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A systematic approach to future delivery

A strong local pride in Portsmouth's historical annals helps fuel its burning desire to move forward into an illustrious future

And that includes creating enough homes to accommodate the people who will take the city forward

Portsmouth is renowned for its naval heritage and unique history. From its beginnings as a Saxon fishing village, Portsmouth developed into a military
garrison town and then into the home of one of the most powerful sea-borne fighting forces in history.

While Portsmouth is proud of its past, it is also racing into the future. It has become a modern and dynamic city that offers a prime location for industry, commerce, leisure and pleasure. There are a number of major regeneration projects underway, including the redevelopment of the city centre intended to create a top retail destination, the development of the Mountbatten Centre to provide Olympic standard sports facilities, a new Portsmouth Football Club stadium, and the regeneration of Tipner and Somerstown.

Portsmouth has the highest urban density in England outside London and its population stands at 188,000. Although the city has many affluent areas, it is also home to some of the most deprived areas in the southeast.

Demand for affordable housing exceeds supply so bridging this gap is a priority for the council. It is increasing the provision through strategic planning, including revising planning policies, ensuring regeneration programmes provide a catalyst and making land available that is held within the housing revenue account.

Over the last two years, the council has worked with housing associations to develop 570 affordable homes. It is well on its way to reach a target of at least 2,000 new affordable homes by 2011. A signification proportion of these will be for larger families. The council is also reviewing its ability to develop more social housing.

Portsmouth City Council, supported by residents, retained ownership and management of its council housing in the stock options appraisal of 2004. It is the largest social landlord in Portsmouth and the south Hampshire sub-region with over 15,000 tenanted and leasehold dwellings. Although this is less than the 28,000 homes the local authority owned during the 1970s, it still represents 18 per cent of tenures in the city.

There is strong demand for the vast majority of Portsmouth’s council homes, which play a significant part in meeting regional housing priorities. The overall condition of the stock is good, the result of many years of capital investment which improved the quality and lifespan of the properties. As a result, the council has confirmed it will meet the decent homes standard by 2010/11.

The housing department, meanwhile, has achieved good results in its recent comprehensive performance assessments (CPA), receiving consecutive scores of three. In 2004, the housing repairs and maintenance service was judged to be providing “a good service that has promising prospects for improvement”.

Portsmouth Council has come to be regarded as a leader in the field for the innovative way it provides housing services. Owen Buckwell, head of housing management, explained: “Poor customer feedback prompted us get to the bottom of why our housing services were not meeting expectations. So we employed Vanguard Consulting to provide us with systems thinking expertise to improve our service delivery.”

Systems thinking originated with carmanufacturer Toyota and it is consequently known as the Toyota Production System (TPS). The method the council used is known as the Vanguard method because it took the principles on which the TPS operates and translated them for service organisations.

John Little of Vanguard Consulting (Ireland) explained systems thinking as a state of mind and not a set of tools. “It looks at what matters to customers as they try to use a service,” he added. “By listening to customer demands, it evaluates the current level and types of service to identify its purpose and to see how it is delivered.

“If the service does not meet customer expectations, the system is redesigned around what matters to them to make sure it constantly meets customer demands. The advantage of using systems thinking is that each component of an end-to-end system is examined, which eliminates wasteful processes, reduces expenditure and enhances capability and capacity.”

Many of the council’s housing services have been transformed by such an approach, not only improving customer satisfaction but also staff morale, as the following examples testify.

The council’s new housing allocation scheme provides a consistent way of allocating the limited vacancies in council and registered social landlord property. Applicants no longer have to complete an application form to join the housing register.

Instead, they telephone the council’s housing options team who take the required details and can advise if a property is available and how long it will take. The amount of time spent on each application has been dramatically reduced and by
giving accurate information, the council can set customer expectations.

The council’s housing register has also been reduced from nearly 11,000 to less than 5,000. Ivan Western, the council’s housing options manager, explained: “There were far more people on the register than we could realistically help - many had
been waiting for years.

