Elmbridge Housing Trust and Richmond upon Thames Churches Housing Trust, operating as Paragon Community Housing Group, have benefited significantly from implementing a shared services approach to IT, including an estimated joint saving of £330,000 per year. Of course, as with any partnership, there are challenges, for example, cultural differences and the decision about which ICT system to implement. However, the tangible benefits of cost and efficiency savings clearly outweigh any challenges initially faced by the organisations.
Paragon Community Housing Group was formed in April 2007 as a result of a partnership between Elmbridge Housing Trust and Richmond upon Thames Churches Housing Trust. The partnership is a major provider of affordable housing in Surrey, Sussex and south-west London, with 8,000 properties at present.
The timescale for the creation of the new group was extremely tight. The boards of both organisations decided to go ahead with the partnership in January 2006, with Paragon to be fully operational by April 2007. It is unusual for a new organisation to achieve live operation of combined housing and finance systems within twelve months of formation, so from the beginning we knew that Paragon had set a tough challenge. We knew the group needed to be well prepared in order to achieve the savings that had been set and to start the IT development plan for the group as quickly as possible.
The choice of which housing system was one of the key decisions. For example, Elmbridge used Capita’s housing system while Richmond used another supplier’s system. John Wallace, who played a key role in developing the partnership and was the business facilities director at Paragon, managed the IT trials. He had worked with Capita at Elmbridge for over ten years and had considerable experience in implementing Capita’s software under tight timelines. After close evaluation, his team decided to trial more of Capita’s housing software portfolio and by January 2006 a decision was made to use Capita’s software for the group, based on its functionality and the implementation timescale.
As with any project on this scale, there have been a number of challenges along the way. During the period of change, we needed to address the different work cultures of the two organisations. This was overcome by keeping the newly-combined team to a minimum through the use of Capita’s reporting software.
The reporting software was also used extensively during data conversion to compare data from the old system to the new. The challenge of transferring IT data was resolved through a major team effort and the hard work of staff from both housing groups as well as programming, consultancy and helpdesk support from Capita.
The project was completed with the implementation of the finance system, which took just four months. The transition to the new group structure was a victory for positive attitudes, team work and a determination to succeed. Our current projections for annual savings of £1.7 million should be achieved within three years and we are already on target to achieve the first year’s savings.
Combining both IT and financial systems has allowed us to invest in new IT products in areas such as anti-social behaviour and integrated appointments. The anti-social behaviour software reports incidents and tracks cases immediately, while the integrated appointments system enables our staff to make appointments at the first point of contact, removing the need to go back and forth confirming diaries as before. Our customers now benefit from an improved service, allowing them to obtain housing in a more efficient and effective way.
Ian Watts is managing director of Richmond upon Thames Churches Housing Trust.