free movement policy, will for example, affect the price of raw materials used in construction, or indeed housing repairs. Efforts to tackle issues such as productivity, skills and training will likewise impact on the sector. Here is probably not the place to offer detailed answers on these issues – but we would suggest they are critical for our sector, as well as other parts of the economy.
For our take on the welfare reform issues impacting on the housing sector read part 2 of this blog
Recently I read an article in The Guardian entitled “Housing associations are critically important, but have lost their way”. It took the tact that too many housing associations have focused on being developers (and the profit) and as result have lost sight of their mission to provide good homes at genuinely affordable price. (https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2017/apr/24/housing-associations-crisis-commercialisation)
But let’s not forget this diversification and commercialisation has been with us for a long time. I remember this being topical in the 90’s, more recently the global financial crisis and the rent reductions have seen associations taking a more entrepreneurial outlook in respect of new ventures and there has been a marked increase in the appointment of commercial directors and along with this the recruitment of board members from commercial backgrounds.
The rationale for diversification is clear and well founded, as there are a number of drivers for this. The most obvious of these is the desire to generate revenue to fund social activities. Some of the larger associations have cited their move towards a wider range of activities as a response to the inability of some local authorities to provide services and community support in areas where they have housing stock.
Small to medium associations have largely used diversified activities to generate subsidy for their housing business and to provide additional funding which can fund new housing provision. Inevitably, the success of such activity across the sector has been mixed. There are certainly some excellent examples, but equally there are a number of examples where it is clear that the pursuit of these activities has required a significant investment of resources, with little evidence of a significant return on the investment of time, money and resources, or an assessment of the opportunity cost of pursuing these. All of this would be deeply embedded in the practices of a purely commercial company, but for many organisations in this sector the desire and the demand to drive out commercial returns on deployed investment can often be obscured by social objectives and priorities.
What needs to be recognised is that successful commercial activities require commercial acumen, commercial skills and experience and a lot of time, money and resources. If the return is tangible then the investment is clearly worthwhile, but the danger of pursuing activities with less clear outcomes is the impact that these efforts can have on core business, which can be diluted through the spread of available resources.
Associations must always remember what they are here to do and most importantly how any activity will contribute to the corporate strategy, key objectives and the delivery of the mission/vision that has been established. It is clear that the HCA has recognised the uneven outputs from these activities and has raised concerns about the levels of returns and the exposures to risk andthe IDA approach is now looking to explore any signs of weakness.
HCA chair Julian Ashby, in a recent article, has noted that the levels of return achieved by associations’ core business can often be significantly greater than those achieved by so called diversified, commercial activities. This reveals the levels of risk associated with such ventures and suggests that more thought, planning and skills need to be brought to bear, before commitments are made to non-core, resource draining, commercial activities.
Clearly, all of the skills and necessary experience that is required to make a success of such activities can be easily outsourced, but the management and governance framework for the association must be able to sustain, monitor and effectively manage these activities, well after the advisors have moved on. The regulator will expect the board of management to fully understand these aspects of the business and all of the risks that are inherent. Effective mitigations will also need to be well established and they must be practical and fully achievable. None of the foregoing should in any way discourage the exploration of diversification and the pursuit of commercial returns, it should simply raise the priority of fully appraising the investment against the real prospect of securing a return that is worth the effort and the risk exposures that may be involved.
Periods of rapid and unsettling change can often trigger introspection and reflection. When the ground shifts beneath our feet, we find ourselves re-examining the things we previously took for granted. We look back for an explanation as to how we got here, and forward to consider how we might navigate the new terrain ahead of us.
The last 18 months have undoubtedly seen seismic shifts in both the global and the UK political outlook. At the same time, the social housing sector has experienced its own ‘local’ shocks to the system, such as the 1% rent reduction of July 2015, and a government shake-up of the regulation system.
Not surprisingly, housing associations have been taking stock and formulating their response. And for many, it’s provided an opportunity to reassess their very purpose. Searching questions are being asked. What are we here to do? Should we carry on doing everything we currently do? Are we delivering on our stated purpose?
The senior housing professionals who we speak to for our quarterly Weather Forecast Group survey all say they have taken time to reflect on their purpose in the last two years – as the world and the sector has changed around them. But their responses have varied.
For some, there has been a clear shift to a more ‘back to basics’ approach. This has meant a move away from community involvement and investment, to focus more on core services – i.e. providing a roof over people’s heads at an affordable price. Some ‘gold standards’ of service provision have been declared unaffordable and dropped. Staff numbers in many organisations have been cut back.
We’re seeing providers taking a more hard-headed and commercial approach, though again this is not across the board. The squeeze on rents is forcing the sector to develop other income streams, which of course brings its own challenges.
Significant and regular policy changes, coupled with the Brexit shock and an effective change of leadership at the top of government, have created an almost perfect storm, where rapid change is seen as the new normal. In response, many providers are telling us they plan to review their purpose regularly, in some cases every year. In this new landscape, strategic direction will become critical; organisations will need to be flexible and agile in order to respond effectively.
Our interviews with Weather Forecast Group members revealed a pragmatism and realism in the sector. Certainly, as far as the government is concerned, we picked up on a willingness to work with the government rather than against it. But don’t be under any illusions – that willingness to compromise won’t be at any cost.
Underneath the pragmatism, the social housing sector is still a sector built on ideals. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Ken Loach’s landmark television drama Cathy Come Home, which was reflected on by a number of the housing professionals we spoke to. Looking back on Cathy Come Home’s agonising portrayal of the problems of homelessness had even inspired an “examination of our roots” in one organisation.
“And we’re not stopping improving lives,” said one senior executive. Although it didn’t take long before the realism set in: “the issue is that we can now probably improve fewer than previously”. Some even talked of the need for the sector to be bolder in telling its story – of developing a brand even. One vision is of a sector that is the “go to” vehicle for solving the housing crisis. Bold indeed.
A greater focus on purpose will probably accelerate the diversification of the sector which we have been seeing unfold in recent years. All the signs are that this will continue with different providers focusing on different activities.
But while many will head off in different directions, few will have the luxury to ignore issues such as the need for efficiencies and cost savings. And all will face the same pressures and be rocked by future, as yet unknown, seismic shifts. We may not know exactly how things will change in the coming years, but change they will. However, if the social housing sector continues to demonstrate a willingness to reflect and adapt, perhaps it will show itself to be more resilient than we might have imagined.
Spring is in the air and life is stirring across the land. It’s traditionally the season associated with new beginnings, change and promise. In the social housing sector we’re certainly facing a fresh start from April – when the government’s much touted shake-up of the regulatory system takes effect. In effect, a series of deregulatory measures, as embodied in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 – whether they will put a spring in our step remains to be seen.
There are certainly potential benefits arising from the changes, and on balance I think it’s a positive for the sector. But I can also see a number of disadvantages in what will take effect on 6 April.
We all know the headlines by now: from next month, the social housing regulator will no longer need to grant consent to registered providers (RPs) for the disposal of assets or for ‘constitutional changes’ (for which read mergers). Instead, it will require ‘notification’. How quickly it would like to know about your plans depends on a number of factors – and ranges from as early as three weeks in some cases, to three months in others. But in all cases, notification will now be required after the event.
Let’s not kid ourselves here: the government hasn’t just discovered a new found enthusiasm for social housing deregulation. This isn’t really about freeing up the sector and ushering in a new era of deregulated, unfettered social housing provision. It’s about trying to persuade the Office for National Statistics to reverse its decision in 2015 to reclassify RPs as public bodies – thus landing the Treasury with a huge sum of new and unwanted debt on its books. By convincing the ONS that the government is employing a light touch approach to regulating RPs, and that they truly are ‘independent bodies’, it’s hoped it can convince the ONS that they should not be in the public sector at all.
So what will the impact be of the deregulatory measures? The short answer is, in my view, not much. For almost all of what RPs do in relation to the regulator, it will be business as usual. While regulatory consent will no longer be required for a number of important changes, I’m not convinced the regulator will take its eye completely off the ball.
Take asset disposal, for example. While the HCA may now want to be told of a disposal after its taken place, it can still take action if it feels a poor decision has been taken by the board, especially if it is one which has failed to protect social housing assets. It will simply come in and challenge the RP from a governance failure perspective.
We can also expect few RPs to take the deregulatory changes to their logical conclusion. Again, in theory, deregulation could mean providers choosing to deregister; to take themselves out of regulation altogether. Moving all your social housing properties into an unregistered subsidiary may seem attractive on the surface, not least because it could shield you from unwanted rent cuts and other controls. But my instinct is lenders would take a dim view of such a proposal. An unregistered, unregulated social housing provider would almost certainly be seen as a greater lending risk. And greater risk only means one thing: higher borrowing costs.
