Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Stay Safe. Stay Put

Earlier this week we launched a new fire safety campaign on our high rise estates.

We’ve got 48 high rise tower blocks in Wolverhampton and the nightmare for every housing organisation or local council is that a tower block goes up in flames.

Lakanal House in 2009
The Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009 is a lasting reminder about how fires in tower blocks can be so dangerous. Six people died as a fire spread through a flat on the 9th floor. There were a multitude of failings that day.

The advice from fire safety experts is fairly simple - if there’s a fire in a communal area in a tower block…stay put. We all know that our natural instincts are to try and get out but in these instances, unless you’re told by the fire service to move – you should stay put.

That’s because the flats were built to withstand fire. The concrete shells of each flat can withstand heat of several hundred degrees. And with the latest standard fire doors installed, the odds of the fire coming into a flat from a communal area is greatly reduced.

We’ve seen for ourselves how much damage fire can cause in a high rise block. Last year there was a fire in the communal lobby at Longfield House in Wednesfield. It’s sobering viewing when you see the CCTV footage to think how quickly the fire spread and how lucky we were that no one was hurt – let alone killed.

Stay Safe. Stay Put.
We also saw a fire in another block of flats in Wednesfield last year. This was confined to one flat – but it really hits home about how important it is to have a plan for when fire strikes in your home.

So this week we’re launching our Stay Safe, Stay Put message for tenants living in high rise blocks. Before we started the campaign we did a quick survey and this is what we found:
  • 40% of people don’t check their fire alarm weekly 
  • Nearly half had never heard of the stay put policy
This tells me that there’s still work or us to do.

That’s why every high rise flat will be getting a leaflet, a sticker for their front door and a phone call over the next 6 weeks.

With people’s lives at risk – it’s so important we get that message out there.

I’ll let you know how the campaign goes – but in the meantime, let me leave you with this footage from Longfield House…how long do you think it takes for the fire to spread?

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

‘Elf and Safety’ – excuses mask serious issues

If you’ve had one of those weeks and you really need cheering up then take five minutes to visit the Health & Safety Executive’s website and check out their myth-busting pages. They’re an absolute hoot!

The HSE's myth-busting page is well worth a visit
So far there are 285 cases on their website where companies have used ‘health and safety’ as an excuse for not doing something.

For years we’ve heard about the kids being banned from playing conkers at school and that everything is ‘elf and safety gone mad!’

But what these health and safety myths and excuses are actually doing is detracting from a really serious point. In 2012/13 148 people lost their lives at work. 148 people went to work in the morning but never came home. That’s why health and safety is important.

At Wolverhampton Homes, we’re responsible for keeping our staff safe. That’s around 750 people – plus the 23,000 homes we’re responsible for in the city and our contractors. That’s actually a huge responsibility and one which we really do take seriously. Sadly - and this may come as shock to some; accidents do happen. With that many people, some using pretty dangerous machinery at times, people are bound to have a near miss or have that momentary lapse in concentration which we all have from time to time. You’ll never stop accidents from happening. But what you can do is put things in place to minimise those risks.

Last week, we had a visit from ROSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). They came in to look at our health and safety procedures and policies and so on. I met with their assessors last week and I was so proud to hear that we’ve been awarded ROSPAs Level 3 Award. A lot of hard work has gone into helping us achieve this and I’m so grateful for the hard work of our excellent health and safety team.

You mention health and safety to someone and they either roll their eyes or give that slightly glazed look. And this isn’t because people don’t care about safety – if you give me a chainsaw I want to know how to use it so I don’t lop my arm off! But it’s because over the years ‘elf and safety’ has been given such a bad rep because people use it as convenient excuse to either not do something or to not practice a bit of common sense.

We do live in a more litigious environment and I understand why people can be so cautious. But sometimes just a few simple measures and a touch of common sense could avoid a lot of unnecessary hassle and angst.

So – my plea is this: health and safety matters. It’s important and it saves lives so treat it seriously, use a bit of common sense and don’t use it as an excuse which trivialises something which is so important.

