Getting personal with Steve Brook in Harrogate
This month we’ve interviewed Steve Brook, Chief Executive of Harrogate HA to find out what it means to be a smaller housing association looking after the needs of tenants in a localised area and delivering a personalised service.
1. What benefits does being focussed solely in Harrogate bring you as an organisation – and ultimately your customers?
From a business perspective only dealing with one local authority has its advantages! We know who to contact about individual cases and over the years we’ve built up good working relationships across all levels. As a result we are much better able to work in partnership with the local authority and deliver solutions that are in the best interest of our customer.
Having only one office right in the heart of our properties means our resources are not duplicated across multiple sites but it also means customers have an accessible and accountable service where they can call in and see staff face to face. This suits their current age profile. That local focus also enables us to build a good relationship with existing and new customers – it’s definitely our USP. Having a physical presence delivers a strong message to customers that they are important to us which in turn generates customer loyalty – we get very few voids and most are re-let immediately without any void loss.
We are approachable which, based on the feedback we receive, matters. Customers don’t feel they are dealing with staff that are distant and do not understand their particular circumstances. They look at the Association as being part of their local community. In a wider context the majority of staff live in Harrogate which means the rent money received is recycled into the local economy which helps it thrive and puts Harrogate on the map as one of the best places to live!
2. Does the local knowledge of your staff add to the gains?
Definitely. Our staff know the local neighbourhood and the people that live in it – in some cases because they went to school with them. They also know the local housing market and they use this local knowledge to the benefit of customers by matching a customer to the right property so that a sustained housing option is delivered. We are also able to provide customers with first hand relevant information about the area and have a real understanding of the pressures and opportunities in Harrogate.
3. We’ve seen many mergers and acquisitions take place in the HA market – but do you think there is still a place for well run, local and relatively small HA’s? Can they survive?
Being small doesn’t mean you are inefficient or deliver a poor service – on the contrary we are efficient and think we deliver a great service. You can’t ignore that it’s a challenging environment though. As long as we stick to delivering our USP – quality affordable housing and customer focussed services – and continue to grow (forecasts indicate this will be in excess of 18% this year) then it will be hard not to survive.
4. What are your biggest challenges over the next 5 years?
Identifying development opportunities, obtaining the funds to deliver them and keeping our overheads at the same level as now which in turn will drive through on the value for money agenda and help the sector reach the housebuilding targets it has set itself. It also goes without saying that we need to keep up to speed with any regulatory changes (GDPR being the current favourite), help our customers transition to Universal Credit and fund the increased arrears that are generated (which is helped by a lot of our customers, even those on housing benefit being in credit at some point during a month).
5. How does technology help the HA do its job better?
We should look to use technology to provide better systems to manage our properties and customers but not hide behind it when our USP is about being accessible. Most customers still prefer the face to face approach or contact by telephone. Investing in a mobile solution which enables the housing team to update records in real time while meeting customers should lead to less admin time and so increase personal time with customers – but investment in such IT must deliver value for money. This can sometimes be difficult to achieve due to the relatively high fixed/initial cost – a mobile solution for one person is an expensive investment. As we grow such things will become more important and it is an area that is currently being investigated. We do not see IT as the panacea for improving our service but something which assists it.