At present, lenders are willing to splash their cash on a sector they see as well regulated. An RP taking itself out into the unknown will most likely be viewed as a poor investment option. A demand for early loan repayment could follow and a hefty early repayment charge levied. Who would take that risk?
What is probably more likely is we will see a trickling of social housing properties out of the sector as and when they become void. Moving these into a non-registered entity starts to take some properties outside of rent controls but wouldn’t be enough to raise alarm bells with lenders. And if it could be framed as part of a robust and sensible approach to asset management or regeneration, it may even earn you a few brownie points with those same lenders.
In the case of mergers; while RPs may no longer need advance sign off from the HCA, it will still be essential to carry out all necessary due diligence and ensure a robust business case is made. Not least, this will remain the requirement of lenders – who may now take an even closer interest in your plans in the absence of the HCA ‘safety net’. The regulator has already said it intends to carry out an In-Depth Assessment post merger in almost all cases. To conclude: while you may have less to do in terms of form filling for the regulator, the task of seeing through a merger will remain similarly complex and time consuming as it is now – as it should be if it is to be done properly.
For boards, these changes will mean increased onus on them to take full responsibility for their strategic decisions, and a stepping up of focus on good governance. There will undoubtedly be less wriggle room for poor boards. For some boards, they will see this as a positive, enabling them to be fleeter of foot and to engage in more active, assertive asset management (for example). For others, it could also make them more risk averse, resulting in missed opportunities and a less dynamic sector.
The measures aimed at reducing local authority control of LSVT providers could have a similar cost-benefit impact. For existing LSVTs it could remove some of the restrictions which have been holding them back. For other councils where transfer hasn’t taken place, it could act as a barrier to change. Local authorities keen to retain control of their housing assets may be unwilling to give up ownership without the retention of their coveted ‘golden share’.
So as the French would say: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même” or “the more it changes, the more it stays the same”. Deregulation will happen, but the reality on the ground may not look so radically different from the status quo as we might imagine.
When Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked what was most likely to blow governments off course, his reply has gone down as one of the great cliches, or perhaps truths, of politics: “events, dear boy, events.”
MacMillan certainly had more than his fair share of political axioms; “you’ve never had it so good,” was another of ‘Super Mac’s’ quips which was remembered long after his time in office. And his advice that, “it is the duty of Her Majesty’s government neither to flap nor to falter” may well have come in handy when one of those events “happened”.
Politicians have had their fair share of events to contend with in recent years, as has the social housing sector. And the problem with the events which cause us the most sleepless nights is their sheer unpredictability.
The great economic crash of 2007/08 threatened to throw governments off course around the world – and was certainly one of the main contributing factors which led to the defeat of the Labour Party in the 2010 General Election. The subsequent financial downturn and resulting policies of fiscal austerity, have of course, also caused major difficulties for the balance sheets of Registered Providers.
The 2015 rent reduction, proved to be another great ‘event’ sent to challenge those who run the social rented sector. And then of course there is Brexit, perhaps the single biggest political event (in the UK at least) in my lifetime. As the great constitutional historian Peter Hennessy remarked in the summer, “never in our peacetime history have so many dials been reset as a result of a single day’s events”. It may be years before we fully understand the consequences of that resetting.
It’s events like these, as well as the more localised variety, which can also threaten to blow a merger off course – even after you’ve signed on the dotted line and the ‘coming together’ has taken legal effect. It’s understandable that those involved in a merger process often breathe a sigh of relief at this point. The pace will have been hectic in the preceding months, so there is usually a natural pause in proceedings.
However, while it is a major hurdle crossed, it is not the time for complacency. In fact, now is the time the real work begins: to integrate the two providers into a single, culturally cohesive organisation, and to begin to realise some of the benefits which merger promised to deliver in the first place.
Unpredictable events can also bring about a review of a merger’s priorities and objectives. If the unexpected does happen, having robust plans in place is critical. It’s these which will give you the best platform to deliver your stated aims, and weather any storms.
Merger plans must, in my view, be clear about the benefits which will flow from coming together. And these need to be effectively communicated to key stakeholders – including tenants, funders, the board and the regulator. They must be front and centre in the business case and the financial business plan. Progress on achieving these benefits needs to be reported back regularly.
Nowhere is this more important than in the area of cost savings. After all, this is often cited as the key reason for embarking on a merger in the first place.
In my experience, successful mergers are quick at spotting any matters arising from the due diligence process, and are also effective at dealing with them swiftly. Due diligence is often cited as important for identifying issues before mergers take place – but it can also help you work out what actions you need to take after a merger has formally gone ahead.
It’s essential to rigorously monitor performance against financial targets set out in your business plan. Making progress early on is critical – if the savings you hoped to deliver are to be realised.
My advice is: don’t let things slip. Things can quickly move on and other priorities can take over. But press on with implementing your business case, integrate your two organisations, and deliver the actions which are needed to achieve the benefits of merger which you identified.
Also, take time out further down the line to review what’s worked and what hasn’t – and to ask whether the merger process was an effective use of resources and achieved your projected outcomes. Bringing in specialists from a consultancy such as DTP can add real value to this part of the process. We can help you tap into the lessons others have learned along the way and help you develop effective ‘rules of engagement’ for future projects.
The events of recent years identified above have certainly not dimmed interest in mergers as a strategic growth option for Registered Providers. And given many of the events have only increased the pressure on social landlords to be more efficient, it’s easy to see why.
What hasn’t changed is the need to make sure your merger plans focus on the potential benefits: what they are, how you will achieve them and how you will monitor progress. Events might conspire to throw you off course. But if you keep your eye on the prize, success is not only possible, but also potentially game-changing for both organisations. And with the right amount of commitment at all levels of the business, who knows, perhaps you too will ‘never have it so good’.
Just when we thought the shocks to the system couldn’t get any bigger than summer’s Brexit vote, we now find ourselves discussing in all seriousness what ‘President-elect Trump’ will mean for the global economic and political outlook.
The parallels have already been drawn by many commentators between June’s referendum result and Trump’s eye watering victory in the US election on November 8. Most of the focus has been on the so-called ‘left behinds’ – the ‘unheard’ voters who felt both globalisation and the mass migration of recent decades has been of little or no benefit to their lives. The same demographic (mainly white and working class, but not exclusively) which hurled Britain out of the EU also swept Trump to power, or so the argument goes.
If social housing tenants are anything to go by, then there was clearly something going on in disadvantaged communities across the UK when the referendum votes were counted. More than two thirds of social housing tenants voted to leave the EU, while interestingly it seems most of the staff and boards of social housing landlords voted to remain. One impact of Brexit will be to understand how we bridge that apparent gap.
Overall, Trump’s victory will be less easy for the social housing sector to gauge than Brexit (not least because it has only just happened and he himself is such an unpredictable, unknown quantity). At the same time, gauging the impact of Brexit certainly hasn’t been easy up to now.
Our quarterly survey of senior housing professionals, set out in the Weather Forecast Group (WFG) report which we produce in partnership with HouseMark, this month concluded that Brexit hasn’t had a major impact – so far. That isn’t to say it won’t, but, as yet, the impact has been limited.
However, those we spoke to all have Brexit and its potential fallout on their watchlist. For some, the issue has made it into their risk registers, while others are undertaking stress testing to calculate what the impact of different post-Brexit scenarios might be. On a positive note, many think the effects will be of a ‘slow burn’ nature – giving providers time to plan. In summary, the sky hasn’t fallen in yet, and it probably won’t do so at a rapid pace at least.
Beyond that, there is a lot to be uncertain about, and the WFG report uncovered a number of factors which are giving RPs cause for concern.
If Brexit, as seems likely, results in curbs on immigration and the free movement of people, this has a number of potential consequences for RPs. Some of those we spoke to suggested this could affect their ability to recruit and retain staff – especially those in maintenance/DLO or social care roles. Our report reveals a mixed picture with some not anticipating problems recruiting from the domestic labour force, while others felt the UK could face a post EU-exit skills shortage.
At the same time, if Brexit results in fewer people coming to the UK from Eastern Europe, some providers felt this could impact on the ability to rent out less popular homes. This was a concern in particular for some operating in the north of England.
Several contributors to the WFG report said they were concerned about the social cohesion implications of Brexit. Reported increases in hate crime, including racist incidents, could prove a challenge for landlords who felt they had made progress in this area in recent years. That disconnect between how many tenants voted in the referendum and how most provider staff/boards voted was also seen as another potential cause of difficulty.
