Overview of initiative
Under Public Service Agreement Target 7 (PSA7), local housing authorities (LHAs) must ensure that by 2010, at least 70 per cent of vulnerable householders occupy decent private sector accommodation. Manchester City Council’s approach to meeting this challenge has centred on the development of an efficient, comprehensive and low-cost mechanism to record performance against the target.
The IT system developed by the Decent Homes manager uses data produced from existing work streams (e.g. housing assistance (grants and loans) and therefore maximises the amount of data gathered to measure the Council’s performance against PSA7. It also provides a quick and easy method of generating customised reports, utilising standard Microsoft Office software, for completion of the PSA7 elements of the Housing Strategy Statistical Appendix (HSSA), as well as providing day to day monitoring of Decent Homes outputs.
Objectives and purpose of initiative
Apart from establishing a mechanism to allow meaningful reporting on PSA7, Manchester was keen to lay down a methodology which was robust and open to scrutiny by external audit. One of the challenges of PSA7 is not only to achieve targets, but to demonstrate, if challenged, the detail of how those targets were achieved.
The project involved many teams within Manchester City Council and also teams from neighbouring LHAs:
- Manchester Private Sector Housing teams (including HMO team; Alley-Gating team; Works in Default team; Equipment and Adaptations teams; Manchester Care and Repair);
- Anchor Trust;
- Insulation UK (IUK) (in conjunction with Scottish Power under the EEC and the Manchester Energy team);
- Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council;
- Bolton Council (“Bolton at Home” ALMO);
- Burnley Borough Council.
What Manchester City Council did
Manchester City Council started the project with a clean slate. They were fully aware that there would be no additional provision of resources (human or financial) to deliver the Decent Homes programme; any progress toward PSA7 targets would need to be achieved using existing staff as a part of their usual day to day work remit. The Council also realised that an IT system, based on existing Microsoft Office software, would be needed. This had to be easy to use and provide them with PSA7 data quickly and easily.
During the development stages of the mechanism, some key problems were highlighted and later resolved:
- Monitoring of a ‘moving target’ - how to track the changing picture?
The location and number of vulnerable households is constantly changing, and, as a consequence, the number of properties which can legitimately be claimed against PSA7 targets as having been made decent, is also changing.
- How to make it easier for staff?
How to provide staff with a clear cut and robust methodology for collecting PSA7 data, which would not be time-consuming or bog them down in reams of paperwork? Manchester needed to develop a user-friendly and error-free IT system which staff could use for transferring the inspection data onto the computer. The system would also need to provide quick and easy reporting for managers on every element of PSA7 as well as provide aggregate data for HSSA completion. Users should not require a degree in quantum mechanics to report on Decent Homes.
- How to persuade partner organisations and officers from other disciplines to assist with the gathering of decency data, even when not trained in conducting full Housing, Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) assessments?
The database was created in 3 steps:
An A4 one page inspection sheet was created. The sheet contains all of the necessary questions for gathering decency data as well as extra energy-related fields which would allow Manchester’s Energy team to calculate Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) ratings.
The reverse of the form featured guidance on Standard Lifetimes, as well as a ‘risk grid’ to help officers to reach an indicative judgement on the presence of Category 1 and Category 2 hazards (for those occasions when a full HHSRS inspection was not carried out). This ‘indicative’ method for estimating serious hazards reflects guidance given in the CLG (ODPM) publication ’Collecting, Managing & Using Housing Stock Information, Vol. 2’ (August 2000). It also incorporated a great deal of in-house experience of assessing dwellings under Housing Act 2004 and HHSRS. An adjunct to the ‘risk’ grid on the reverse of the inspection sheet was a separate one-page walk-through sheet to be used as a mnemonic for the most serious and oft-encountered hazards.
Next, a Microsoft Excel template was devised as an ‘electronic’ version of the paper inspection sheet, allowing staff to transfer data from sheet to computer quickly and easily, and without the need for typing. No understanding of the Decent Homes Standard is needed to complete the template; decency is calculated automatically.
The template is protected, and data can only be entered by clicking buttons located on the worksheet. Values matching those on the paper inspection sheet can be chosen from drop-down lists as buttons are clicked. Validations within the sheet prevent users from saving half-completed records, or entering contradictory values (example – “primary heating type” = “electric storage heaters” / “primary fuel type” = “gas”).
Decency values are calculated automatically for the four key areas of PSA7 (Disrepair, HHSRS, Modern Facilities and Thermal Efficiency) as data is inputted into the worksheet. The number of ‘Key’ and ‘Non-Key component’ shortfalls are computed, as well as household vulnerability as defined on the HSSA. When the template is closed, a complete record of the inspection is saved as a numbered protected worksheet (creating a clear audit trail), and the record is also automatically appended to a database table for use by the Decent Homes reporting tool (Microsoft Access).