“We have been through a careful process to identify those with the greatest needs. We’ve contacted people who were unlikely to be re-housed and informed them of alternative options. We are continuing to reduce the list and believe it is
much better for people to resolve their housing needs rather than just wait on a list for years.”

Controversially, the council has not taken on the Government’s choice-based lettings policy. Steve Macer, operational support manager, explained why: “During our customer demand analysis, we did not experience any requests for property adverts or bidding processes. We decided choice based lettings was not suitable for Portsmouth’s needs and it would only force us to build-in wasteful processes to our housing allocations system.”

The Government Office of the South East and the Department of Communities and Local Government have expressed interest in how the council is now allocating housing and regularly meet with the council to discuss progress.

Systems thinking has made the void process a more responsive way of allocating homes to people that takes into account customers’ needs. The new way of working has reduced void periods from 35 days to 10 days and has already made savings of over £2 million.

Macer said: “We don’t do any major renovations to a property until the tenant has confirmed they would like to live there. We find out what work they’d like done and try to meet that expectation. It really depends on what the customer wants, ranging from replacing the kitchen or just painting the property in the right colours.

“This means we don’t waste resources renovating a property that may not fit a tenant’s requirements. We are also turning our empty properties around quicker, reducing waiting times and boosting our revenue.”

The previous repairs service was supported by a very complicated system, fraught with technicalities. Systems thinking helped simplify the process. When a customer contacts the council with a repair request, staff record details to a database and inform the relevant contractor. The contractor who can access the database takes the enquiry forward from this point, which means specialised staff then diagnose the repair. There are no target times and the dates for the repairs to be carried out are agreed at a time convenient to the customer.

Meredydd Hughes, repairs and maintenance manager, said: “We recognise the new way of working has created much change for our contractors and we appreciate the support they have given us.

“The service is vastly improved and is making a real difference to our customers. When the contractor fixes the repair, they also enquire if anything else needs mending - there often is and we are happy to arrange this. By working in a responsive manner, we not only please the customer but also look after our
stock to prevent future maintenance issues.”

When it came to planned maintenance, the use of systems thinking identified that some of the cyclical programmes were being carried out regardless of whether the work was required. To improve efficiency and save resources, properties are now regularly surveyed to find out what needs to be undertaken.

Hughes added: “The responsive way of working has improved staff morale. Our surveyors are able to do the job they have been employed to do. We have
improved our knowledge of the condition of the housing stock and can better plan our work.”

The cleaning and grounds maintenance service, delivered to tenants at Buckland and Landport in Portsmouth, has also been transformed by systems thinking. The council plans to introduce it to other areas of the city this year.

Cleaners and gardeners are not given a schedule of work to complete as the new system is based around staff using their initiative. They arrive at the relevant area and do the work that is required for as long as it takes to do the work. The council is finding that areas of the estates are being cleaned that were never cleaned before.

One of the big winners of the new service is the collection of bulk refuse. Members of staff and residents are encouraged to report bulk refuse directly to the council. The relevant contractor then goes and collects the refuse, picking up any other they see on the way.

Colette Johnson, operational support manager, said: “The service is delivering beyond our expectations, although it has taken some time for residents to get used to the new way of working.”

Systems thinking has made a big impact at Portsmouth City Council by these accounts, and it is now being introduced to other areas of its operations. The Human Resource department, for instance, has recently used the method to simplify recruitment

The system continues to play an important part in the council’s Housing Service. At present, two interventions are looking at the systems behind housing rental income and sheltered housing. New processes will be implemented before the end of
the year. However it is a work in progress according to housing manager, Owen Buckwell.

“We have overcome many hurdles to bring in systems thinking to Portsmouth. It has required the support and commitment of staff across the organisation, as well as our residents and contractors. We are now beginning to see the fruits of our hard work but we have still got a long way to go and there are many services that still need to be improved,” he said.

“It is vitally important that staff continue to adhere to the principles of systems thinking and spend as much time as they can at the front line of service delivery. We need to continue to learn from our experiences and listen to customer demands and then plough this information back into our systems.”

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