Other negative side effects of Brexit included forecast cost rises associated with the fall in the value in the pound and an expected increase in inflation. This is likely to push up the cost of imported goods – with the effect on building materials especially problematic for our sector. Wider economic analysis suggests this will take hold in early 2017 and could impact on the ability to build the number of new homes required.
The loss of European Social Fund investment was also cited as a downside of the referendum result – especially its impact on training, employment and regeneration. The report also revealed there could be unanticipated impacts on pension fund contributions with one provider forecasting a £500,000 increase in its expected annual contributions to staff retirement schemes. For providers in the north, signs of a possible weakening government commitment to devolution and the Northern Powerhouse (as a result of a change in administration, a bi-product of Brexit) were also viewed with concern.
But as well as the threats, there were also possible opportunities from Brexit. The Bank of England’s decision to reduce interest rates in the wake of the vote had helped some providers to reduce their borrowing costs, especially those who were in the process of refinancing their debt at the time. And some felt the UK could now become a more attractive investment proposition – especially for Chinese and other Asian investors with potentially positive implications for investment in housing.
In terms of the UK housing market, some contributors to the WFG report felt the heat could be taken out of house prices. This would be especially welcome in London where affordability is currently at its most acute.
On government housing policy, we gauged a mixed response. On the one hand, the change in leadership at the top of government has delayed clarity on new regulations and guidance in areas such as Pay to Stay, fixed-term tenancies, Voluntary Right to Buy and the sale of high value council voids. On the other hand, if the result is a shift of government of focus away from social housing, this could bring some welcome relief from the change and upheaval of the last 18 months. Some even sensed a more conciliatory mood coming from central government, and a softening of policy on home ownership is viewed as encouraging. At the same time, signals that there could be an easing of austerity were also welcomed.
A word of caution emerged from the report, which the whole sector might do well to pay heed to. While Brexit is likely to result in a big shift of course for the UK, one contributor at least suggested we would do well not to react too drastically before the split happens. It’s vital we don’t become over-focused on Brexit and risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, they argued. In fact, the approach which much of the sector is adopting seems sensible – maintain a sense of ‘business as usual’ while keeping a watchful eye on developments. Barring any further major shocks (and who would rule those out?) this should hold us in good stead.
So we’ve had just over one year of the HCA’s in depth assessments, if we include the initial pilot. There’s been a little bit of ‘tweaking’ along the way, not least the recent announcement that VFM will now be a key feature of the process. Nevertheless, that’s 12 months for Registered Providers to get used to how the assessments work, what the regulator is looking for and what needs to be done to ensure compliance.
I’d like to encourage providers to take a ‘glass half full’ view of IDAs. Yes, notification from the HCA that it plans to carry out an assessment can seem like a burden – and it will make extra workload requirements on key members of your team and Board. But, on the positive side, it’s a chance to review your business, identify areas where you are succeeding and spot problems. In short, it’s a learning opportunity which can help you improve the way your organisation is run.
We should all know by now why they were introduced. The regulator wanted to take a close look at RPs’ businesses to ensure they comply with its economic standards. I suppose it’s obvious, but the crucial lesson from the introduction of IDAs is that the issues they raise should be on your radar anyway. In many respects, the expectations laid out in the IDA guidance are good business practice.
Unless the regulator has identified serious and urgent issues at a provider, you will usually receive at least six weeks’ notice of an IDA. So what can you be doing to make sure you’re ready when the inspectors call?
Here are my top 10 tips for preparing for and ensuring a successful IDA:
Don’t wait for the HCA to call before you start thinking about what an IDA means for your business. Start getting ready now – as you can rest assured you will get a notification at some point. It’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
Make sure all your key strategic documents – your business plan, corporate plan, asset management strategy, development strategy, value for money strategy, risk register – are up to date and contain all relevant information. Are they fit for purpose? Are there any gaps? Are they in the right format? Would they benefit from an external review?
DTP can help with this. Recently, for example, we worked with an RP which has put all its future development on hold while it waits for government clarity on supported rents. The HCA will want to know why when the IDA inspectors visit and pour over the development strategy. So we’ve been making sure the team has an answer and can explain why this won’t have negative financial (and other) implications for the business.
Crucially, they will also delve into the decision-making processes which have informed your key documents. Again, you need to have the information and answers at the ready.
Document management also needs to be a priority. In my experience, it can pay to allocate responsibility for uploading all documents to the HCA portal to a single person.
One of the key things is having all the relevant facts at your fingertips and making sure everyone is agreed on what these are. And while the numbers are important, it’s also vital that you are able to articulate what your strategic thinking is behind the numbers. You might want to consider briefing notes for key personnel with important dates, facts, figures and a few strategic bullet points.
You might be surprised at the level of detail this could involve. For example, the regulator might drill down into the detail of your asset management strategy. Why did you choose to paint your communal areas every five years when the sector norm is to do this every 10 years and it will cost you more? Your answer might be that in your geographical area, properties are easier to let if communal areas look well kept and inviting. So, while it does represent a cost, it can be shown to reduce future losses which can be incurred if properties lie vacant for prolonged periods.
Take some time to think about what your organisation’s story is. Make sure the Board (especially the Chair and the Chair of Audit/Risk Committee) and the Executive Team know what this is and can articulate it clearly and convincingly. If necessary, have practice run through sessions so people can gain confidence and be comfortable in what they say.
It can be helpful for some or all of your key team members to have a ‘dry run’ interview. This can help boost people’s confidence and ensures they are ready to deliver when the team from the HCA arrive. It can also help to identify any gaps in people’s knowledge and understanding. Of course, it’s vital to make sure these gaps are filled before the assessment takes place.
Put your governance practices and policies under the spotlight before your IDA. The HCA will attend and observe both a main board meeting and an Audit/Risk Committee – so make sure these are well run and managed. Think about how you come across – and consider what changes might be needed.
The HCA may well ask to see your assets and liabilities register. Is it easily accessible, up to date and understandable? Do you have a member of staff who can demonstrate it? Are there any gaps in it you need to address?
Value for money is now a key element of IDAs. It’s essential you have a firm grip on this and understand in detail the information provided to your Board. Make sure the Board are prepared and are equipped to make the necessary arguments to the HCA about how you ensure value for money across the organisation. It’s essential that the Board is able to convince the HCA that it knows what is going on and is on top of this vital area of the business.
Successful IDAs rest on key personnel understanding the businesses cost base in detail. Everyone involved needs to be able to answer questions on what these costs are, what’s driving them, how you compare with others, and if they are high, why? Your team needs to be able to talk convincingly about operating efficiencies, use of resources and how you are making your assets work harder for you.
It’s important not to underestimate the importance of an IDA. But at the same time the HCA is not asking the impossible. With a robust approach and rigorous preparation you can come out the other side stronger and better. Trust me!
Winston Churchill, that master of the one-liner, once said: “never let a good crisis go to waste”. It’s arguable whether the last few years constitute a crisis for the social housing sector – but they have certainly presented a series of huge challenges. Whether rent cuts or welfare reform, austerity and now Brexit, Registered Providers have been tested dearly by events and policy changes largely beyond their own making.
Some have viewed these circumstances as an opportunity; others have struggled to respond effectively. But it’s not too late to make sure they don’t go to waste in my view. And we can start, I think, by learning from each other.
DTP’s new Weather Forecast Group (WFG) which was launched in partnership with HouseMark earlier this year, aims to provide a platform to do that. Every couple of months talk in depth to senior housing professionals to discuss their experiences and the issues that are impacting on the sector. As you might imagine, there is particular focus on government policy changes, the effects they are having, and how providers are responding. With a new ministerial team taking its place at DCLG as I write, we may have to get used to a new policy framework sooner rather than later.
One area which has revealed some detailed insights is how we deliver services to customers. Most of those we spoke to for the most recent WFG report said they were reviewing this area of their business. For some, it has been a financial necessity; a direct response to the rent cut. For others it’s something they have been doing anyway. In all cases, it’s seen as an inevitable journey as we all become integrated into the digital age.
Other factors are at play beyond falling revenues. The changing nature of the RP customer base is also having an impact – the key feature being more focus on home ownership and intermediate rent. The rise of digitally savvy “millennials” is also playing its part.
One of the biggest changes we are seeing is in terms of “channel shift”. The trend across the sector is a move away from mostly face to face interaction with customers to telephone and, increasingly, online. Levels of commitment vary but the line of travel is clearly established.
