The coronavirus has had a devastating economic impact on every sector of the UK, with some having been worse hit than others (RIP Travel & Retail!). Being government-funded, the public sector hasn’t taken as much of a financial hit as seen in the private sector; however, with the on-going work retention scheme emptying the treasury, and limited sources of revenue replenishing it, we will be shouldering the financial burden of lockdown for years to come.
It is easy to consume ourselves with thoughts on the long term economic effects of coronavirus, but what are the effects right now? What immediate logistical problems have social housing providers been faced with?
Having spoken to many, the main 4 issues that keep cropping up in conversation are:
- Limited staff numbers due to ongoing furlough or self-isolation
- Issues with gaining access to properties whilst adhering to government rules and guidelines
- Procurement and supply issues
- Vulnerable tenants and staff, coming up with new working practices to protect both
1. Lack of staff within social housing
A lack of staffing is a problem currently affecting both clients and contractors. While people are still required to self-isolate for 2 weeks with suspected symptoms of Covid-19 and other staff on furlough to save money, organisations are finding themselves without a reliable workforce, therefore unable to provide a reliable service. This is particularly true for contractors as they are typically stretched over multiple contracts.
2. Issues gaining access
The main issue with gaining access to flats during lockdown is how to ensure social distancing measures are adhered to. In a one-bedroom property, or properties with multiple tenants and/or children, it is difficult to keep a 2m distance at all times. With PPE also in short supply, it has been safer, and the only viable option, to put a hold on anything but emergency repair works.
3. Procurement and supply issues
Procurement and supply issues have blighted the construction industry as a whole, making it difficult to get a consistent supply of materials. This limits what work contractors are able to carry out. This also provides the inability to plan ahead, as there is a lack of confidence in supply.
4. Vulnerable tenants and staff
Although we are all capable of contracting and spreading the virus, this pandemic has highlighted the responsibility of landlords and employers to protect vulnerable tenants and staff. Not only is access to flats an issue, but normal work-life such as going to the office, collecting equipment, and communicating effectively with colleagues has now become more difficult.
Immediate Effects on Social Housing Providers
An immediate issue facing Housing Associations and Local Authorities right now is the backlog of repairs that is continuing to build. While the “supply” of repair works is limited, the lockdown has only increased demand, likely as people spend more time in their properties now than ever before. It was estimated that during the April peak a backlog of around 800,000 non-emergency repairs had built up; as we near the end of June, this figure is likely to be in the millions.
There are also several knock-on effects that will affect the repairs industry after the backlog has been cleared, including how contractors will survive the rest of lockdown. The business model that most contractors follow means they tend to spread themselves quite thin to keep costs low and remain competitive. This is all good and well while works are going ahead but with quarantine effectively putting the market on pause, some contractors may not survive the next few months. Remember, it was only 2 years ago that Carillion stopped trading and most of these businesses were already under pressure due to Brexit and other factors.
Another longer-term issue will be a human cost. I’ve recruited into the repairs industry for almost 4 years and I have yet to hear a client say they have adequate funding and enough staff. Teams typically under significant pressure now face a backlog of work that may take years to clear. What impact will this have on staff? Will this inevitably lead to a rise in stress-related leaves of absence and mental health issues?
Finally, this will have a knock-on effect for tenants making claims against their landlord and disrepair cases. There has been a recent trend in companies taking advantage of the disrepair process, by providing ‘no win no fee’ legal services for tenants with outstanding repairs on their properties. While the courts may take a dim view on any claims made during lockdown, will it stop the claims from being made?
The short term solution; what are the options?
Whilst this has turned out to be quite a gloomy article (apologies about that!), there are of course solutions and ways to minimise the effects of lockdown. I feel there are 3 options:
1. Prioritise repair work
Organisations can tackle the backlog head-on; prioritise repair works by their urgency and clear the old repairs before starting on new ones. This is the quickest way to clear the backlog. It will mean that new repairs are put on hold, creating a smaller backlog, and a ‘fresh list of projects’ mentality within the team.
2. Split the focus on repair work
The second option would be to focus a percentage of your efforts on clearing the backlog while still running a normal repairs service simultaneously. This would have the least disruption on the service, but potentially the greater impact on the team. It’s the most ‘stressful’ way and will take the longest to clear.
3. Interim Staff; the answer to all our problems?
The third option, my favourite option, is to hire a temporary team to focus solely on clearing the backlog. I know, hardly surprising for me, the recruiter, to favour this option, but it genuinely makes the most amount of sense for 2 reasons:
Firstly, organisations haven’t been able to spend much of their staffing budget this financial year, so, in theory, there is a budget available to hire interim staff. Secondly, and most importantly, this will alleviate some of the pressure on current staff and repairs teams. This in turn allows for confidence to be restored in tenants feeling they can report a repair and have it completed in a reasonable amount of time.
Fortunately, we are entering a new phase of lockdown, with social distancing measures due to be eased and restrictions reviewed. However, the longer any form of lockdown goes on, the bigger this problem is going to be. Most of the organisations I have spoken to acknowledge this, but there is no consensus on how best to deal with it. In my opinion, the most logical reaction would be to hire an interim team to tackle the backlog.
I’ll leave you with this final thought; the government has spent a lot of money keeping the private sector afloat over the last few months, which could result in a lack of funding for the public sector in the coming years. So while you have the money, why not spend it clearing the backlog of jobs while you can? It could be even harder to do if budget cuts occur in the future!
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