video Podcast Episode 2

Emma Richman from Peaks & Plains

This week, we're talking with Emma Richman, the Executive Director of Operations at Peaks and Plains. We talk about how the Coronavirus has impacted Peaks and Plains and what they might have done differently, how data is impacting the way Peaks and Plains view their housing stock and the Pankhurst Trust.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
So, hello and welcome to the Switchee Podcast. Still no theme tune or entrance music I’m afraid, but we do have exciting topics and fantastic guests. My name is Alastair Thorpe. I’m the Commercial Director for Switchee and I’ll be guiding the conversation today. We do like to focus on the issues around the housing sector. We like to discuss issues with housing providers, residents, supply chain partners, anything that they might be trying to tackle and also try and share our experiences of successes, wins and learning so that others can benefit. I’m really privileged to speak to some of the great and good from the housing sector on this podcast and today is no exception. We're joined by Emma Richman, who started with “Peaks & Plains Housing Trust” as Executive Director of operations in March this year. So I'd be keen to know how that's going. I also know that you've held a number of other interesting roles and associate positions around the sector, Emma. So without further ado, if you could introduce yourself and tell us a bit about who you, what you do and who you do it with.

Emma:
Okay, thank you, Alastair! It's a pleasure to be here. So yeah, a bit about me. I studied architecture at a university in London and then fell, as many people do, into the social housing sector. I’ve worked for many different providers for over 25 years. And I was lucky in my early career that I did a building surveying degree as well, that was funded by the housing provider that I was working for at the time. So I’ve held a lot of roles in that kind of asset, repairs, development, property sections of the organization. I’m now in a really privileged position that I have a bit of a wider remit that includes some of the more traditional housing management features as well.

I’ve also got some board experience, I was chair of the board for a number of years. I’ve been on different boards. I also, currently, am a trustee of Emmeline Pankhurst house which is in Manchester. So I’m helping them with some heritage lottery work and I volunteer occasionally in their museum as well.

Alastair:
Fantastic. Quite a list of achievements already and roles that you've had. I just wanted to start off, I can't move any further without asking you about what it's been like to join a business in March of this year given the lockdown and pandemic and all of that sort of situation. So yeah, what's that been like for you? How's it changed maybe how you've approached the role? Any differences you've seen from this situation?

Emma:
Yeah, it's really, really interesting. The whole thing, really. When I look back, I was actually appointed in November. So it was on quite a long notice period and that enabled me to do proper board meetings, audit meetings, meet a bit of my staff because when I actually officially started, it was only three weeks into the office before we went into lockdown. From a new starters position what that meant was a lot of teams meetings. So a bit of like Teams overdrive in a way because it was very easy to get hold of people and when you're new, you need to find out so much about the organization and get to know people. So, that was quite exhausting, to be honest.

I think as an organization it was a really good opportunity to bring everybody together and we were lucky because we were able to get computer equipment into people's homes very quickly. So, we were able to get people working from home quicker than a lot of other organizations. Interestingly, I’m on a couple of committees with the Nat Fed. So I’m on their building safety committee and their quality of existing homes committee. So I have some links within Nat Fed and I was one of the first people to contact them and say we should bring everybody together and just look at the good practice that's happening. To support each other in these times and that was a really good source of benchmarking information, supporting each other with different ideas. So, you know, we'd looked at PPE, different ways that we're going to access our customers, patterns of no access and that was a really good way of us helping to shape some of the decisions that we made.

As a senior leadership team, we were meeting daily. So I think if you remember, initially, there was at about 5 o'clock, a government announcement and we would just meet after that for the first couple of months just to see because things were changing all the time and we were just doing emergency repairs. One of the good things that we did was we continued to do voids. So I know some organizations stopped doing all of that but we took the decision to carry on doing voids and that put us in a great position in terms of having a lot of properties to let. There was an announcement that was made in May, I think, that then allowed us to start letting properties again.

We had to be really flexible with staff during that time. So we would have some of our operatives who were normally out and about doing jobs actually doing data on computers in a big data project. So we wanted to look at cleaning up our customer data. We've also got a big project called foundations, which I’m sure we'll talk about in terms of building performance, where we are responding to the downgrade situation we're in with the regulator at the moment. And that's all about validation and having proof that we can provide assurance on where we are as an organization. We had to consider things like the mental well-being of our staff as well at home that was a big thing for me. Because some people lived in flats on their own, without any outside space. It was very hot as well if you remember at the beginning of the pandemic and we were just making sure that there was a lot of checking in. We put lots of virtual coffee mornings on.

I’m also a member of the Women in Property North West Committee and we also met weekly. We still do just - to keep ideas flowing about what's happening in different organizations, supporting each other. I think the challenge was also initially, when we started to do more repairs, was actually getting some of the materials because some of the factories were still short. So I know plaster was an issue. But all of that is now slowly coming back to the new normal.

