Housing Technology interviewed Moat’s chief executive, Elizabeth Austerberry, about IT, building developments, mergers, and the housing provider’s plans for the future.
What were your previous experiences of housing associations before Moat?
My background is in finance and consultancy so I have a lot of experience of working with all types of property companies and also with the government. I had worked with housing associations before Moat, but mostly to provide affordable housing reports to the government or help structure stock transfers. So I knew about the dynamics and the financial structure, but I didn’t know as much about the inner workings of housing associations.
How do housing associations compare with the outside world?
All housing associations are different, but generally they are made up of really motivated people who want to do the right thing, rather than having a primary profit purpose. However, the art is to balance that sense of social purpose with clean, clear, fast delivery and a really professional outlook, which can be difficult.
What are the most pressing drivers for housing associations, internally and externally?
Different housing associations will give you different answers but for us everything we do is designed to help increase the number of homes we provide. We feel that in a housing crisis, the most important thing is to keep putting homes on the ground for those in need.
How has Moat’s IT department changed since you started?
It’s changing all the time. Like most housing associations, we have some ambitious plans for digitising our services, which means an expansion of IT resource, be it internal or external. We’ve got a little catching up to do, digitally speaking. However, we are working to optimise the resources we currently have so that we can enhance our customer experience. Everybody now recognises the importance of efficiency, and technology is a big part of delivering that efficiency.
How is Moat as a housing association now?
We have 20,000 homes across London, Kent, Essex and Sussex and about a third of those are shared ownership homes – a very high proportion compared with the rest of the sector. We have a large development programme, and we’re about the 30th largest housing association. Last year, we had around the 15th biggest development programme, the 9th biggest affordable homes programme and the 6th biggest shared ownership programme, so you can see that for the size of the company we create a lot of homes and that’s what we want to continue doing. Development is very much in our DNA.
We have managed to keep our numbers up despite difficulties such as the government’s rent cut, which has had an impact on our income. We’d like to make our large development pipeline even larger and we’re constantly working on ways of doing that.
What are your thoughts on the politics of the government’s new white paper?
There wasn’t too much in the white paper aimed at housing associations. However, the liberalisation of planning could be a very good thing. The National Social Attitudes Survey recently reported that over 70 per cent of respondents would like to see more affordable homes being built in their areas, so it’s a good time to look at freeing up the planning system.
What about the cost of land and the planning process with local authorities?
The cost of land is much more of a problem and we have to be more pragmatic about planning. However, decisions remain with local councils and local lobbies can stop things being built. While sometimes that’s a good thing, quite often it’s not. New homes need to go somewhere and everyone needs to play a part in making that happen.
Now that the government has digitised a lot of back-office functionality, will that be useful for Moat from a technology perspective?
It can be helpful, especially if you’re a local housing association that has a very dense footprint. We have a large number of developments but relatively few of them are big. For a housing association with developments of 400 homes or more, I think it works better. I like the idea, though, of an online community where residents can give each other help or advice.
How do you envisage Moat’s future with regards to mergers and takeovers?
I think everybody would give you a similar answer. If something made good sense and had a better outcome for customers, and potentially enabled the organisations together to help more people, then why wouldn’t we look at it?
Technology plays a major role in these situations. You look like you have some very innovative things happening that could help.
The ability to migrate data would be essential; and we’d have to invest time and energy in making sure that the systems did speak to each other. But one of the good things about housing associations, unlike the private sector, is that people are pretty good at sharing. When they find a good idea, they want to show it to each other and talk about it. That’s probably a lot easier to do in our sector than in others.
How involved should a CEO of a housing association be in the technological decision-making process?
I think at very best I could be considered an amateur or possibly an enthusiast when it comes to IT. It’s about actually listening to the business arguments, the business case and taking the right advice from internal people, external people and others in the sector. While my technical advice might not be of any use, I would be able to tell you what I wanted the output to be rather than exactly how it would work.
We have a very good IT director, and I trust him to make the right recommendations, which we would then discuss. I do think that there’s also a balance to be struck between pragmatism and always looking for the perfect option. If a product meets 80 per cent of your needs, you have to ask whether 80 per cent is good enough. I think that’s where the CEO maybe has more of a role to play.
How is the relationship between you and the IT director?
It’s great. We have a very flat structure here, everybody talks to everybody, people are in and out of each other’s offices all the time, and I would expect to know what he’s thinking about, what he’s worrying about, and what challenges he has. I would expect him to be open about asking for the resources he needs and pragmatic about how to deal with it. Our IT team actually sits within finance and corporate services; but there’s very little silo working at Moat and of course IT is integrated in everything we do. So I frequently catch up with our IT director, as much out of curiosity as operational decisions.
Do you see IT as a cost or an investment?
I see it as an enabler. I think cost versus investment is a slightly odd way of doing it, so for me technology enables us to work effectively and we decide what level of enablement we need at different times. We might be making a substantial investment now but the questions for me are what would it enable, how will that make us more effective and will it be cheaper? Will it mean we need less people or will it mean that we can focus people on what we actually need them to do? So I would always say it’s an enabler.
Does the internet of things excite you in terms of the ability to manage your housing stock?
It does excite me, and it’s something that we can’t lose sight of, but actually it’s about building things up incrementally as well. We have quite a lot to do in terms of improving our own ways of working and improving our customer experience before we devote a lot of time and resource to the next generation. So it’s always a balancing act because you don’t want to get to the end of what you’re doing now and suddenly stop; it’s an evolution, not a revolution.
With the advent of people living longer, what about care homes?
We only have a limited number of supported and retirement schemes and in most cases we are the landlord, and we contract out the care if more care is needed. But we know we’re going to be housing people who are getting increasingly older because the population is getting increasingly older and we need to be prepared for that.
How can you see Moat moving forward over the next 5/10 years?
Providing more homes is at the heart of everything we do, so our strategy will be to maximise the delivery of new homes. We also want to be much clearer about what our relationship with our customers is, what they expect of us and what we expect of them; so our offer will be much clearer to each person we provide a home to.
We want to make ourselves easier to do business with, for both customers and partners, and technology will play an important role in that. But we’d love to be more innovative – not just in a technological sense. We’d like to put in place our own rented product over time; but that won’t be to the detriment of other tenures. We want to continue housing people in different types of housing need, so our focus on affordable home ownership will remain vital to who we are and what we do.
When you look back, what do think about your time at Moat?
It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had by a mile, and I’ve had a few. It’s good to be able to feel that together we’ve all made a difference to people’s lives and it’s a great bunch of people to work with. If you ask any of our people to do something, their first reaction is to ask how we can make it happen, not how can we not make it happen. I’ve worked in plenty of places that were the other way around.
Elizabeth Austerberry is chief executive of Moat.