The key thing most providers seem to agree on is the importance of getting the new customer experience right. People are more likely to take up digital or telephone services if they are efficient and meet their needs. It’s the key to driving that all-important take up. It’s worth adding that RPs recognise there’s unlikely to be universal acceptance of online services . For a section of their customer base which is vulnerable, elderly etc then the brave new world of digital customer interaction isn’t going to mean very much. With levels of online customer interaction of 15% – 20% still not uncommon this isn’t to be underestimated. We still have a long way to go.
With this in mind customer profiling seems to becoming more prevalent. This is helping RPs to understand who their vulnerable customers are, so as to ensure they don’t get left behind by the digital revolution, as well as allowing for more human resources to be directed to targeted communications with this group.
We are hearing some good examples of innovation out there as providers seek to encourage customers online. One RP we spoke to has asked tenants to upload photos of each room in their house annually to provide repairs/damage insight and data. It also helps customers get used to dealing digitally with their landlord – it makes it ‘normal’. And with so many people regularly uploading photos to Facebook, Instagram and other social sites, why not their landlord too? Another provider had implemented a new system where tenants can report a repair directly to an operative – thus cutting out the call centre / diagnostic element of the process. That’s what you call a win-win. And it’s what happens in the private sector – so why not the affordable sector too?
As my colleague from 3C, Colin Sales, pointed out in a blog on this issue earlier this year, the benefits of channel shift are obvious. It has the potential to reduce costs and improve services. For further guidance on how DTP and 3C can help you maximise those benefits I’d recommend reading Colin’s article.
Where DTP and 3C add value is the way we can help providers to understand what their current service looks like – its strengths and weaknesses; where it is a drain on resources and where and how it can be improved. It means thinking carefully about the strategy behind your service offer and how it operates in practice. Going through the process can help you square what seems like an impossible circle: delivering improved efficiencies while at the same time ensuring the level of service you promise your customers is maintained. Or even improved. It can be done, and as we all move in that direction, that ‘crisis’ will have been far from wasted.
If you use a store card to gather points, you will assume data about you is being collected, but do you appreciate just how much data and what it reveals?
Of course, it includes spending habits and preferences, but did you know it could also include such things as your likely disposable income; how far you are willing to travel to shop, on what days and if the weather impacts your decision; if you respond to incentives; if you are shifting to internet shopping…the list goes on. So valuable is this data, it forms the cornerstone of a retailer’s corporate strategy. I once worked with a Virgin start-up that was developing a stay-at-home fitness club based around activity data collected via a small, belt-worn, bluetooth fitness monitor. I initially thought the corporate objective was to generate recurring monthly payments from people who wanted to get fit at home, but I quickly found that the jewel in the crown was the value that the data had to the trillion dollar private health insurance market, not to mention to other organisations that could benefit from identifying health-minded individuals.
Within the social housing sector, the HCA is already demonstrating how data is shaping the sector’s future and the careers of many within it. An example is the recent letter the HCA’s regulation chair, Julian Ashby, wrote to the top 350 housing associations after global accounts data identified a concerning 50% cost variation between landlords that could not be explained. A link to a copy of this letter is below. It states that those with higher costs will need to be able to defend the additional benefit they deliver or demonstrate that they are making savings as part of future In Depth Assessments.
Some sector commentators speculate that such analysis could be used to justify future social rent reductions, and even RP ‘league tables’.
Such data is therefore critical to success and how we are perceived. As well as accurate and timely information being key to effective operational management and strategic decision making, external bodies like the HCA will use this information to assess our performance. Additionally, service users, stakeholders and local residents need accessible and reliable information to make informed decisions. Careful data management is also critical to data security, so avoiding the risk of financial and reputational damage that can result from data leaks.
We are experiencing a revolution. Executive teams need to display vision and leadership, embracing the benefits that already existing data can provide. Key strategic decisions need to be ‘data-led’. For example, maintenance costs can be reduced dramatically by better understanding the average length of tenancies, the age of assets, the productivity of operatives and the frequency of call-outs. One RP announced significant savings had been achieved simply by recognising that 1/3 of their tenancies ended within 4 years and 1/2 within 7 years, which had a significant impact on their maintenance strategy.
The management and accuracy of data is also key to truly automating services and making them ‘human-free’. For example, the introduction of Universal Credit will mean around three times as much income will need to be collected by RPs rather than coming from housing benefit direct.
To achieve this cost effectively, the use of real-time tenant data will be key. Much of the collection process can then be automated, with only the particularly troublesome cases being highlighted for human intervention.
A carefully considered data management strategy therefore needs to form part of corporate strategy. What should such a strategy include?
If you need to justify why investment in data should be a priority, here is a summary of just some of the likely benefits:
So to conclude, every corporate plan should include a data management strategy, as having access to accurate information is key to the well-being of the organisation, staff and customers. Importantly, it will help minimise the disruption audits can cause and the anxiety that can accompany them.
Access to accurate data will allow you to increasingly take control, saving time and money and helping safeguard against those nasty surprises that makes running a business so much more stressful.
As the housing sector continues to diverge, a group of registered providers have come onto our radar who seem to be forging a new role for themselves in this changing landscape. These housing associations are redefining themselves as broader social businesses.
I touched on this in my previous blog – but here’s a quick recap. DTP has worked with a number of RPs who are thinking beyond their traditional housing role and are actively bringing into their organisation local partner organisations which are involved in the business of improving ‘quality of life’. The charities and commercial businesses being acquired are varied – from drug and alcohol treatment specialists to domestic violence refuges; from training and employment providers to environmental charities. What they have in common is their commitment to improving the lot of communities where registered providers operate.
Acquiring a partner organisation is neither simple or easy. But it can be done and the potential benefits are wide reaching. We’ve assisted for several organisations now, and have seen first hand the positive impact it can have. Where it tends to work best is with RPs with a tight geographical focus – which presents opportunities to bring in partners which are local to you. Stock transfer organisations seem especially well suited to the idea.
These RPs are unlikely to be big players in the development world and instead are shifting their focus to consider the broader needs of their communities – so beyond just putting a roof over people’s heads.
So what’s involved? What’s the process which both parties have to go through? What do you need to consider and how can you make it work for mutual benefit?
The benefits for both organisations are obvious. First there are the efficiency benefits which can be gained from working together on a formal basis – such as sharing back office costs. On a simple level, one acquisition we advised on allowed both parties to avoid paying VAT on environmental improvement works. Coming together also puts both organisations in a better position to bid for the types of contracts which are now available in the kind of areas just mentioned and to do so as lead providers.
For the organisation being acquired it can also help them realise their ambitions for growth – with the RP offering the kind of protection against financial risk which may have been holding them back previously. For each party involved, coming together is about realising the value for both parties.
There’s a lot to think about – branding, legal status, board structure – and no one size fits all solution. In some respects many of the considerations are not dissimilar to those involved in a merger proposal. There’s certainly an argument to be made for presenting to the outside world – and your potential customers in particular – as an integrated offer. The simpler you can keep things for commissioners the better.
One of the key challenges in formally bringing partner organisations into your structure is of course governance. Bringing in new partners means bringing in their existing board structures and we take time to work with both organisations to determine what the best governance structure will be post acquisition.
Here’s a few pointers which I’d suggest organisations consider…
Ultimately, every part of the organisation has to refocus its efforts to squeeze every penny out of what they have available to make this happen. In some respects it involves taking a risk and heading out into genuinely new terrain. It’s about asking yourself, ‘how can we work this organisation as hard as we can, to get the most out of it for the benefit of the people we serve’. That’s what being a broader social business really means.
To merge or not to merge – that is the question. It’s a quandary faced by many Registered Providers (RP) at present with the stakes and the potential rewards both equally high. Get it right and you have the potential to create an organisation which is greater than the sum of its parts – one which is both more efficient and more effective.
In a previous blog I touched on the importance of getting the cultural fit right to ensure a merger succeeds. The new organisation which emerges has to bring together two cultures while at the same time creating something new. Neglect this at your peril.
But analysing whether another RP is a good fit for your organisation of course also requires rigorous financial due diligence. Your potential partner has to be willing to open up their books and let you in on how they’ve been doing – and how they expect to do in the future. You have to make a cool analysis of their overall judgement, performance and effectiveness. And you have to use that information to make a rational decision about your merger partner’s suitability. It’s perhaps obvious but effective and thorough financial analysis is best undertaken by professionals (either in-house or external) with relevant experience.
