Barnet Homes: Unique Amongst ALMOs
(The Following is a Promoted Article)
Barnet Homes is, in the view of Assistant Director of Operations Elliott Sweetman, quite unusual if not unique amongst ALMOs. That’s partly because it’s a subsidiary of The Barnet Group, a local authority trading company set up to run various organisations and win new business for Barnet Council.
“In 2012 we took Your Choice (Barnet) across from the Council, a specialist care and support function providing services to adults with a range of physical and learning disabilities,” recalls Elliott. “The council has also transferred other housing interests to us, such as its homelessness services. The intention was to improve the efficiency of services and make them financially viable where appropriate. The council wants us to be enterprising and transform under-performing operations into highly performing services.”
Synergies and Efficiencies
Barnet Homes was established in April 2004 and, like most ALMOs, its primary purpose was to deliver the Decent Homes Programme. Once completed in 2011, the new group structure came into being and, as Elliott explains, efficiencies have resulted: “There are several synergies between the homelessness service and other elements of landlord services that Barnet Homes delivers.
“For instance, the voids and lettings function transferred into the homelessness department because it made sense for nominations, appeals and other departments to sit within the Housing Options service. The repairs and major refurbishment functions provide services to various homeless services clients and various overheads are spread across The Barnet Group.”
The organisation’s stock comprises around 15,000 properties, 11,000 tenancies and 4,000 leaseholds, which range from Victorian buildings to some constructed in the last development programmes of the early 1990s. Additionally, there are some 2,000 temporary accommodation units that Barnet Homes manages the tenancies for but doesn’t own.
The Decent Homes programme saw a £185 million investment, delivering over 5,000 new kitchens, new windows for 4,000 units, 2,300 bathrooms, over 6,000 electrical upgrades and rewires, 2,300 heating systems and boilers, and 260 new roofs, many on blocks of flats with various other types of remodelling work. Since it completed, the focus has been, says Elliott, on maintaining homes to the same standard: “Using information from our stock database and on-site verification surveys, we continue to run a programme of kitchen, bathroom and window replacement when components reach the end of their useful life.
“In addition, we’re ensuring M&E services remain fit for purpose and comply with current standards. We’re currently investing in replacing boilers, heating systems and carrying out rewires for homes that didn’t receive them during Decent Homes. In many respects, it’s a continuation of that investment.”
The main emphasis of Decent Homes was on the internal condition of dwellings and the safety of communal areas. Investment now is going into other areas that weren’t covered, such as estate and environmental works, remodelling car parks and pathways. There’s been much work on water services, damp and condensation, lift refurbishment and a large electrical rising main programme. External repairs and redecoration programmes continue, the latter incorporating dementia-friendly design principles as a result of consultation with residents.
Resident involvement and consultation are major features of the way Barnet Homes operates. “We have a strong local presence and work hard to maintain good community relationships,” states Elliott. “We have really strong relationships with existing residents, have high satisfaction levels and they trust us in providing this function. We understand the issues faced by those living within the estates, consulting them and our own officers about problems such as anti-social behaviour to ensure we design improvements or design out issues.”
The emphasis on involving residents helped Barnet Homes achieve a score of 81% on a recent tenant satisfaction survey, putting it in the top quartile within the industry. It also enabled it to be recognised as a Top Twenty Landlord out of more than 1,700 UK social landlords.
Resident involvement was to the fore when Barnet Homes used the end of Decent Homes as an opportunity to look at how it delivered asset management. A major procurement exercise resulted in most contracts being awarded on ten-year terms and, as Elliott emphasises, residents played a major role in contractor selection: “To make sure they had a meaningful involvement in that process, we involved them in scoping at the very outset and residents had a say in what they liked about contractors and what they wanted to improve. Much of what we put in the tender for contractor requirements in less technical areas was driven by what our customers told us.
“We kept their involvement through that procurement process so they were on groups evaluating tenders, they went on site visits for short-listed contractors and sat in on interviews. They were involved in mobilisation processes for our biggest contracts and those more relevant to residents. We have a Performance Advisory Group (PAG) made up of customers, both tenants and leaseholders, whose role is to hold us to account for what we do and the services we provide.
