Housing Technology interviewed Reverend Richard Coles, the self-styled ‘popstar turned curate’, patron of Wellingborough Homes and one of the keynote speakers at March’s Housing Technology 2019 conference, about parish life, social housing and IT.
As a parish priest and BBC broadcaster how do you juggle life?
With varying degrees of success! I’m a ‘half-time’ vicar (at St Mary’s The Virgin, Finedon in Northamptonshire) because my parish can only afford a half stipend, but there’s no such thing as a ‘half-time’ expectation or a ‘half-time’ life, and broadcasting takes up a lot of time too.
I aim to hold them together by having in mind a standard to which I aspire. I try to host sensible, civilised conversations that assist and enable people to live lives that produce public benefit. It’s about how you sustain the life of a community imaginatively and practically.
Is housing a problem in your parish?
Yes, there’s far more demand for social housing than we have the housing to meet. One issue is that we are a very coherent community that people wish to stay in and we don’t always have housing stock available in the right place at the right time for particular tenants. Sometimes they are offered a move out of the community and it may only be a few miles away, but nevertheless, it is out of the community they want to be part of; managing that can be quite difficult.
How important is social housing to your local community?
It is fundamental; the provision of decent housing is the foundation on which thriving communities are built. And there are two other roles which are now important.
One is that housing providers are forums in which all kinds of creative thinking about social enterprise can happen. Resources can be mobilised from across a wider spectrum than in the old days of local authorities and that creates all sorts of opportunities.
The other is that we are, I think, the biggest stakeholder in our communities so we know what’s going on because we have a direct link to the people who form those communities. So we’re aware of problems that emerge, particularly around antisocial behaviour, parking and all the everyday things that erode people’s wellbeing, and we’re able to draw on other agencies.
At our advice centre in Wellingborough, people can come and get support not just for housing, but for any social problems they might have. We provide support for those resources so people can get what they need to sustain their lives in sometimes very difficult circumstances.
A lot of our tenants are not well paid or are on benefits, and some of them have particular needs which make day-to-day living harder. We’re able to provide for those people in ways that are, I hope, thoughtful and imaginative.
How do you think technology is impacting life in a social housing context?
There are two answers to that. Firstly, Wellingborough Homes recently had an audit so we can establish our NPVs (net present values) – it’s amazing how many housing providers don’t know what they have because the way they acquire properties can be complicated. We found out what we’ve got and what we’re worth so we could raise finance to fund our building plans and other projects.
But it’s not just about your balance-sheet values. The enormous social values that come out of social housing are much harder to measure. Sometimes you would like to show the board not just the financial value of your material assets, but also the social benefits involved.
One of the ways technology can really help is by developing metrics that can capture and reflect the social value of what we do and to make a more powerful case; numbers can tell a story, but not the whole story.
Secondly, it’s being able to respond better to the needs of our tenants. Through technology, we have much better individual knowledge of our tenants and from that you can build a picture about whether things are going well or not, if we’re meeting their needs and expectations, and indeed whether their needs and expectations are realistic or unrealistic. It’s a much more informed and reciprocal conversation. Tenants can now engage with us far more easily if they want, and that all requires management.
Like many organisations, particularly those with a public-sector background, we used to think of IT as being like paperclips – it was like stationery, it was something to do with office supplies. What we’ve come to understand is that IT drives everything we do. To be what we want to be and to do the best we can for our stakeholders, we need to make sure we have the IT that works for us.
What’s changed since you’ve been patron of Wellingborough Homes?
I’ve really noticed the impact of IT in making us a more confident organisation. The big story over the past 30-40 years has been the flow of wealth and dynamism away from the public sector to the private sector, so trying to address those questions and using the energies of the private sector to do so has been very interesting. Getting that into shape, giving us a clear knowledge of what we are doing and a confident ability to plan for the future, has made Wellingborough Homes much more dynamic – we’ve really been able to invest in our IT and it has transformed the way we do things, and that creates an organisation that has a very positive feeling about it.
What message would you give today?
I would be really excited about the opportunities of working to mobilise all the expertise, experience, creativity and imagination in the IT end of what we do to inform everything else we do.
Create an atmosphere of possibility and a culture in which transformation is not just an empty word but is actually linked to positive, concrete steps that take your organisation to where you want it to be – IT is the most essential tool in all that, and if you don’t get that right, you’re never going to get the whole thing right.
Reverend Richard Coles is the vicar of St Mary’s The Virgin, Finedon in Northamptonshire, and a patron of Wellingborough Homes.