If you don’t change what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got
NHMF Service Provider Forum membership represents the housing sector’s very best in innovation, best practice and collaboration. Embodying a broad cross section of organisations with differing interests and specialisms, from the large to the small providers, we are speaking to members and other stakeholders to find out more.
This month, we speak to Russell Thompson, Chair of Direct Works, the national network of maintenance specialists representing a membership group of 102 housing providers’ DLOs. Committed to reshaping the future of housing maintenance, Direct Works’ members represent over 150 social housing organisations across the UK and maintain more than 2 million homes.
With the obvious synergies with the NHMF Service Provider Forum, including collaboration, driving Best Practice and shaping the housing maintenance sector, during the discussion with Russell, we looked at some of challenges in the sector affecting us all at the moment, whether using in-house or outsourced labour and skills.
Direct Works was established as Direct Works Forum in 1999, to provide a professional platform for those delivering in-house repairs and maintenance services in housing associations. Membership grew quickly to include local authorities and ALMOs and many founding member organisations are still members today. In 2020, Direct Works Forum launched a new constitution and refreshed our brand, becoming Direct Works. As this name suggests, we are all about people, service delivery teams, training, trying to become attractive to new talent and constantly reviewing and improving how RMI services can best be delivered.
Planning for the longer term
When it comes to challenges, everyone in housing is more than aware of the mountains we’re facing, grappling with huge pieces of work that potentially affect health, the environment, employment and quality of life, in the form of retrofit and decarbonisation, management of damp and mould, implementation of the Building Safety Bill, inflationary pressures, and an already squeezed labour / materials supply chain. Housing provision is complicated in its very nature and scale, and sometimes it feels to me that we need to take a breath, step back and consider before we rush in wholesale with what can sometimes later be seen as knee jerk or reactive decisions.
I’ve been in the sector for over 40 years and have seen the same problems again and again, namely the lack of ability to forward plan financially due to uncertainty. Whilst the planned investment model is guiding RSLs with a business plan for a period of 30 years, the key focus is on the medium-term (first five years) as there is more certainty on costs, demands, resources and pressures. This doesn’t support a long-term strategy, and this framing of the narrative can restrict horizon scanning. Take as an example too, stability at the top. In February this year, Rachel Maclean become the sixth housing minister in just 12 months, and the 15th in the current Conservative administration.
We need to collaborate for the longer term and be able to develop confidence to invest, rather than embark on a procurement race to the bottom which seems to go hand in hand with construction the world over, a key part of housing delivery. And how are the 30-year plans going to be funded? What funds have been ringfenced? Take retrofit. Green borrowing is happening, but we need more time and clarity on funding to really change the model.
And just add to this interesting headache or perfect storm, we have the skills shortage. We all know we’re facing a general skills crisis in many sectors, but closer to home in construction and housing, it’s pretty dire. I think that one of the key contributors is that as a sector, for years now, we haven’t been appealing enough to attract new talent. The existing workforce is gradually retiring with nobody to take its place. Entire generations of skills have been lost. But there is opportunity, and we need to collectively, make a career in housing desirable and widen the talent pool, so we all enjoy the benefits of a diverse workplace.
Apprenticeships and trainee operative positions would seem to be a good option. But we’re still not getting this right. A recent report cited a staggering 47% drop out rate with 70% of those who dropped out saying it was down to the quality of the courses themselves.
Ultimately there is no silver bullet. We all need head space, to take our time in a considered and strategic way rather than being rabbits in the headlights moving from one huge issue to the next. We need to believe that collaboratively we will get through it - however ‘it’ presents itself - and let everything settle down to manage demand while still horizon scanning what’s achievable and realistic.
The supply chain needs to draw breath, so we don’t keep on creating perfect storms. We need to plan out our journey as far as possible and most importantly, ensure it is funded. Whether in house or out of house labour, both come with pros and cons including financial predictability, added value, more control, seamless approaches. This isn’t the main issue.
We have to collaborate consistently, underpinned by Best Practice. We don’t need to keep re-inventing the wheel. Another example of addressing this through innovation is a recent pilot we carried out with competency and compliance software platform Sysmax, which included Citizen Housing, Berneslai Homes, Bernicia Homes, Karbon Homes and Mears Group and Direct Works. This pilot shows what we can learn from those brands outside of our sector who are delivering services efficiently, competently and compliantly and with the bonus of competency traction. Commonality has to have meaning and we can leverage from this to achieve safe and fit for purpose homes. There is a Golden Thread but there is no Golden Bullet – results will only come from working together.
That’s why the Direct Works team is excited to work with the NHMF Service Provider Forum to keep learning and ultimately be among the forward-thinkers who are committed to making and keeping our sector vibrant, innovative, attractive and sustainable.
About the Author
Russell Thompson FCIOB
Russell is Chair of Direct Works, a membership group of 130 housing providers DLOs. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building and is Vice Chair of the York Hub Committee. He also has a non-executive role with Prosper a Northeast Procurement consultancy.
Russell is passionate about making a difference and helping others to be successful and is committed to changing the way we do things for the benefit of future generations.