Specification for any project can be a challenge. With so many products and solutions on the market, it can be difficult to know where to start, and each project will have individual demands to meet. It’s no different for social housing projects, and it can be a tough challenge for RPs to find the best products to address their many priorities. Among other things, RPs need to ensure the solutions they specify meet legislative and regulative requirements, are cost-effective to accommodate a tight budget, and most importantly, help to create the right living environment for residents.
It’s vital that product manufacturers understand the challenges facing RPs so they can offer the right support and guidance when it comes to specification. As such, AkzoNobel recently organised a ‘Leading in Specification’ panel discussion, which brought together experts from the social housing sector to debate important issues affecting the industry, from updates and changes to legislation such as Universal Credit, to the suitability of high-rise tower block accommodation for social housing.
The event saw Shelagh Grant, Chief Executive of the Housing Forum, Tom Manion, Chief Executive of Irwell Valley Housing Association, and Lee Maskell, Partner at Faithorn Farrell Timms, meet to debate the impact of these factors on the sector broadly, and how they may have a knock-on effect on property management.
After the Second World War, the UK saw a boom in tower block construction, as local authorities sought to build cost and space efficient, ‘futuristic’ structures for living. Over the years, as many of these developments situated in deprived areas began to fall into disrepair, the high-rise tower block became associated with poor standards of living.
A report published by the Policy Exchange in January 2013 found that demolishing high-rise social housing blocks and replacing them with streets made up of low-rise flats and terraced housing would ‘improve the lives of thousands of people who suffer from living in multi-storey housing’.
Introducing the topic to the Leading in Specification panel, Shelagh Grant raised the questions: is multi-storey living a suitable form of social housing and is it cost-efficient?
Tom Manion, Chief Executive of Irwell Valley Housing Association, is of the opinion that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with high-rise living. He explained: “Tower blocks can be great places to live, with the right management systems and a certain level of allocation criteria to ensure the residents who live there are suited to that format of living. Security is key, and anonymity can also be an issue in that type of housing, but Irwell Valley encourages residents to socialise.”
Tom also referred to the importance of creating the right internal environment in any social housing property, particularly high-rise accommodation. Investing in repair and maintenance to keep spaces looking good and well looked after gives residents a sense of pride in their surroundings.
Injection of colour
The panel agreed that while basic decor, such as magnolia walls throughout, might be quick and easy to maintain, it can look drab and, in some cases, almost institutional. If RPs take time to consider the appearance of a property and select brighter colour schemes for example, it encourages residents to take care of where they live and helps to minimise vandalism. This will reduce the need for emergency repair works, therefore balancing the greater initial outlay that may come from investing in a more creative decorative scheme.
The next topic for discussion was Universal Credit. Until October 2013, all social housing residents had their housing benefit paid directly to their landlord, while receiving other benefits weekly or fortnightly. Under Universal Credit, a scheme being phased in between October 2013 – October 2017, residents are to receive a single monthly payment from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that will include support for housing costs. They will then be responsible for making regular rent payments to their landlords.
There has been some concern raised about whether these changes will cause problems for both residents and landlords, as tenants who are used to the housing benefit going direct to landlords may struggle to budget, putting them at risk of personal debt. From a landlord’s perspective, the introduction of Universal Credit could result in financial insecurity, as the regular housing benefit instalments will no longer be a certainty, but will be dependent on residents making timely rent payments.
Introducing the topic of Universal Credit to the Leading in Specification panel, Shelagh questioned whether there is a risk that the new system will lead to a need for housing associations to chase residents for rent payments, resulting in a reduced or uncertain income, impacting cash flow for both planned and reactive maintenance.
The panel agreed that there is a real risk of reduced cash flow forcing cost cutting measures from RPs who, in a bid to save money, may look to reduce the scale of maintenance works. It was stressed in the discussion that repair and maintenance of property must remain a priority because if housing stock is allowed to fall into disrepair, it could end up being more costly to put right.
A quality finish
Lee Maskell of Faithorn Farrell Timms agreed that if Universal Credit did impact on financial security for RPs, standards of property could suffer. He said: “Many believe that if they leave maintenance of their properties for an additional year, they will save money, but it doesn’t work that way. It simply creates more cost down the line.”
Cost-effective specification is key and with the advice of AkzoNobel Specification Account Managers, RPs can find a paint solution at the right price that meets the needs of their project. Coatings experts will be able to advise whether better value products with a lower price point, but that still offer a good quality finish, are suitable for the job, or whether a little extra investment is required. For example, if a product is needed for a high-traffic area, such as busy stairwells, a coating that offers increased durability may be recommended as it can withstand a greater level of scuffs and knocks and therefore avoid the need for regular redecoration and the expense that comes with it.
Summarising the discussion, Shelagh emphasised that “collaboration is key” and by continuing to work closely with contractors and product manufacturers, RPs can ensure that product specifications meet the needs of their project, to create a comfortable living environment for residents, while making maintenance cycles as cost effective as possible.