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Can technology help landlords facing cost-of-living pressures?

Our latest blog from Oneserve Chief Executive Christopher Proctor

This September’s quarterly survey from the Regulator of Social Housing made for grim reading for the sector. Inflation and labour and material shortages are hammering providers’ ability to deliver on planned investment in everything from new affordable homes to repairs and maintenance programmes.

Across the country, not enough new homes are being built and providers are struggling to meet their obligations around repairs and maintenance. 

Despite the record-breaking £503m invested in repairs during the April to June 2022 quarter (adjusted for inflation), the actual figure fell short of the projected amount by 33%, indicating that providers are facing an uphill battle. The outlook for the future is even more daunting, with forward projections indicating that repair costs are set to soar even higher. In the face of this perfect storm, providers must brace themselves and devise proactive strategies to mitigate the impact of these rising costs.

With the war in Ukraine showing no signs of abating and analysts predicting a global recession, it’s hard to find grounds for optimism. There is unlikely to be any immediate relief from the supply chain issues which are hitting the housing and construction sectors so hard. And across the globe, central banks’ efforts to keep inflation under control through higher interest rates look set to continue. In the UK, financial stability itself seems to be under threat. 

It’s important to note that RSH director of strategy Will Perry concluded that the sector remains “financially strong”. This is a sector which has a responsible attitude to risk management. However, wider economic trends are presenting huge challenges – there’s no getting away from that.

While many of these cost pressures remain beyond providers’ control – social housing landlords are not powerless. So what can they do? The RSH has stressed the need for better contingency planning – and this is crucial. The ability to respond quickly to emerging risks should remain a key priority.

In my view, we should also not let the current crisis go to waste. While these are undoubtedly tough times – there can often be opportunities during challenges. They can be moments which give us pause for thought, allowing us to challenge some of our underlying assumptions and take a longer-term view.

I believe many of these opportunities will be found in the technology space. Put simply, there are ways in which we can leverage technology to ease some of the burden.

By streamlining repairs and maintenance systems, making them more mobile, more agile and more efficient we can offset some of these costs. Right now, many providers are ditching legacy housing management systems and replacing them with smarter field service management software. Providers who want to meet the current inflationary challenges head on should start here.

Compared to older systems the new generation of cloud-based field service management software is more suited to the modern digital way of working. They are more user friendly and facilitate much better communication and synchronisation between the different elements of your service – for example field service operatives and telephone call handlers.

A cloud-based system like Oneserve, which is built specifically with housing providers in mind, can deliver savings of between 25%-60%. Translating those efficiencies into job numbers can bring those abstract percentages to life. So, a provider which has, say, 200 operatives on the road delivering 800 jobs a day could increase that to 1,000 jobs a day by switching to Oneserve. So that’s 200 extra jobs a day from the same number of field service operatives. Who says you can’t do more with less – or more with the same even!?

But there’s more to a system like Oneserve than simply streamlining repairs and maintenance programmes. They can also help providers to navigate the increasingly complex regulatory and compliance landscape in which they operate. The last five years or so has seen a huge growth in new standards, targets and obligations which housing landlords – whether for profit or non-profit – must comply with. The 2017 Grenfell tragedy was the catalyst for much of this, not least the 2021 Fire Safety Act. The new landscape we operate in is based on resident empowerment, including new tenant satisfaction measures, and rigorous new safety and building standards. Meanwhile the regulator of social housing is now expecting landlords to meet new “first time fix” targets when it comes to repairs. 

The net zero agenda forms the other key part of this trend. Housing landlords are on the frontline in the battle to make the UK’s housing stock more energy efficient and less reliant on carbon sources of heat and energy. Over the next decade, rented homes will by law have to reach a much higher Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) standard. All of which will require extensive programmes of work on the part of social housing landlords. 

Taken together, these trends mean landlords will need to be able to capture and record data to a much greater extent. Data capture will need to be overhauled to ensure much greater data integrity and improved analytics. Accuracy and traceability will be the key watchwords The good news is that field service management software such as Oneserve already has this capability built in.

Increasing landlord scrutiny need not be something to fear. With the right systems in place, such scrutiny can improve performance and lead to a better customer experience. We really can create that “golden thread” of information throughout the lifetime of a building to ensure it is maintained to a safe and high standard for those who live in it, while also reducing its environmental impact.

So while the pessimists may have the upper hand in the short-term – I believe there are grounds for optimism if we take a longer-term view. So, try to rise above the day-to-day headlines and look for opportunities amidst the challenges. After Grenfell the Hackitt report talked of a “race to the bottom” which had ultimately contributed to the tragic events on June 14th 2017. Perhaps, the best legacy of Grenfell might be a different future – one based instead on a race to the top. 

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