The use of validations and drop-down lists for data entry ensures the following:
- records are complete (no ‘holes’ in the data);
- only values relevant to PSA7 will reach the reporting stage;
- values will be consistent (no permutations - such as “Privat Tenat”; “prIVATe teNANT”; “Priv Ten”; “P. Ten” - can appear). Therefore, filtering records by tenure displays one value only for each tenure type, and
- no contradictory information is allowed, such as - “Wall Type = ‘Solid’….”Cavity Wall Insulation” = “Over 50mm”.
The final link in the ‘IT chain’ was the development of the Microsoft Access reporting tool which would receive records submitted by the Excel template (inspection records) and thereby allow detailed and aggregate reporting for PSA7. The essential features of this are as follows:
- users need have no special IT skills to use the system and to obtain timely and accurate reports. Very little training is required;
- when the system opens, it automatically ‘crunches’ the data and assigns records to ‘Modes’ for ease of reporting. Each mode handles its own set of records depending upon the following criteria:
- Dwellings made decent
- Dwellings already decent
- Dwellings currently non-decent
- Dwellings in a CPO or demolished
- Dwellings (already decent or made decent) which are borderline non-decent.
- this automatic process also brings forward only the most recent records for each category to ensure that reports are completely up to date each time the system is used;
- duplicate records (i.e. older inspections on the same premises) are ignored and Modes contain only unique and most recent inspections;
- because data quality has been strictly controlled at the input stage (using the protected Excel template), reporting is problem free. There are no missing values, or permutations of values;
- the system is ‘dynamic’ in that records are automatically re-evaluated every time the database is opened. New records submitted from the Excel template will influence the location of existing records (older inspections) resulting in a reassignment of records in accordance with the current condition of the property. For example:
- If a ‘decent’ record is submitted it may find a match with a pre-existing ‘non-decent’ record. This re-classifies the existing ‘non-decent’ record as ‘made decent’ and it will move from Mode 1 to Mode 2.
- If a ‘CPO type’ record is submitted, any pre-existing inspections for that property residing in the database will cease to appear in any mode other than Mode 5 (since CPO overrides them)
- Conversely, if a dwelling reverts from decency to non-decency any records relating to its decent condition (a previous inspection) will cease to appear in Mode 2 (made decent) and will re-appear in Mode 1 (non decent – needing attention).
This automated process ensures that users do not have to spend time thinking about the significance of each new record submitted, or worrying about changing decency or vulnerability status. The system “makes sense of the data” each time the system is used;
because records relating to previous inspections are constantly evaluated in the light of more recent data, it is easy to track changing vulnerability levels over time. An inspection on date X classifying the household as a “Vulnerable Family” may be replaced by another inspection on date Y, which found that the household has changed to “Non Vulnerable Other”. This reclassification will be immediately apparent in all reports and the older record(s) will be ignored;
quick and easy reporting is possible on any subset of the records. Users derive subsets of records by selecting values from drop down boxes and clicking buttons. The resulting reports, pivot tables and pivot charts display only records matching the parameters imposed. Data can be constantly and instantly ‘re-drawn’ (in reports, pivot tables and pivot charts), simply by clicking the mouse and applying new parameters. A typical report customised by the user might contain only records matching the following criteria: - “all pre-1919 dwellings of Property type = “Mid Terrace” in Ward X where the loft insulation = “None”, Category 1 Hazard = ‘Yes’, inspected between 01/04/2006 and 23/05/2007, where the household classification is “Vulnerable Elderly” and Tenure = ‘Owner Occupier”. This should take no more than 15 seconds to prepare and run;
other features include:
- 10 second compilation of the HSSA report on Vulnerability, CPO (as it relates to PSA7), Category 1 Hazards remedied;
- performance monitoring by officer; ward; strategic area; Category 1 Hazard Actions Taken;
- monitoring of ‘Reversions to non-Decency’, and
- an easy means of editing or deleting records if required.
Manchester City Council uses the Flare (Authority) system for most of its day to day work. The PSA7 IT system was originally created to be used in conjunction with Flare, however a parallel version, also based on Microsoft Office, has been created and is completely stand-alone. This stand-alone version is in use at 3 other LHAs.
