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Opinion: HCA downgrades for VFM - what next?

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Opinion: HCA downgrades for VFM - what next?

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government

housing housing

Image: Housing via Shutterstock

By Alistair McIntosh, chief executive of the Housing Quality Network

So the government is hopping mad with our VFM. What will happen next? Some associations will need to take the test again. It should be easy to pass. The VFM standard is pretty clear. You just have to go back over it and sort your evidence out. This time around we do need to cut out schoolboy errors. Let’s take three examples of these.

Some people said they were benchmarking. There’s nothing wrong with that. But they did not say how they were using the results to change how they did things. It looked like you had an expensive toy that you just never used.

Lots of you got into a right fankle on social value. Fankle is the term Glaswegians use to explain a state of confusion. At one end of the spectrum we saw Hadron Collider style calculations to explain what you were doing. Please try to remember that we are housing managers not mad scientists. Others just put down a whole list of good deeds that they did. This may work for Santa. But the HCA wanted a bit more detail. This brings me on to the biggest blunder of them all.

There are some VFM statements that have almost no numbers in them. When they do put in a few figures it can be a hit and miss affair. Quite a few only put in numbers that made them look good. Most of the time all we really want to know is:

-what does it cost you to do something
-are you more expensive than others
-what are you doing to get costs back in line
-are tenants happy with the service?

Now this isn’t hard is it? There are some good VFM statements out there. You should read them. The HCA say they like the one that Riverside put in. I think Helena did a good job. Of course there are other strong ones. But overall it’s not a great story. Where will this end?

I am worried that the VFM argument will take off in a new direction.

You must have heard about what is happening with heating bills. The companies stuck to the rules set by their regulator. That didn’t help them much did it. Next thing you know the Tories and Labour are competing with each other to force prices down. Now Ofgem is getting tough. Will we see something similar in our world? Yes, it’s on the cards.

The PM said that he thought he had “died and gone to heaven” when he got the satisfaction figures for councils. Despite billions of pounds of cuts and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs the ratings were up. The Tories do think this proves that “waste has been cut, efficiency injected and services actually improved.” I work a lot with councils and people there are under the cosh. Every time I see someone they have a new job title. It’s not because they have climbed the greasy pole. The new title is in addition to the old title. It’s a case of a lot more work for the same pay. These are tough times for councils. You will have read about councils having to take the rent money from tenants to keep other services going.

The government has a lights off when you leave the room mentality. A lot of it is sensible but they can take it a bit far. They put out Viz style top tips to councils on saving money. Some of the ideas are belters. My favourite is the suggestion that you get sheep to cut the grass. Maybe we should use the wool to knit warm jumpers and ward off the worst effects of welfare reform. We could have a side-line in succulent lamb from Hackney Downs. I hear they want to pass on these tips to associations. Will we be able to avoid this?

The biggest problem with the VFM statements is that they just don’t get where the government is coming from. In a way we sat the wrong exam. It may no longer be good enough just to keep to the HCA rules. The coalition wants to see the same sorts of cuts we have seen at councils. It would be great if satisfaction stayed high. But it would be better still if you could use the savings to build a few more homes.

The poor VFM statements will open up a can of worms. We will face tough questions. Do we need so many associations? Why is the pay for bosses so high? What are they doing with all those surpluses?

I think that the sector as a whole needs to come up with a joint message on VFM. We are seeing some of the big associations offering to help to run back offices or sort out lending for the smaller outfits. Can we do more of this? It would be a lot cheaper to go down this road than pay out for a re-structure of our market. I really do fear that if we don’t get our act together some bright spark in a think tank will start to work out the correct number of associations in the UK. My guess is that they will want to see a pretty savage pruning exercise. Who was it that said “we must indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately?”

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