My advice is to start the process off by looking back into the past and forwards into the future at the same time. Historic analysis of financial performance can help you identify useful trends in financial performance including any areas of weakness in the business. This can raise an important question: have these weaknesses been overcome? It’s essential that your due diligence process gathers the information you need to provide reassurance (or not) on this. To give the green light to a merger you must be confident weaknesses are in the past – or that measures are in place to consign them there.
Meanwhile, future projections in the business plan can identify challenges which might lie ahead. An example might be where projected cost savings are essentially assumed – they have been modelled but are by no means certain. Such assumptions must be supported by achievable plans if they are to be seen as credible and rigorous. Likewise, forecasts for sales income should be backed up by clear evidence of recent sales history and current projected demand.
As you go over these forward projections and assumptions you are looking for a couple of key things in my view. What’s needed is evidence that your prospective merger partner’s planning assumptions are reasonable and conventional. There might be sound arguments for not following conventional assumptions – but you need to know clearly what they are and be persuaded by them.
The due diligence process then requires a moment of reflection in my experience. You’ve met the key people, digested the information they have provided you with, now comes the time to make a judgement call. I call this ‘business assurance’ and it involves asking yourself a crucial question: ‘what does all this amount to?’ There’s some overlap here with the cultural due diligence I mentioned earlier, and it is at least on a par with the analysis of the financial and operational performance of the business.
Up until this point, due diligence can perhaps be characterised as a slightly dry, academic exercise. Critical though this is, our approach is to follow it up with a process of opinion forming.
So what does it involve? At its heart it is about making an assessment of the performance of the executive team. How well is it managing the business and dealing with the problems which it faces? Do the executive team and the board work well together? Clues can be found in the minutes of executive team meetings and in the details of reports they provide to boards. Look for issues such as fraud, contractual difficulties, disputes with third parties (and the potential liabilities associated with this), overspends against budget and failures in statutory compliance. Where these have arisen has the governance structure risen to the challenge? Have the people got on top of these problems? You might not find a ‘smoking gun’ but you may well find evidence which raises a question mark about the effectiveness of management and the culture of the organisation you plan to merge with.
What else might raise concerns? There are a number of things I would look out for including the late submission of VAT returns and associated fines and any signs that the accuracy of internal reporting has been called into question.
A judgement call has to be made about what all this tells you about the organisation you plan to merge with. Does it call into question their ability to carry out the basic tasks expected of them – by lenders, the regulator …? Are there serious underlying problems which should call a halt to proceedings? Or are these legacy issues – which have been banished, overcome and, crucially, learned from?
The key personnel who we engage with during this part of the exercise are usually the chief executive and the finance director (or equivalent). What we are looking for is clarity on matters not fully explained by the data which has been provided.
When we bring all this together into a report it’s crucial that our opinions are based on solid evidence. With this in mind we opt to share our draft with the organisation we have been examining to ask them for their views on its accuracy. At such a sensitive stage in the process this is essential as any misinformation could create tension among the prospective partners.
Next we put together an action plan which sets out any work which is needed pre-merger or post-merger. This is then consolidated with the other party’s financial due diligence action plan and is combined with the legal due diligence to form an important element of the business case for merger.
Keeping boards in the loop is essential. They must have the opportunity to be able to review all due diligence reports and need the best advice possible on all matters arising. That’s not only crucial to the process but also a current HCA requirement. Other parties may also wish to see these reports once the boards have approved them, funders, for example, will often seek copies of them and will pay close attention to them.
As for the question of whether to merge or not to merge, that ultimately requires an analysis based on fact and informed opinion. Due diligence – even the cool headed financial variety – has to combine both to be effective in my view. It’s as much art as it is science. But by asking searching questions and going beyond the data you stand a good chance of making the right call.
‘Value for money’ is the phrase which has been on everyone’s lips in recent weeks. A spotlight is once again shining on the social housing sector’s efficiency, and there’s little sign the light will be switched off anytime soon.
The government can certainly not be accused of sending mixed messages. It has been pretty clear where its focus is going to be. RPs are seen as inefficient, expensive to run, not building enough new homes (for sale), and fostering welfare dependency. The recently publish HCA report this month into RP operating costs in the sector is unequivocal. The HCA will, in future, “increasingly challenge providers on their approach to efficiency, as part of its regulation of Value for Money”. Don’t say they didn’t warn you.
The rumour mill is also turning. We are hearing on the grapevine that efficiency ‘league tables’ for RPs could be an idea whose time has come. That would certainly mean an even brighter spotlight shining on the whole sector.
Already, HCA Regulation Committee Chair Julian Ashby is firing warning shots across the sector’s bows. His recent letter to more than 350 RPs pointed out that only half of the variations in operating costs could be accounted for by factors such as supported housing, regional pay differences, older person’s housing, LSVT costs and deprivation. They want to know what accounts for the other half. The regulator wants to see a step change in operating efficiency and will be placing more and more pressure on RPs to free up latent resources.
Last year’s announcement of a 1% rent cut for the next four years offered a foretaste of what was to come. And let’s be clear about this, the government has its own reasons for imposing that cut, and it goes beyond a belief that efficiency is a good thing in its own right. Cutting RP rents has a direct impact on its own housing benefit bill, and will go down well with the number crunchers in the Treasury.
Many RPs have risen to the challenge and found ways to change the way they work and make savings. I’ve no doubt more can be done and it’s actually quite inspiring to see how many housing associations are using this as an opportunity to think differently about how they work – to see if there is a smarter, more efficient way of doing things. My view is this doesn’t have to necessarily mean pain for RPs. Improving operational efficiency can be good for an organisation – for its staff and its customers and stakeholders.
We are working with a number of RPs at the moment who are looking for ways to respond to the new Value for Money agenda. I’m encouraged by how many of them get it.
Many are turning to us for help with In Depth Assessments (IDAs) and Value for Money self assessments. Both offer important and practical lessons for RPs on how to face this challenge. In addressing VFM in an IDA, our approach is to set out firstly to help an RP to get all the facts in front of them. It’s about asking some searching questions of everyone involved: what are your costs, what’s driving those costs, and, where your costs are high, why?
Then you start a conversation: about your approach to operating efficiencies, how resources are used and how to make your assets work harder. It involves going over all an organisation’s strategic documents – the corporate plan, the business plan, the asset management strategy, development strategy, value for money strategy. Are they fit for the purpose? Do they all hang together? Where are the gaps – which the HCA might identify? This has to be a bespoke exercise – there is no one size fits all approach.
Value for Money self assessments, similarly, require RPs to have to directly respond to the requirements of the HCA’s VFM Standard, and the expectations of the self-assessment in terms of demonstrating VFM. The regulator’s recent review of the 2015 self-assessments makes it clear that it remains unhappy with many RPs’ responses. Cherry picking what is reported by way of costs, performance and peer groups is still an issue. Vague aspirations to be more efficient in the future won’t be enough either. You need to say specifically how you will make changes and put numbers on your plans. The regulator wants to ‘follow the money’.
The costs of failure are high: RPs can be downgraded for a poor VFM self-assessment (and I’m pleased to say we helped two organisations to turn that situation round last year). But if the strategic approach at the board level is the right one, the rewards can be high. And by rewards, I don’t just mean being able to say you’ve jumped through all the regulator’s hoops. You can come out of these often challenging exercises with an organisation which is better equipped to deliver on your purpose and meet the needs of all those who have a stake in it. That surely has to be something worth aspiring to?
The only thing which would seem to be certain about the future of housing deregulation is that things are uncertain. At this stage in proceedings, we have precious few of those Donald Rumsfeld ‘known knowns’, quite a lot of his ‘known unknowns’ and maybe even some ‘unknown unknowns’. In other words: there are things we know, things we know we don’t know, and even some things we don’t even know that we don’t know!
Following royal ascent for the Housing and Planning Bill, we can take little for granted. We know the direction of travel, but I’d be reluctant to place any bets on the fine details of what our post de-regulated world will look like.
What we do know is that the government wants Registered Providers (RP) off its books – in a reversal of the ONS decision last October to reclassify them as public bodies.
But when it comes to the detail, things are … ‘fluid’. For example, the approach to Large Scale Voluntary Transfer Organisations, with their significant local authority involvement (the ‘golden share’ in the organisation), is now being further developed with quite different views being voiced on what this might look like in practice.
And hasn’t just been the government and a rebellious House of Lords feeding uncertainty. Some RPs themselves are raising the prospect that a post-regulated world could see them take a great leap into the unknown and become de-registered. Some providers are taking a good look at themselves, what they do now and what they want to do in the future and thinking about the best form of organisation and the most appropriate form of regulation to enable them to deliver it. But, we still don’t really know what a march to de-registration might mean for the status of grant and other public funding provided to RPs who may no longer be RPs.
