Financial pressure has made many housing associations consider charging for services that used to be free. Andrew Carlin says it may be no bad thing

As a species we strive to do better, and housing associations are no exception. As service providers the culture of continuous improvement has seen the sector define its performance in terms of ever quicker response times and offer all sorts of add-on services.

However, funding cuts and uncertainties brought by Brexit have led housing associations to focus more sharply on their identity as businesses whose primary objective is to survive in order to achieve their social purpose. There is no incompatibility here, just good commercial sense.

As part of an effort to cut operating costs, we are beginning to see the phasing out of what I’d describe as ‘gold-plated’ services as standard with landlords looking to sell current service levels to those who can afford to pay.

The negative associations linked to the idea of two tier services based on the ability to pay may well attract alarmist headlines. But it’s really just an example of how landlords are taking a closer look at operations and realising it’s possible to deliver high quality services, reduce costs and add a bit more to the kitty.

Take repairs as an example. If you’re an owner-occupier in need of a plumber you can expect to wait up to three days for someone to come out unless it’s an emergency.

Under the Landlord and Tenants Act, housing associations have up to 72 hours to respond to non-emergency repairs for their tenants but most respond within eight hours to a day.

That service brings with it significant additional costs and it’s unnecessary. Why not offer a service that’s well within the statute time and charge those who want a premium service?

The same can be said of many other service areas and things are changing.

I’ve worked with a number of landlords on asset management work and some are now realising that their planned maintenance programmes can be reconfigured without affecting quality.

For example, why have a planned maintenance programme where you automatically change windows and kitchens every 10 years regardless of their condition? A more nuanced approach can ensure tenants’ homes are well maintained and deliver substantial savings in the process. It’s calculated, measured reduction in service quality.

As this shift in service provision evolves over the coming years, we will see housing associations redefining their roles and the landlord of the future could look very different.

Initiatives such as community transport projects and job clubs that don’t offer value for money may be scaled back or closed and some landlords are going back to basics. For example, Gentoo is getting rid of the construction part of its business to become purely a landlord again. Like other social landlords, it will never walk away from its socially conscious objectives – but this new world of financial pressures will fundamentally change the size of their offer. Many will strip back their business and go back to becoming property management organisations.

But those who do not run a tight ship are more likely to run into difficulties and that in turn could have a detrimental affect on the quality of their core services.

In that context, changes like slower response times for non-emergency repairs seem like a minor inconvenience.

In some parts of the country unscrupulous private landlords are dominating the mainstream rental market. That is why it is vital that housing associations re-examine their service offer as part of a strategic review of their business, protect their social purpose and extend the benefits of quality, genuinely affordable housing.

Andrew Carlin is commercial director of Procurement for Housing (PfH)