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Opinion: Welfare reform & the impact on the front line

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Opinion: Welfare reform & the impact on the front line

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

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By Sarah Baker, learning & development specialist, Righttrack Consultancy

You may well be wondering what on earth I am recruiting for…. Well, it’s not a superhero although some would argue they are often expected to be one.  This is an advertisement for the new wave of front line social housing staff; housing officers, community liaison officers, tenancy support and the like.  In the wake of the changes brought about by the Welfare Reform Act, in particular universal credit and the highly controversial ‘bedroom tax’ the roles and responsibilities of these individuals have changed significantly and will continue to do so.

The new approach to welfare reform is the biggest change to welfare in over 60 years and a substantial impact is expected across the social housing sector. There are a number of organisations including the National Housing Federation already publishing statistics indicating that more tenants are falling into arrears (29% of all those affected) and that evictions due to arrears are on the rise.  But what is the impact of these changes to front line staff and their roles?

Having worked in the social housing sector for a number of years the consistent message that always emerged from front line staff was the message of support; support for tenants and for their communities.  In my experience most tenant-facing housing staff are driven by a need to make a difference, to give something back to the communities that they sometimes live in and to support some of the most vulnerable people in society. These roles have always been challenging and they are not particularly well paid but that’s not why people do them.  Historically it was because, in a nutshell, these positions focussed around finding accommodation for those that needed it but couldn’t afford it, building relationships with tenants in order to support them should they require it, and dealing with community issues when they arose.

In recent years, however, these roles have changed significantly. Fast forward to 2013/14 and the introduction of the welfare reform act and the picture looks very different.  The focus has started to move away from tenant welfare and support and move more towards debt management and maximising income.  As a consequence morale is low, targets are high and the pressure is mounting.  Front line staff are being asked to do substantially more with less resources and the remit of the standard housing officer is expanding.  As one of my former colleagues recently put it “I am now simply a debt collector”. Universal credit and the bedroom tax are squeezing tenants’ already tight budgets on one side; housing associations are raising targets as rent arrears and lost revenue take centre stage on the other, and it is front line staff that are caught in the middle.  So what does that mean? 

Some of those I have spoken to have said they are becoming disillusioned and dissatisfied with the fundamental shift in their roles, they talk about losing sight of why they took the role on in the first place and are beginning to question whether there is a future for them in social housing.  A tale of a young mum who was the victim of domestic violence and is soon to be evicted as she is unable to pay her rent is one story that particularly resonated with me. And I am certain she is not alone.  But staff feel their hands are tied. They are being asked to work with tenants on household budgeting and maximising income, but if the tenant has little or no income, and any income they do receive has a lead in time of a full month (which is often after their rent is due), then the best budget in the world is not going to keep them out of debt.  Ultimately staff are then obliged to start the eviction process and so the downward spiral begins.

So what’s the answer?  Some vehemently advocate the abolition of the welfare reform act; whether you agree or disagree that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Having had a number of discussions with people in various frontline roles the answer is obvious for them, and that is support… training… resources. 

They are being asked to perform duties they have limited, if any, experience in performing, so how can they be expected to execute them well?  There is no doubt that equipping staff with the knowledge and skills to influence, collaborate and diffuse conflict with tenants will help to provide a better service to customers and ultimately the organisations they work for.  The challenge in providing this is the same as in any other organisation across the country… budgets!!  With the social housing sector expected to lose revenue due to an expected increase in rent arrears and court costs, budgets for recruitment and training are being squeezed ever tighter.  I guess my final thought is what will happen if we don’t support, train and nourish those front line staff whose sense of vocation brought them to the role in the first place? 

Sarah Baker has worked in one of the UK’s largest housing associations for seven years as a senior L&D partner. She worked in collaboration with members of the group board to identify and respond to training needs in line with changes in market. Since joining the Righttrack team, Sarah has designed and delivered bespoke development solutions for a broad range of clients in the social housing sector and beyond. Sarah specialises in Leadership & Management, Customer Service, Soft Skill and Coaching interventions for all levels of an organisation. 

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