Winning hearts and minds
For this mechanism to work, staff would need to be convinced that data gathering for PSA7 was not an additional burden to their day to day work, but an essential component of it. Nor should it entail a tedious and time-consuming process involving reams of paperwork. The Council realised that this could only be done successfully if the data gathering mechanism could be fitted into existing procedures with as little effort as possible. The Council met this objective by:
- keeping the paper inspection sheet to one side of A4;
- providing guidance on the reverse of the form;
- providing an easy method for obtaining an indicative evaluation on health and safety so that less technical staff could complete the form. This would enlarge the number of Decent Homes assessments being completed;
- not requiring staff to have an understanding of the Decent Homes Standard;
- in order to encourage other departments and partners to participate in the data gathering process, we set up a mechanism of reciprocal referrals (only for cases where the resident had expressed an interest in obtaining further information or help). This means that IUK complete Decent Homes inspection forms for the Council and the Council refers inspections completed by its own in-house teams to IUK to assist them with meeting their own targets under EEC and HIAs complete Decent Homes forms for the Council and Manchester passes referrals to them.
The mechanism was designed to utilise pre-existing human and financial resources but can be scaled down to work in any LHA. No extra resources were supplied (or necessary). The IT element utilised existing Microsoft licences. The entire system of data-gathering, reporting and referrals, including the IT system, is managed by one project manager and one administrative member of staff.
Evaluation was largely done by observing the ease and speed with which data could be gathered, input and reported. In particular, the ability to derive any subset of PSA7 data with a few clicks of the mouse meant that requests for PSA7 data could be processed extremely rapidly. Outputs which demonstrate the quality and effectiveness of the system:
- HSSA reporting for PSA7 at year end was quick and painless;
- reporting system provides an easy way of providing monthly performance indicators for PSA7, as well as informing the establishment of new ones;
- the amount of data resulting from use of the new inspection form is impressive;
- reporting on PSA7 is exponentially quicker than trying to use other methods to remove duplication, clean data and decide which records are relevant and which are not;
- the quality of the data was excellent – particularly at the reporting stage;
- no problems with the IT element of the mechanism and staff seem happy to use it;
- other LHAs are using the system successfully and are producing regular reports on PSA7;
- the mutual referral system is working well and helping all participants to succeed in meeting their own targets, and
- a clear and unambiguous data trail is available for scrutiny.
3 other LHAs are now successfully using the system. The Government Office for the North West (GONW) approves of the methodology and has included the inspection proforma in their Good Practice Guide for Local Authorities ’Delivering Decent Homes in the Private Sector – Guidance for implementation in the North West’. GONW also considers the IT mechanism to be an effective, straightforward and low-cost solution to the complexities of PSA7 monitoring and reporting.
No special ‘Decent Homes Inspections’ are carried out. Data is gathered by “piggy-backing” on pre-existing inspection mechanisms such as enforcement, requests for service, and works in default as well as related activities carried out by the Home Improvement Agencies, the Equipment & Adaptations team, and the HMO team. Officers complete a Decent Homes inspection sheet whenever they enter a dwelling as part of their normal work remit. The net effect of this is to maximise the amount of PSA7 data being gathered while eliminating unnecessary inspections. If an officer visits a dwelling and conducts an inspection, provided the householder gives consent (recorded on the form), the data is shared with other teams and agencies for the express purpose of providing assistance to the household where possible. This eliminates duplicate inspections.
The referral mechanism included within the methodology is mutually beneficial. For example, the completion of Decent Homes assessments by IUK during their energy efficiency assessments results in both energy efficiency improvements and a stream of PSA7 data which can be used by Manchester or its partners to provide property-related assistance. Conversely, PSA7 data stemming from assessments carried out by Home Improvement Agencies or private sector housing teams are passed on to IUK to assist them with meeting their own targets under the Energy Efficiency Commitment.
The only significant problem Manchester encountered was the reassurance required to convince partners not well versed in full HHSRS to carry out Decent Homes inspections. The sticking point was their fear of being criticised for failing to detect Category 1 Hazards during their inspections, or conversely, reporting Category 1 Hazards where none existed. Apart from providing reassurance, Manchester agreed to arrange full HHSRS inspections for any category 1 hazards recorded by non-technical staff".
The Council was realistic in not expecting health workers, with no technical housing knowledge, to complete decent homes inspection sheets. A compromise was reached whereby health workers complete small non-technical referral slips (household contact details) which are passed to private sector housing teams who would then arrange to visit the property and conduct full decency assessments.
The system is constantly evolving to embrace new ways of gathering and reporting on PSA7 data. Currently under development is a pilot study in conjunction with Manchester’s Joint Health Unit and PCTs: Active Case Workers complete a small “referral slip” detailing name and contact details of the householder (with their consent) which would be passed to private sector housing for a complete decent homes assessment. The full assessment would subsequently flow into the normal referral system and could result in the provision of assistance to elderly and vulnerable households. The potential cost-savings for the NHS arising from the prevention of trips and falls and from tackling cold and damp houses etc, will help PCTs to meet their own targets for improving health in the community, while simultaneously assisting private sector housing with meeting PSA7 targets.
Council contact details:
Manchester City Council
Private Sector Housing
Town Hall Extension
Tel 0161 234 4709
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