I certainly don’t envisage a Doomsday Scenario of mass deregistration. I think a majority of boards will be keen to remain providers of social housing for people in need. However, I can see some choosing to adopt a hybrid model, where parts of their business could be de-registered and offer greater freedoms and flexibility while others remain firmly registered. Such models will require careful governance arrangements.
Could the latest planned grouping of L&Q, Hyde and East Thames offer another foretaste of what’s to come? This proposal will build 100,000 homes in London and the South East in the next decade and have assets worth £30 billion. They have the potential to pose a real challenge to the Barratt Homes and Taylor Wimpeys of this world.
So, in this climate of uncertainty, RPs could be tempted to sit back and wait until the dust settles before deciding what to do. I think that would be a mistake.
RPs should now be thinking about what they want to do as an organisation – what their strategic objectives are and how they can best achieve those. What would be the best organisational form which could deliver that? Now that the Housing and Planning Bill is an Act – they need to be in a good position to align those things.
And then there are the implications for boards and governance. The HCA has issued its consultation on registration criteria and use of powers. Again, my advice is don’t use this period of uncertainty to put off until tomorrow things which could be done today. Yes, deregulation has the potential to relieve RPs of some onerous and restrictive bureaucracy, but in some respects it puts the spotlight on boards and will raise the expectations of them. While the proposals on the consultation suggest that deregulation might mean RPs may not have to ask the HCA for permission to do certain things – Boards will still have to let them know what they plan to do and be accountable for how they do it and the outcomes.
Similarly, while the HCA once acted as a useful check on an RP’s plans – that’s no longer the case. That role will now fall fully on boards and could mean we see ever higher expectations on them in terms of skills and performance. (See my earlier blog on tips for better boards).
Deregulation, whatever form it takes, could also put more emphasis on risk management. Again this has potential implications for boards. There may well be more demands for accountability and transparency – with the expectation that they may have to provide an audit trail for funders or the regulator.
De-regulation might also mean more emphasis on the board when things go wrong. Here, exit strategies and recovery planning – often neglected – could become more important, alongside the board’s role in developing them. And here too, Audit and Risk Committees might come into their own; taking on responsibility for compliance for key areas of the business once overseen by the regulator.
So that’s my take on what we know and what we don’t know – and how we can begin to plan ahead. As for those unknown unknowns – only time will tell.
Following June’s shock EU referendum result, there were a number of phrases doing the rounds which threatened to become the new cliches of our time. “We are in unchartered territory” certainly received its fair share of utterances. And among the business correspondents we were constantly reminded that “markets don’t like uncertainty”. I suspect markets are not alone in this dislike. Most of us don’t like uncertainty and try our best to minimise it where we can; fully aware of the fact that (aside from ‘death and taxes’) we can never fully eliminate it. I’m certain registered providers (RPs) share the general gloom which has been fostered by the increasingly foggy nature of our future prospects.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the collective decision taken on June 23, it has without doubt heaped a whole load of new uncertainty on the social housing sector. Please note the word ‘new’ – we already had plenty of other things to be unsure about before the country decided to leave the European Union.
DTP’s first Weather Forecast Group report, published in spring, revealed a number of uncertainties even then which were causing unease in the sector. The report, produced jointly with HouseMark, offers a current snapshot of the experiences of RPs – around the impact of government policy changes and the mitigating strategies they are adopting in response.
We spoke to senior housing professionals (Chief Executives, Finance and Housing Directors) from the housing association, local authority and ALMO sectors across the English regions. Their insights were illuminating; we aim to produce two more similar reports before the end of 2016.
One area we focused on was financial viability, and not surprisingly we found a varied picture. Some are clearly finding this more of a struggle than others. Overall, however, I would say that we found a sector which is generally maintaining financial stability in the face of rent cuts, welfare reform and right to buy. (I will come to the threat which Brexit could pose to that in a moment).
All said they had reconfigured their medium and long-term financial plans in the light of the 1% rent reduction. We also found a broad range of strategies were being put in place to achieve the necessary efficiencies – for example, restructuring staff teams and reviewing repair standards.
Many said they were concerned about future borrowing costs and the potential for a reduction in borrowing availability.
On policy matters, the lack of clarity around issues such as VRTB, Pay to Stay and welfare reform (including the Local Housing Allowance cap) were a cause of concern for a lot of those we spoke to. Since the report was published we’ve had no further indication from government about where it is going with these things (with the minor exception of the government announcing an indefinite extension of the LHA cap exemption for sheltered and supported housing) – not surprising perhaps, given that the EU referendum effectively put most other government business on hold. We will be watching with baited breath as to what – if anything – comes out of any new team in DCLG in the coming months.
On the financial side of things we still await detail on the future direction of fiscal policy, deficit reduction and austerity. We can only ‘watch this space’ until the new government’s course becomes clearer. There will be obvious implications of this for our own sector which will need to be picked over.
I’ve prepared a detailed briefing note on the specifics of what Brexit means for the social housing sector and given the fast-changing nature of events I will endeavour to regularly update this.
There’s more detail in the note but here are a few headlines:
The short term shock to stock markets appears to have stabilised which is of course good news for RP pension liabilities. The pound remains close to its 30-year low and the traditional ‘safe haven’ of gold has seen a rise in value.
There are potentially mixed signals on the implications of Brexit for borrowing. On the one hand, reviews of the credit ratings of the sector’s high street lenders resulted in no change. And there are some suggestions that the cost of borrowing could be set to fall (although at the time of writing the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee had voted to keep interest rates at 0.5%). But on the other hand, the same ratings reviews resulted in widespread changes in outlook from stable to negative. Also Moody’s, the key rating agency for housing associations, amended the outlook from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’ on its 42 rated associations, as part of its overall review of government and quasi-public bodies.
RPs will also be watching closely the impact which Brexit has on house prices. Any fall in prices will clearly impact on financial models which have been built on being able to secure income from new house sales. Many I have spoken to are already remodelling – based on being able to get less for the new homes they build while at the same time facing a reduction in demand and a slowing down of sales (although it should be noted this is currently mainly a problem in London and the south-east).
Inflation too will be one to watch. Most RP business plans are predicated on low inflation – however, the impact of Brexit (particularly the fall in the value of the pound) could exert upward pressure on prices. How wage inflation will be affected depends on a number of factors – including what future decisions will be taken on freedom of movement and what happens to (job creating) capital investment.
There are other ways in which Brexit might have an impact on the sector. How will new paradigms around immigration affect our ability to recruit? Not just care workers and construction staff but general housing employees? If we see damage to the social fabric of our country – reduced social cohesion, tension between host and immigrant communities, increases in hate crime – will it be RPs who are in the front line and bear the costs? These outcomes will be even harder to predict, I suspect.
Whatever the uncertainties, we will be there to work with RPs in the coming months to help the sector find a way through that aforementioned “unchartered territory”. We will be helping providers to review their strategic plans in the light of fast changing circumstances and to amend their growth plans. We don’t like uncertainty either, but we do hope that our knowledge, past experience and expertise can help us all to find a way through the unfamiliar landscape which lies ahead of us.
Crystal ball gazing is by its nature fraught with difficulties. Given “the future is unwritten”, who would make predictions in writing before it’s happened? On the other hand, as the fan who placed a bet last year on Leicester City winning the Premiership at odds of 5000-1 will know, it can occasionally pay off.
I can’t claim my views on the future of housing will certainly come to pass – and I’m definitely not heading to William Hill anytime soon – but I am sure of the basic direction housing associations seem to be heading in at present. Where exactly they will all end up is perhaps less easy to predict.
My main prediction is that we will no longer be able to talk of a single coherent housing sector in the future. In some ways, the sector has been diverging since the mid 1990s, when the first wave of stock transfers began. But that pulling apart is now accelerating and I think we’ve reached the point of no return.
What we are seeing is three distinct types of organisation emerging. And one kind ha been of particular interest to the team here at DTP in the last few years.
Firstly, there are the RPs which are becoming more and more commercial organisations. Given their generally larger nature there are less of these but they will undoubtedly be major players in the housing world of the future. These behemoths will, to all intents and purposes, be commercial organisations which happen to have a housing focus.
Then there are the organisations which will focus on development. These similarly larger organisations will have the borrowing muscle to raise significant amounts of cash, and their raison d’etre will be bricks and mortar. Given how much the Government wants more homes built, these organisations will no doubt prove very popular in Whitehall. They will certainly get more attention.
