The housing sector has a track record of responding to change; from the rent cuts during the Cameron/Osborne austerity era to the more recent pandemic, housing providers have demonstrated they can pivot. While that agility is an asset and undoubtably delivers short-term gains, bubbling under the surface are more systemic challenges.
This is illustrated by the sentiment shift that happened during the pandemic. When neighbourhood teams and repairs operatives were grounded, housing providers channelled their resources to really get underneath residents’ needs, preferences and vulnerabilities. This spike in resident communications enhanced the quality of customer data and resulted in a deeper understanding of residents’ needs. In turn, this strengthened the relationship between residents and their housing providers and led to a mid-pandemic (but not sustained, sadly) improvement in customer sentiment.
A perfect storm
What’s happened since then? The answer is far from straight forward – after all, housing providers already had a full agenda, with pandemic recovery, repair backlogs, significant regulatory and policy changes, and competing demands for asset investment to improve quality, remediate building safety problems and tackle decarbonisation. All of that was before the economic crisis brought cost of living challenges, labour and supply chain inflation and scarcity, leading to the reality of constrained financial capacity and resilience in the face of increased operating costs.
In such a difficult operating environment, the digital and data immaturity of the housing sector has started to bite. It’s worth reflecting on two high-profile examples.
In the 2018, the Hackitt report called for a ‘golden thread of building information’. The report stated, “In other sectors we take it as read that if there is a fault or a problem, every single element of what has gone into that product can be traced and identified – from cars to food. Why isn’t that the case for the homes that we live in? Why is it that the ‘design’ of a building often bears only a passing similarity to what is actually built, and what is built doesn’t get recorded? How can those who become the managers responsible for managing facilities do that if they don’t know what they are working with?”
Then in November 2022, the Regulator for Social Housing (RSH) wrote to housing providers asking for information and evidence regarding the identification and management of damp and mould. In February 2023, RSH published its initial findings on damp and mould in English social housing. While most housing providers were reported to understand the extent of damp and mould in their homes and were taking action to tackle it, it was noted that approaches could be strengthened.
There was also an observation that some poorer responses relied heavily on reactive approaches rather than pro-actively looking for evidence of damp and mould and that weaker data and evidence about the condition of homes was apparent. Having a robust understanding of baseline stock condition, being proactive about detection, having strong processes for the early identification of damp and mould and responding quickly to problems were all described as vital to tackling this material issue across social housing.
In a sector with a density of legacy stock, gaps in embedded data-driven processes and a digital maturity that is only starting to scratch the surface, how can housing providers get to grips with the challenges they are facing? Pivoting and taking action is an expensive route to solving systemic problems; it’s only with robust data, intuitive early warning, predictive technologies and efficient, simple processes that leaders can begin to tackle the root causes of challenges such as damp and mould and take action quickly and cost effectively.
Avoid ‘cookie cutter’ solutions
As someone who has spent their career in fast-paced, B2C sectors, I’ve learnt that technology can be a game changer but only when it is developed and deployed to meet the needs of customers and designed to support the challenges that are being faced. There are too many ‘cookie cutter’ solutions that are pitched retrospectively and, in my experience, often fall short of their initial promises.
In the housing sector, when thinking about the challenges of damp and mould, the combination of good quality baseline data, early identification and robust processes that pro-actively drive action is the only game in town. I’ve spent the past year understanding challenges and I’m currently working with a pilot group of housing providers on a solution that provides all of this at their fingertips.
Top 5 priorities for tackling damp and mould
Understand your baseline – stock condition data needs to be current and understood;
Use building and personal data to drive prioritisation and identify potential future problems;
Invest in early-detection technology to address damp and mould before significant impact;
Connect your technology to embedded processes for managing buildings and estates;
Analyse trends, create visibility of issues and ensure your management and boards take action promptly, holding internal organisations and contractors to account.
When we step back and think about the complexity housing providers are facing, any of us involved in developing products and technology to help our customers must focus on the stakes. We need to get this right, and our solutions must solve the problems in sustainable, embedded ways.
Rob Quayle is the interim CEO of Housemark.