“Members from PAG attend monthly contract management meetings and higher level contracts core group meetings. They feed back to the wider PAG group and the board on their involvement and how managing the contract and contract performance goes. A big part of what we do is ensuring the customer is represented and that ensures we can check that what we’re providing is what they actually want.”
The checking extends to an annual benchmarking exercise that puts the service in the top quartile of London boroughs for resident satisfaction and cost. There’s also KPI incentivisation linking contractor payments to performance, although Elliott believes the arrangement’s success is due to other factors: “A key to it is the relationship between teams and how they work together to ensure the service runs in the best way. The contractors are based in our office so, from a practical perspective, we work as a single team.”
A factor in awarding contracts was a wish to retain spend within the borough. That includes the use of directly employed staff living there, material sourcing and setting targets for contractors to have a specific number of apprentices. Barnet Homes itself has had over forty apprentices come through since starting an internal apprenticeship programme in 2012, with an emphasis on developing internal staff. The success has included an apprentice being short-listed for Housing Heroes Awards for his progression through the repairs team and most being retained in important roles within the organisation, such as gas servicing compliance.
A proportion of the company’s properties are on four of its largest estates, which are currently at different stages of regeneration. The largest, Grahame Park, has 2,000 units and is part of the council’s wider Colindale regeneration objectives that have some way to go. Others are further advanced, with Stonegrove and Spur Road almost complete and West Hendon a significant way through.
For all regeneration projects, Barnet Homes’ role is to manage the existing stock until demolition which includes the decanting of residents in preparation for demolition and rebuild. “That’s where our specialist Regeneration and Housing Options teams come into their own,” states Elliott. “It’s their role to assess each household and apply the Barnet Council allocations policy. For many, we have to source accommodation elsewhere. That’s where having the homelessness function in-house works very well because we have an interest in existing stock, in making sure people are decanted efficiently, maximising the ability to re-house tenants who qualify and ensuring as little as possible rent loss is incurred.”
Tenants with a secure tenancy are guaranteed a property in the new build element of regeneration while others are assessed in line with the council’s allocation policy. Their chances are enhanced by evidence of contributing to the community or being in employment, training or education in the borough, which will achieve the highest possible banding available to them.
Elliott says: “The homelessness service does all that activity and the entire homelessness function for the borough. Our regeneration team provides a very important link between all parties. It’s the conduit between the developers, the council, our Housing Options and general Landlord services. They play an integral role in scheme success.”
Barnet Homes had an initial ten-year agreement but that expired in March 2013 and it’s now in the second year of annual extensions. The situation is being made more permanent through a new ten-year agreement that followed a challenge process to test the organisation’s performance, value for money, ability to deliver and fitness for the council’s objectives.
The new agreement, however, brings further responsibilities that include setting up a registered provider subsidiary that will develop a further 320 affordable homes before 2020. These will be largely on infill sites or may involve adding further levels to existing buildings. The first six houses are completed and a further forty are in progress across six sites due for completion in the spring, most being family homes to satisfy specific housing needs in the borough.
Infill development is often complex, although disruption to local communities will be reduced by in some cases using off-site, modular construction that also delivers cost and quality benefits. Other developments include a planned dementia-friendly care scheme that will meet a growing need for extra care housing and reduce social care services’ costs by allowing independent living.
Continuing pressure on council budgets means there’s an efficiency plan as part of the new agreement. That is intended, as Elliott outlines, to deliver year-on-year savings on top of those already achieved: “Since the creation of the ALMO in 2004, we’ve taken out over 30% of cost. We’re a lean organisation, are running efficiently and compare well on cost. Our challenges moving forward are to meet the efficiency targets and reducing budgets whilst maintaining service levels.
“The purpose of the management agreement is that we can be a vehicle for new business and growth as well as continuing to deliver high quality services to existing residents. We’re currently finalising our five-year business plan and we’ve been quite ambitious in taking on new services on since 2012, which is something we intend to continue.
“There’ll be other budgetary pressures that we, along with the wider Housing Sector, will need to meet and we’re looking to be as enterprising as possible. As a local authority trading company, we are far more flexible and adaptable with less bureaucracy so we can be more reactive when new business comes our way. That’s a real benefit for both us and the council, and we are seen as an organisation that gets things done.”