So what does that leave us with? Well, it leaves quite a large number of organisations for whom the above approaches just aren’t desirable or feasible. They simply aren’t big enough to attract funding to build significant amounts of new homes, and the commercial world just isn’t for them. I think most, but not all of these, will trundle along as they were. Many, but again not all, will be LSVTs.
DTP certainly has on its radar a number of organisations which are far from content with trundling along. And it’s been exciting in the last few years to work with them as they explore ways to take a more holistic view of what they do and how they serve their local communities. Business as usual isn’t in their thinking and we are seeing some real innovation which is genuinely inspiring.
These RPs are taking the opportunity, created by a period of flux, to redefine themselves as broader social businesses. That means having a wider focus on their local community – not just housing. But it’s how some of them are doing it which is interesting.
A number of housing associations we have worked with are exploring ways they can bring into their business local commercial and charitable organisations which are engaged in the business of improving people’s quality of life. That encompasses quite a broad spectrum of organisations – from a charity winning contracts to tackle worklessness to a small commercial drug and alcohol treatment businesses. This means fully acquiring these organisations so they become a formal subsidiary of the parent RP, and generally this has involved organisations which they have already worked with.
What these acquisitions do is allow both businesses to spread their costs – so there are straightforward bottom line benefits from the outset. It also puts them in a stronger position to bid for and win contracts as lead providers – such as the government’s work programme, for example.
There are certainly challenges for both organisations involved – and that’s where we have been coming in. Top of the list is of course the implications for governance – and we’re helping several organisations to grapple with this and to make the new structure work. It’s also about getting it right from the outset and sometimes that involves starting out from first principles with the organisation being brought into the fold. That means talking to them about how housing associations operate and how becoming a subsidiary would work. If both parties agree to proceed then it’s our job to manage the whole process.
Initially, the focus is on setting out the benefits both parties want to achieve and addressing any issues which are of concern. A statement of intent is then put together, governance and financial arrangements agreed and a business case set out. Any legal work is then determined and carried out before we work on the final due diligence checks. After that there’s little else which should stand in the way; acquisition goes ahead and there’s no going back.
I’ve seen some very successful partnerships come to fruition in this way in the last few years and expect to see more in the years ahead. Ultimately, the biggest factor driving how many will make the leap is risk – and the attitude to it. But calculated risks can often lead to the biggest rewards. I’m certain, however, that the odds of success won’t be of the Leicester City variety – and from the experiences of the organisations we’ve worked with, they may well be the kind of risks worth taking.
For those who have made it to the top of Mount Everest, there’s a popular saying: reaching the summit is only half of the journey. Only when you have made it safely back to base camp can you truly claim your expedition has been a success.
In some respects a similar principle applies to housing associations embarking on the sometimes difficult journey towards a merger. (There’s probably slightly less risk of frostbite, however, and I still haven’t quite worked out what the merger equivalent of the ‘Death Zone’ is!)
In a merger situation, the completion of financial and legal due diligence, and meeting the requirements of the regulator, are in some respects the equivalent of reaching the top of the mountain. But bringing together two different cultures into one new organisation is the next, but equally, important leg of the journey. You can only call your merger a success if you achieve this crucial objective.
Cultural due diligence should in many ways be given as much priority as the other kinds undertaken as part of the merger process. In some respects it’s less structured than the financial and legal varieties. It’s easier to apply hard and fast rules or put numbers on your assessment, but it remains vital.
Crucially, you cannot tolerate the retention of different cultures. The newly merged organisation must quickly establish itself as a cohesive business with a single culture. And it must be a new and distinct culture.
So where might there be a clash of cultures? One we often come across centres on organisational structure. You might come across a business which is quite traditional, with quite a hierarchical structure and tightly defined roles. The merger partner, on the other hand, might be a flatter, more fluid type of organisation. It’s not impossible to overcome these differences as long as you make a statement of intent at the highest level of what you want the new organisation to look like. A successful new ‘hybrid’ culture depends on clear direction from the outset about how things are going to be.
Difficulties often arise where there is sensitivity about the qualities which each party is bringing to the merger. People can be a little precious about what’s good about their business and be reluctant to see its shortcomings. I have come across instances where people have viewed the characteristics of other organisations as weaknesses, while similar traits in their own business are viewed as strengths.
The trick is to try to work together to create something that is fit for purpose for your new shared future – rather than to dwell on what worked or didn’t work for the separate organisations. It’s about starting with a clean sheet of paper and creating something which is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, the success of any merger stands or falls on the extent to which the new culture prevails. Leadership from the top has to define this and expect complete commitment to certain behaviours – from top to bottom. In my experience this offers the best way to create a positive new environment.
Foot dragging and obfuscation by some individuals or groups can be a similar barrier to progress. People can resist change and decide to simply carry on as they did before; sometimes refusing to fully engage with people from the partner business.
While it’s important to listen carefully to the different views within an organisation and to consider sensible suggestions, you cannot tolerate opposition to change simply because it is seen as too difficult. Staff need to know from the outset that the new organisation is going to be different – it will not be business as usual. However difficult it is to overcome this opposition, it’s vital for the whole business that you continue to drive through improvements which will help you operate more effectively.
That is ultimately the end goal of any merger proposals – the base camp if you like, where the air is less thin and you can breathe a little easier!
The desire to be more effective and to deliver better value for money remains the ultimate driver for mergers. The seismic events of last summer, where we saw the government call time on above inflation rent increases, haven’t changed that. From what we are seeing, there do seem to be more preliminary talks taking place about potential mergers as a result. In a lot of cases, potential partners are walking away at this early stage and saying it’s not for us – but if anything the events of last summer seem to be increasing general interest in the idea of a merger.
The changed landscape may make proving the business case harder – but it hasn’t altered the basic premise that housing associations can often be better together than they are apart. There are still efficiencies which can be achieved – even if the value for money wins aren’t as great as they once were. Getting to the summit, and back down again safely, may look a little more daunting in this new era – but it’s still worth the effort!
Registered housing association boards have had much to contend with in recent years. And there’s little sign of things getting quieter for them in the years ahead.
Planned changes to the regulatory system governing housing associations is likely to have a big impact on boards, and in ways which were perhaps are not predicted.
We work with lots of registered housing associations to improve the way their boards operate and perform – and to enhance the contribution they can make to organisational performance.
Get it right and your board really can make a difference – providing independent and objective oversight on your strategy. They can be the critical friend the executive team need when times get tough. Get it wrong and your board can act as drag on performance and effectiveness.
Hard and fast rules are hard to come by and there really is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. But there are some general principles I have picked up from my experience.
Here are my top ten tips for better boards…
For several decades the social housing sector has aspired to increasingly higher levels of tenant satisfaction. Registered providers (RPs) competed with one another to achieve tenant satisfaction ratings in excess of 95%, spurred on by Audit Commission housing inspections, regulation, and the fact that money seemed to be no object.
How different the landscape seems now. The Audit Commission has gone – and the new watchwords of regulation are financial viability and governance. And, of course, how many homes (for home ownership) you can build. Gone too are the income certainties of the last two decades. The era of above inflation rent increases is over and the sector is having to make a painful adjustment. Efficiency and productivity are firmly back on the agenda.
Before we look forward, it’s necessary to look back. Service improvement was probably needed by the 1990s. Some RPs (and certainly council housing departments) needed to up their game, and positive improvements were secured when many of them chose to go beyond their traditional remit of providing a rented home and collecting rent.
It’s amazing now when we look back at how much investment went into these things. RPs employed teams of people to drive up the quality of services – whether it was how quickly repairs were done or how satisfied tenants were with their neighbourhood.
But what we are seeing now is perhaps the beginnings of a culture shift. It’s by no means across the board, nor is it easy to spot which organisations in the sector will go down this route. Put simply: the era of universal ‘gold plated’ tenant service may be over. And (whisper it) that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
The first legitimate criticism of the gold plated approach was that it involved many housing associations getting involved in things they shouldn’t have been. RPs became the ‘go to’ organisations on housing estates to sort out all manner of problems – from claiming benefits to neighbourhood disputes. Got a problem with your neighbour? Your landlord will sort it out. Your child has kicked a football through your window? Call the housing association – they’ll send someone out to mend it. RPs were partly to blame. It became easier to just go round and fix these things – even if it the tenancy agreement clearly said that it was the tenant’s responsibility.
Here at DTP we are definitely picking up on the first stirrings of change from the RPs we work with.
