Our Annual Report

Solent Housing is now one year old. We were launched at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s South West Conference where Andy showed, using a set of scales, how central government will always want to have the final say. The frequency with which Ministers criticise local authorities suggests we were right.

It’s been a good year for us and we’d again like to thank the housing associations and local authorities that have given us the opportunity to show that we can deliver the goods, on time and for considerably less than our competitors.

There have been three main threads to our work; value for money, scrutiny and governance. The creation and monitoring of Radian’s value for money strategy has helped the group to deliver £2.6m of efficiencies over the course of the first year set against a two year target of £2.1m. We looked at Support Services, Estate Management and Planned Maintenance in the first year. We have helped Synergy to improve value for money in Resident Involvement and in its service charge regime. Our ‘partnership’ mantra has never been so important because these improvements could not have happened without the commitment of our housing association partners. Finally, we were invited by the Guardian to be part of their expert VFM panel and our advice was reported both on its website and in the newspaper itself.

Scrutiny also relies heavily upon the culture of an organisation. So it is good news that organisations in the Solent area are taking scrutiny seriously. We have been working with residents as far apart as Hastings and Weymouth to develop their skills and ensure that they have the confidence to ask the difficult questions. And the customer feedback has been excellent. The quality of resident involvement has always been varied in the sector so we take great satisfaction from seeing tenants groups mature and landlords shifting from informing to empowering their customers. 

Allied to scrutiny is governance and we have worked with three associations on their governance arrangements. Governance has risen up the agenda as the government has made it clear that it is Boards that have the ultimate power and responsibility in a regulation-lite world. We have also helped West Sussex County Council to review its homelessness strategy and the way in which performance is monitored. Our 'Get SMART' training has been particularly well received and we have held two business planning days to help housing associations to focus on what matters most in a constantly changing world. Arguably the most surreal experience of the year was to witness the entire management team of an unnamed housing association dressed in tiger outfits and safari suits as part of our Marwell Management Experience...

More generally the Solent Housing website and twitter account has been a great success, with 1,000 hits a month and the opportunity to comment quickly and fearlessly where the government’s policies are ill thought through and contradictory. We are also prepared to give praise where it is due – as in the national planning policy’s presumption in favour of development.

Looking ahead, 2012/13 could be a landmark year for housing. Overall housebuilding depends upon the economy and the changes to the planning system It’s worth remembering that the percentage of developed land on our ‘crowded island’ is 10% - including some rather large back gardens in the Solent area. So two million extra homes would bring the percentage up to just 11%. But the Coalition has inherited a planning system that favours the 'haves' above the 'have nots' as a result of which all new development demands a hurculean effort and altruistic and articulate people with the stamina to see it through. If the Big Society and Localism does not respond to the changes in national planning policy then further, far more radical changes may be needed.  

We can expect to see - eventually - the affordable housing programme start to deliver the 170,000 homes that the Minister has been trumpeting for months. But we remain unconvinced that this is a sustainable policy given the cuts in the capital programme. It may be some years off, but we fear a housing market made up entirely of high rents and costly mortgages. Landlords have to achieve the right balance between investing in support for tenants and building more homes. Increased support is needed to help tenants manage universal credit and increasing rents. The continued reliance by the government upon housing association reserves and high rents to fund new building means that housing associations have to seriously review whether they can continue to develop if it is at the expense of services to existing tenants. These decisions need to be made in an informed way and we are hoping to be able to support housing associations in this enterprise.

Value for money is the key to this: delivering existing services more efficiently will release people and money to provide the more intensive housing management that is needed. And we are convinced that there remains plenty of scope for efficiencies. Value for money is also about generating new forms of income and we can see how associations can develop social enterprises to deliver new and existing services to vulnerable tenants. We hope to be helping housing associations to better understand the quality of the services that they provide, to help tenants to develop their skills and to help draw up the new strategies that are needed to cope with the many challenges ahead. Obtaining comparative information is now a whole lot more difficult and costly than it used to be, which hardly creates informed customers. We hope, too, that senior managers will continue to want to know from an objective standpoint whether their services are improving. We have undertaken service reviews in a matter of days at considerably less cost than other organisations because we have the experience and skills to do so.

Housing organisations have a great deal to do and fewer people around to do it, so we hope to continue into 2012 offering low cost and high quality help whether it is via individual projects or interim appointments. Thanks again for all of your support.

Andy Crowe

Director of Solent Housing

May 10th 2012