Opinion: Benefit reforms are sending us back to the future
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Communities
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Steve White, the outgoing chief executive of Blackwood Housing Association, argues that the government's welfare reforms signal a fundamental shift in the way the sector operates.
Housing associations across the west of Scotland have called on political parties to introduce a policy to repeal the bedroom tax if elected.
Giving councils powers to cut the housing benefit of people with a spare bedroom by 14%, rising to a 25% cut for those with at least two spare bedrooms, it is estimated that 80,000 households in Scotland are affected by the bedroom tax with the average loss per household of £620 a year.
Yet the bedroom tax, which will indeed affect thousands of vulnerable households and their local communities, is but one of a series of radical welfare reforms that is presently sweeping through our social housing sector and changing fundamentally how it operates.
Whether it’s the bedroom tax, coping with direct payments or the forthcoming cap on benefits, landlords and their tenants face unprecedented new challenges and opportunities over the years ahead.
The old rules no longer apply and housing associations instead need to make tough decisions about how best to navigate a course through the radically changing landscape within which we now find ourselves.
That will require subjecting ourselves to some radical changes to our existing practices and procedures to ensure that we remain fit for purpose in such a dynamic sector.
Seeking simply to continue as before as if nothing has changed is not an option. After all, the problem with standing still is that you can get run over. By sticking to rapidly outmoded ways of working, landlords will find it harder to set a clear vision for the future and be unable to respond to emerging challenges.
So just how do we go about changing an organisation for the better at a time when our budgets are being depleted drastically and against such a radically changing regulatory framework?
Ironically, the answer is by going back to the future. In our case, we started with a recognition that we had to go back to the basics and communicate directly with our customers, just as we did when we were established by Margaret Blackwood back in 1972.
The social housing sector as a whole was very entrepreneurial in its formative years: housing associations weren’t sitting around waiting for subsidies; they had to be innovative and that’s the kind of culture that we’re seeking to tap into once again to revitalise our own organisation.
So we went back to the basics with our staff and reviewed their working structures to realise the obstacles holding us back and what we could achieve by removing these obstacles internally.
From there we identified a need to train and develop staff to equip them for managing in such difficult circumstances. Vital to the process was the creation of a working culture which encourages questioning and challenges to activities without requiring defensiveness in the process and the need to be customer-focused to the extent that all activities are evaluated against the tangible benefits they deliver to end users.
In addition to this comprehensive internal focus and review, there was a recognition that this had to be coupled with an equally comprehensive external focus to working collaboratively, for example, with financial advisory services, begging the question about how the social housing sector as a whole will choose to respond to the radical welfare reforms.
We also embarked on a process of financial reform through the development of a new style of transparency and engagement that took financial awareness to all levels in our organisation. All members of staff now take responsibility for managing our budget and we undertook a comprehensive review and integration of all finance staff systems in order to realise all possible efficiencies.
The result has been the creation of a new organisation: one that has revised its rules, procedures, processes and project management principles.
The series of welfare reforms presently sweeping through Scotland’s social housing sector requires leaders to step up to the plate, be prepared to rip up everything they’ve learned to date and start all over again; there’s a new game in town and we’re all playing by new rules.
Failure to engage with change will leave our social housing sector going nowhere – and probably going backwards. Housing associations would be better advised to go back to the future to ensure that they were well placed to face change head on.