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Exclusive Interview: Jackie Amos: Head of Support Services, Taff Housing Association

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This week’s Business News Wales  interview is with Jackie Amos, Head of Support Services for Taff Housing Association. She has talked to us about the three  local authorities she works across; Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan and Newport.

She discusses the work on focussing on preventing homelessness and vulnerable members of society, including homeless young people and mothers and babies, offenders, refugees and older people. Jackie also gives us an insight into challenges and opportunities in the future.

Can you give our readers a little background into yourself and your role within your organisation?

I’m the Head of Support Services for Taff Housing Association, a community-based housing association in Cardiff.

My department works across 3 local authorities, Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan and Newport and our work focusses on preventing homelessness.  We work with some of the most vulnerable members of society, including homeless young people and mothers and babies, offenders, refugees and older people.

I came into the social housing sector 17 years ago having begun my working life in the private sector, including 10 years with KPMG.

I arrived during a time of great change in the sector, particularly supported housing, as funding streams for this area of work were changing and new frameworks were developing.  It was a period of real growth and we were able to take advantage of that to establish a significant Support Services department and develop specialisms as well as the more generic side of our business.  Austerity, cuts to public funding and to some of our own core funding streams have inevitably impacted on our work.  However, it’s not all doom and gloom and, in fact, we have used these challenges to completely review how we work, where we work and who we work with and in doing so have found or created new opportunities.  The squeeze on resources means we use them more creatively, targeting them where they’re needed the most and will achieve the best outcomes.

What are your plans for the next five years and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?

Filling the skills gap:

In 2016, a Construction Industry Training Board report noted that 700,000 skilled construction workers will retire in the next 10 years creating a serious skills gap.  This is in addition to the anticipated impact that Brexit could have.  Furthermore, a survey conducted by Community Housing Cymru in Wales also identified that 40% of staff who leave a housing association do so to take up employment outside the sector.

As a Registered Social Landlord with property development as part of its core business, this is a serious issue for us and our ability to build affordable homes for those most in need.

The housing sector has always committed to providing an apprenticeship for every £1 million of development spend and we have always created our own opportunities within the organisation. However, our new 5 year Business Plan makes an even greater commitment to developing and providing apprenticeship opportunities to grow our own talent in order to fill the emerging skills gap:

  • Our Direct Labour Unit will continue to provide apprenticeship and ‘taster’ opportunities in trades related to gas and electrical works and kitchens and bathrooms
  • As well as the traditional ‘trades’ apprenticeships, we will open up opportunities in the wider sector that support construction – in housing, development and admin, for instance.
  • We will maximise our uptake of the apprenticeship fund created by the newly introduced Apprenticeship Levy in order to help fund apprenticeship training costs
  • Our Community Investment Team and Support Services Department, including a specialist service for homeless young people seeking to enter education, training and employment, will continue to help people prepare for work and find training and employment opportunities

Mitigating the effects of Welfare Benefit Reform:

Our core business is to provide affordable housing for those most in need.  An  important, supplementary part of our business is to support people to sustain their tenancies and so prevent homelessness.

Some of the people we work with are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged and have been particularly hit by some aspects of Welfare Benefit Reform.  This places them and their families at increased risk of increased poverty and losing their homes.  Clearly, as a values-based, not-for-profit organisation, there is a moral and ethical imperative for us to do whatever we can to prevent the human cost and profoundly damaging effects of homelessness.  However, in order to remain viable and so continue providing affordable homes, there is also a strong business imperative for us to act.  Rent arrears are lost income for us and recovering arrears has its own cost implications, while the cost of an eviction is tens of thousands of pounds.

Our plan over the next 5 years is to help people build their resilience and capacity in order to mitigate the effects of Welfare Benefit Reform and secure their futures.

We take a pre-emptive approach to challenges such as this which has always been successful.  For instance, as soon as changes to Housing Benefit for those ‘under-occupying’ their properties (the ‘bedroom tax’) were announced, we began preparing  our Tenants for the impact this would have:

  • We profiled our Tenants in order to establish how many of them would be affected
  • We worked one-to-one with them to assess the extent to which they would be affected and helped them look at their options
  • Where their preferred option was to downsize, we helped them achieve this as smoothly as possible

One of the biggest challenges for our Tenants and our business is the effect of the ‘benefits cap’ which, since its introduction in the autumn of 2016, has resulted in a number of our Tenants losing some or all of their Housing Benefit award. In response to this we:

  • Created a Money Adviser post to support families with budgeting advice and access to cheaper utilities deals
  • Signpost people to specialist money advice services for more complex issues
  • Ensure that people are in receipt of benefits and grants to which they are entitled
  • Offer a jobs, training and volunteering scheme which gives our Tenants priority access to free vocational training courses and volunteering opportunities with Taff and other partner organisations.

The common theme in this approach is:

  • Know your customer base thoroughly
  • Identify changes in the political, economic and social environment early
  • Test how those changes will impact on your customer base
  • Identify what will mitigate that impact
  • Begin implementing your mitigation plans well in anticipation of the changes

Reduction in government funding for Support Services:

In real terms, this has been happening year on year for several years.  In response to this, we have diversified our funding streams so that we are not overly reliant on one particular source.  It has also had the effect of moving us into new areas of business with new partners and given us a new track record that we will be able to build on in the future.

What are your top tips for success?

  • Stress test your business. One of the greatest challenges for any business is the unknown and how to prepare for it.  Thinking strategically about organisational risk rather than operational detail will assist in this process. Spotting when things are going wrong is the difficult part, but through understanding what will break the organisation and putting plans in place for such eventualities, you will be prepared to face the unexpected. It’s important to know when you’re doing well and achieving.  It’s even more important to know what’s going wrong and why.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s nothing like fear of failure to kill creativity stone dead. That doesn’t mean that you put your business at risk by being foolhardy or reckless, but you can manage that in the same way that you manage any other risk, especially if you’ve stress tested your business and know where the breaking points are.
  • Embracing failure does require a high level of trust within the organisation and a genuine commitment to a ‘no blame’ culture that treats failure and mistakes as great, free learning opportunities.  When you have it, you unleash the potential in your organisation to be innovative and creative.  And that’s what will put you ahead of the competition.
  • Keep scanning the horizon for opportunities – and don’t just look for what you’ve always done, take the blinkers off and look for what you could do. Do a skills audit within your organisation – strengths and aptitudes as well as qualifications and experience.  Then think imaginatively about how all of that could be transferred to a new area of business.
  • Don’t wait for something to be perfect to get it through the door. It’s a fast-paced world and your lovely new idea can easily become old news while you hone and refine it.  Or someone else could beat you to it.  Decide when it’s good enough and then start pushing it out.  There’ll plenty of time for the polishing and fine tuning later.