It’s not fair to say that it was only George Osborne’s announcement on the rent reduction last summer which kick started this. The signs were there in the first years of the Coalition government. When the writing was on the wall for the Audit Commission, we should perhaps have seen it coming. The new regulatory framework, introduced under the HCA (bye, bye TSA – and any interest in tenant services) said pretty much nothing about consumer standard. Reading between the lines, the government was pretty clear – we’re not really interested. Are you financially viable? and Are you well governed? Were the questions they wanted RPs to answer – not How happy are your tenants? But the sector can be a little like an oil tanker at times – with those proverbial long timescales on turning things round.
In the last year or so we’ve seen at least three examples of RPs taking quite different approaches to this new landscape.
For one, a move away from carrying out all those repairs which they were never responsible for anyway has saved them £1m a year.
For another, we’ve even managed to put a cost on how much a single percentage point increase in tenant satisfaction with repairs is costing them. The answer, following a slightly complicated benchmarking assessment with peers in their region, is certainly not insignificant: £320,000 a year.
Void properties and repairs are both areas which are beginning to fall under the spotlight. An RP I talked to recently explained that where they had high demand for properties, they were no longer spending thousands on bringing void properties up to a ‘gold standard’ of repair. In most instances, tenants were simply happy enough to have got a new home, and so there has been little negative impact on satisfaction levels. And it’s clear there will be benefits for the RP’s bottom line.
Elsewhere, we are increasingly seeing a shift away from ‘tenant satisfaction’ being the number one priority. Instead, it’s about getting multi skilled operatives in who can fix more than one problem in one visit. Or switching to more sophisticated time management using mobile technology. Again, it’s a more efficient way of doing things which increases the number of jobs which can be finished in a day. And because repairs get sorted out first time, all in one go, if anything tenant satisfaction increases, not decreases.
So are we are seeing the beginnings of an acceptance that tenant satisfaction ratings in excess of 90% just aren’t worth the cost? Maybe. My impression is not all RPs will be happy to make this culture shift. You will still hear many say ‘what about the 5% who are not satisfied? We can’t ignore them’. But for those that are, the first challenge will be securing buy-in to that change at the board level. I wouldn’t like to predict which RPs will embrace this change, and which will fight it. But we know we’re already seeing increasing divergence in the sector – this is yet another example of how it will divide. Some may say it’s time to refocus on our core remit of putting a roof over people’s heads. Others may stick to the ‘gold plated’ approach based on a view of RPs as providers of ‘social good’.
However this pans out, it will certainly be a fascinating few years as RPs try to navigate this new terrain. For some it will require shifting out of their comfort zone, while for others it may involve a little soul searching. It’s a development which I see gathering momentum. Watch this space.
It has been widely publicised that smartphones are now outselling toothbrushes and that for a large proportion of the population, they have made the use of alarm clocks and cameras obsolete. Attitudes to service have also changed. When I present to audiences on the subject of digital business transformation, I ask attendees if they prefer to book a restaurant table online or over the phone. Over 90% have always had a preference for online.
This move to digital communication provides considerable opportunity for both saving cost and for the provision of improved services, available 24×7 from anywhere that has an internet connection. Combine this with the Government’s demand to move services online and the business case for shifting communication channels becomes both compelling and indeed inevitable. Associated savings will generally counter the seismic reductions in funding introduced last summer, a point no doubt taken into consideration when funding levels were reviewed. Both PWC and SOCITM have independently reported that moving customer communication online should lead to associated cost reductions of over 90%, and such savings are just the beginning.
Landlords that are channel shifting services are also benefiting from increased revenue from sales and letting activities; reduced void times and better customer interaction. There are also the environmental benefits from the reduced need for journeys and from going ‘paper-free’ (e.g. the electronic circulation of newsletters).
There will always be a need for there to be somebody a customer can talk to, as indeed there will be for a toothbrush, however, whichever way you look at it, doing business over the Internet is here to stay. Ensuring your customers have online access to your services has to be a priority.
To achieve digital business transformation, there are some important first steps. These are, in order of priority:
Some RP’s are yet to start their journey to digitally transform, but others are completing theirs. A number of golden rules have become evident:
It would be irresponsible of me to claim that by following some simple rules, the move to online services will be relatively simple, but having had to achieve such a move almost a decade ago in order to safeguard my old business (delivering managed IT support services), I can reassure you that the implementation process is formulaic and readily achievable.
So to conclude, if to justify the investment in time and money necessary to move services online you are still deciding what could be achieved, here is a summary of some of the many benefits:
At DTP, we talk to Registered Providers on a daily basis, and there’s one topic of conversation which seems to be cropping up a lot lately: asset management. Many organisations are approaching us for advice on making their assets work better for them. How can we ‘sweat our assets’ is a question we’re asked a lot of late.
How to get more value from your property portfolio is rising up many people’s ‘to do list’. It’s just one part of a growing focus on efficiency savings, as organisations wrestle with some of the challenges forced upon them by reduced rental income, welfare changes and the loss of grant for building new rented homes.
The emphasis is understandably on the homes which RPs already own and manage – the core housing assets where much of the value of their organisation lies.
But in the last six months, almost every RP we have worked with has also been undertaking a review of its office accommodation – and how staff work. I’m seeing encouraging signs that many RPs are ‘getting’ this and are starting to rethink how this part of their asset base can be re-designed to work harder and smarter.
Here’s a few things I’ve noticed in respect of ‘non-core housing’ asset management:
Many RPs are shutting area and regional offices where these are no longer economic. This is in part running alongside a ‘channel shift’ in the way associations engage with customers. The move is away from face-to-face and in some cases even telephone, in favour of online interaction. Cost benefit analysis of these options is throwing up some interesting data. For example, one RP told us they had estimated every face-to-face visit with a customer at a public office cost them £14.
Closing offices, where it’s feasible, saves money whether you rent or own the property. The former takes a chunk of outgoings (rent) off the expenses spreadsheet, while selling an office you own, of course, gives you a capital boost which can be invested in new homes. An alternative, if you own the asset, is to rent it out commercially and create a new revenue stream.
Mobile-enabling staff is the other trend we’ve noticed. This means getting staff out of the office and working remotely in communities, on estates and/or at home. This really can be a win-win for employees, organisations and customers if done properly. And ultimately, it can reduce your need for office space, helping you to further drive down costs.
In some respects, this requires a culture change from managers. It is far from being universally embraced at present. Many managers tell me, “if I can’t see staff, I don’t know they are working.” This is what has to change and requires a complete rethink of performance management to focus on outcomes and outputs. The days of 9-5, office-based working for many housing staff may be numbered. And there are many roles which could thrive from a different way of working.
The benefits of flexible working have to be sold to staff. Do you need to take a couple of hours out of the day for the school run? With flexible working you can do that. You can then put a couple of hours of work in during the evening chasing rent arrears – at a time when you are more likely to find tenants at home. It’s another win-win.
When staff do need to go into the office, they are more likely in the future to use a ‘hot desk’ station than a dedicated work space. Also, what’s there not to like about taking the commute out of the working day?
For staff, it’s the shift in emphasis to outcomes which will really drive change. There needs to be a change in thinking that moves beyond the traditional office-based working day. Lowering rent arrears, reducing anti-social behaviour, bearing down on re-let times – these have to be the things we focus on, not where our staff are at every hour of the day. Is the job getting done, and is it getting done well, have to be the critical questions asked by managers in the future.
Taken together, these new approaches offer enormous potential for RPs to overcome some of the many challenges they currently face. They show it is possible to have a better run organisation, whose assets work better for the business, its people and its customers – by rethinking our whole approach to assets. In a world of opportunities and threats – I’d surely see this is an example of the former.
5th February 2017
DTP have announced the appointment of Alison Jennings as a senior consultant.
Alison is a treasury specialist with more than 18 years’ experience in the social housing sector. She joins DTP from the Homes and Communities Agency where she was a senior financial analyst working on In-Depth Assessments. Prior to that she was head of treasury at the Sovini Group.
The appointment further strengthens the team at the independent consultancy which provides advice and support to housing providers, charities and commercial organisations across the UK.
Alison also has experience in the management of group loan portfolios, cash flow forecasting and liquidity management and business plan modelling using Brixx. She is a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Association of Corporate Treasurers.
DTP Managing Director Andy Roskell said: “Alison’s brings significant experience and expertise to the DTP offering. We believe our strength lies in the fact we employ staff who understand the sector thoroughly and can therefore offer clients bespoke and innovative solutions.”
Alison said: “DTP has an excellent reputation in the sector. Their advice is trusted and respected by clients and this was a key factor in me wanting to join the team.”
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