Time for the housing sector to own changes

With the government’s Social Housing White Paper published, our Chief Executive Carol Matthews says it is time to explore how the housing sector can ‘own’ any changes.

I was extremely saddened to read Meghan Markle’s piece about the loss of her baby and the fact that she is very rarely asked the simple but important question: “Are you OK?”

For me, this emphasises the important role we play as housing providers and that we should, at the very least, be asking this question of our customers on a regular basis. Especially now, during a time of huge uncertainty and anxiety, and with loneliness and mental health issues on the rise.

During lockdown, Riverside got in touch with all our customers via phone, text, email or letter just to check in so we could pick up any issues we might otherwise have missed and let them know they’re important to us. I’m sure others in the sector have done this too.

The huge service alterations we’ve had to make due to COVID-19 have actually increased our customer communications.

So we are now in touch (albeit socially distanced) more than ever, which is a positive we’ll take out of this otherwise extremely challenging period.

With the long-awaited Social Housing White Paper now published – and the debate over league tables and consumer ratings well and truly in the past – it’s time to explore what we can do. And as I’ve said before, we must ‘own’ any changes.

I’m sure sector colleagues are digesting the implications of the white paper’s charter as I write this, and while there have been some commentaries about the government missing the mark on a few things, I would like to take this opportunity to focus on the commitments on which we, as providers, can lead.

One of those central issues is safety, which is hugely important to us and the sector, with Riverside adopting safety as a cross-cutting theme within our corporate plan.

But it is the following charter commitments I want to concentrate on here: customers should be treated with respect, have their voices heard and their complaint dealt with promptly and fairly.

These are all areas in which Riverside and others in the sector are working to improve.

I have asked my colleagues to ensure that any customer they are in contact with is treated with the level of respect with which they would like to be treated. The sector has seen failings in this area and we have to keep driving performance by learning from our mistakes.

In October, Inside Housing unveiled its sector ‘complaints failures index’ of determinations by the Housing Ombudsman. Now we know that statistics need context, but we also know that the resolution of complaints matters to customers. And in light of the white paper commitment to set out a memorandum of understanding where the ombudsman will contact the regulator when an investigation uncovers serious provider issues, this is a stark reminder of the importance of accountability from the very top.

As providers, transparency should be close to our hearts.

The focus of the debate has in the past been a bit narrow, with the emphasis on senior pay and the publication expenditure schedules, and there’s a danger it misses the point. We must recognise it is right and proper that we are accountable to and transparent with customers and stakeholders. This is one of the reasons we have tenants on our boards and invest in resident involvement. We must also recognise the need to do more, the need to be authentic and reflect what stakeholders are looking for, rather than simply ticking boxes.

I am certain other providers that have signed up to the National Housing Federation’s Together with Tenants programme are progressing culture change and customer experience improvements as I write this. As part of this, we have recently undergone a self-assessment exercise against Together with Tenants with the Riverside Customer Voice Executive – our dedicated customer group that gives us valuable service feedback.

A customer-centric approach is needed in the sector now more than ever. We should be working with customers to improve engagement, understand the implications of the white paper and address the central issues.

While I’m trying to bring a little sunshine in this otherwise dreich time, I must temper my enthusiasm by noting that the final section on homeownership risks undermining the rest of the white paper – it implies that social rent is still a second-class tenure.

We as providers can do a lot to remove the impact of stigma in the sector, but it must be said that the government also has a role.

This white paper is the most significant change I’ve seen in more than a decade and I’m calling on the sector to focus on the charter commitments within our power to make a positive change. We must learn from past mistakes – and we must not just listen to but hear our customers when we ask them “are you OK?”, as well as treating them with the respect they deserve and dealing with things when they go wrong.

Let’s own these changes.

Carol Matthews

[This blog was originally published by Inside Housing, January 2021]