In the meantime, check out the HSE’s website – my personal favourite is not stocking plasters in a First Aid box!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

'Bedroom Tax' and 'Poverty Porn'

It’s been twelve months now since the removal of the spare room subsidy – or, as critics and the media dubbed it, the ‘Bedroom Tax’.

If the issue of the welfare system and council housing weren’t really in the public consciousness twelve months ago, they certainly are now.
Not council houses: the now infamous James Turner Street

In recent months we’ve seen the vitriol emanating from the Twittersphere and Fleet Street surrounding White Dee and her neighbours on ‘Benefits Street’ and, most recently, we’ve seen the return to our screens of ‘How to Get a Council House.’ Channel Four’s ‘shock-umentaries’ have, in fairness to them, elevated these issues to the national debate. But they’ve also, rather unhelpfully, reinforced the grossly unfair negative stereotypes which are lauded over council tenants and people who are on benefits.

I have to admit – I couldn’t bring myself to watch ‘Benefits Street’ - but it was impossible to escape the editorial jibes or internet forum debates about work-shy scroungers. Instead of indulging in what some commentators have dubbed ‘poverty porn’, I prefer to focus on making a difference and trying to improve the lives and homes of people who live in our city.

Instead of debating whether White Dee will stand for parliament – perhaps the narrative now needs to switch to how we can fix some of the root causes to these problems; the chronic housing shortage; the need for more jobs and apprenticeships and a sensible, grown-up discussion about mental health.

One of my colleagues met with our local newspaper, the Express & Star, last week to talk to them about the Bedroom Tax, one year on. The subsequent headline read ‘Dozens risk eviction in Wolverhampton over Bedroom Tax’. Sadly, the headline rings true.


Around 3,500 tenants were affected by the welfare changes in the city. Just 37 have failed to pay anything – that means nearly 99% of those who had to find extra rent for the first time, have, somehow, made some sort of payment. And we’re grateful for that. I’m amazed that we’ve been able to retain our position as one of the highest rent collecting authorities in the country; collecting more than 98% of the rent we’re owed. That in itself should show that the overwhelming majority of our tenants are paying their way. From talking to lots of the tenants I meet, I know that some of them have had to make some really difficult choices and sacrifices to find that extra cash.


We're working to help tenants manage their budgets

Sadly, just a few hundred have been able to, or chosen to, move since last April. There’s a mixture of reasons for that – the two main ones being a shortage of smaller homes and, quite simply, people don’t want to move. To some, council houses are a commodity or asset– but to those who live in them, it’s their home.

Now whether the ‘Bedroom Tax’ stays or goes – what we do know is that financially, things for lots of our tenants are going to get worse before they get better.

We’ve invested a lot of money in offering support and debt advice to tenants – but for some, the cycle of debt feels never-ending. We held a focus group with some tenants and we asked them about debt and where they’d go to for help; and still people were saying that pay day lenders were an easy way to get money. What we’re saying is – yes – but they’re an easy way to get into dire financial trouble too.

My plea to anyone who is struggling with their finances is to please ask someone for advice. If you’re a tenant, then come and see us. Or pop and see your local Citizens Advice Bureau. Or open an account with your local credit union. There is help out there…and it doesn’t cost a billion % APR either.

I read a lovely letter last week from a tenant who was thanking our Money SmartTeam for all the work they’d done with her to help turn her financial woes around. If only more people would do what she did and asked us for help.

So, we can talk about ‘Benefits Street’ or ‘How to Get a Council House’. We can take to Twitter to condemn those who are unfortunate enough to be unemployed, or who have mental health problems. We can talk about whether the Bedroom Tax should or shouldn’t be scrapped. But what I’d rather we talk about are the real reasons and problems behind this smokescreen of a so-called welfare system debate. Let’s talk sensibly about how we build more social and council homes, how we treat and support vulnerable people and families in our communities and how we help people break that vicious cycle of debt so they can rebuild for themselves and their families, a brighter future.

Anyway - I'd much rather here about the tenants who have got inspiring stories to tell...like Michelle...