So a big topic in housing at the moment is do people need offices anymore. Do we need to be paying rents, this especially affects big associations that have lots of property in central London. People like working from home now and I think going forward it's a sensible balance of some working from home and some working in the office. But, personally, I’ve just found it really exhausting and it was really frustrating because me and my family do lots of travelling. We were supposed to be going to Vietnam and Singapore and we left it right to the end and then booked to go to Tenerife and then we couldn't go to Tenerife. We ended up in Turkey but we had a great time.

Alastair:
Yeah, we had a similar story of having to rebook holidays and ended up in Devon on one of the only rainy weeks that we've had this year. Camping as well! Emma, loads of stuff in there. Lots of interesting elements. We would concur with you in terms of the ongoing debate of "do we need an office?" We were quite lucky at Switchee, where we'd been flexible working and remote working for a couple of years just due to the nature of being a small tech business. That's what we were already doing. So, we didn't find that hard but we are suffering from not having a base and not getting people together regularly from a face-to-face perspective. I just wanted to also pick up on something that you were mentioning about using the fed to sort of getting people together. I’ve noticed in this industry that it's relatively unique. There's a little bit of healthy competition between housing providers but ultimately, we're all sort of in the same boat trying to get to the same goals of helping people, staying compliant and staying safe and prosperous for residents. It's just nice to be able to do that and to support and it's something that we wanted to do with this type of discussion. I just wanted to ask you, with regards to the long list of stuff that you've mentioned there, which is truly great. There are some great initiatives that you've looked at. Is there anything that you could sort of improve upon? Is there anything that you think actually we didn't manage to tackle this one and in hindsight it would have been good to focus on that area?

Emma:
I think looking back, we could have done more work with our repairs operatives in terms of some of the other activities that could have taken place. So we did put quite a lot of people on doing the voids and some of the strategic voids that we normally would have subcontracted out. I think the other thing for me is that as an organization we were really flexible with our staff and we furloughed some staff. We furloughed some staff who had caring responsibilities or young mums. So, I think that we tried to do the right thing and I think one of the barriers we've got now is that we are looking at a new flexible work option with our staff. And some of the staff and worryingly some of the managers, I think want their cake and to eat it too. I think we could have done some more work about how we might work more flexibly earlier on, whereas we're in a position now where we're trying to address that and some people are forgetting how forgiving we were at the beginning.

It was quite interesting because what a lot of housing providers did at the beginning was they would pay incentives for some of their staff that were still going into properties. So, one of the things that most housing providers still did was their visits, their compliance visits. Then a lot of housing providers sent notes and gifts to all the staff and I think what will come out of this is that the environment's better because of it. I think that staff will have a better work-life balance as a result of what's happened. But I think that as an organization, we had quite a few things going on at the same time. So you know, the situation with the regulator. We're working with a new Chief Exec, a new Chair of The Board and so actually in spite of everything, it's actually gone well.

Alastair:
Fantastic. So a lot lots of change there, not only a global pandemic but also a sort of recovery plan and new people at the top. So, you mentioned foundations earlier. It's not something I’m really aware of. Could you just elaborate on what that is and what you're doing there?

Emma:
Yeah, so it's really interesting because when I first started and I heard the word foundations, I thought it was about helping some of our customers getting to work, but it's not. Even though we're doing some of that as well. It's all about the recovery plan to do with data. So a lot of downgrades, including ours, part of it was the fact that we had issues with our electrical servicing program and knowing how many were valid, how many weren't. So a team was put together to address that through a proper method of looking at data and validating and checking. That was very time-consuming. Actually, the fact that we were in the middle of that during the pandemic - was helped by all this temporary flexibility of staff who were able to help with some of this data crunching that needed to happen.

The other thing that we're looking at is a better IT system to house some of this validated data. So we're currently working with “Capita” on something called "Compliance Manager", which will house our validated data. It will enable us to be fully compliant and be able to provide assurance to our board and the regulator. But also having good data will enable us to make better decisions for our customers. Because as housing providers, you know, we're always having to look at value for money and we have very tight business plans. So we need to make sure that we're making decisions that are correct. We also need to be looking after our assets and making sure that about the things that you talked about earlier. We're in a very damp environment in the Northwest. We've got a couple of tower blocks. So we've had to respond to Hackitt. We're also very aware of decent homes too and the energy sort of movement, the carbon agenda and looking at how we might get to where we need to be in 2050. What we've been looking at this morning are green grants.

So, an interesting thing that I picked up from the Nat Fed this morning is that housing associations can apply for those grants now, having to deliver by the end of March next year, which is always really tight with housing providers. But because of state aid rules, it will probably be limited to about 50 units. But that's still £5,000 a pop or whatever it is. Those kinds of things will really help get us better value for money and help us hopefully improve our customer's lives.

Alastair:
Absolutely. Yeah, the green homes grant, I think is what you're referring to and as far as I’m aware, there's £5,000 available. They have primary and secondary measures. Primary is pretty much insulation or energy-efficient heating. Unfortunately, boilers don't seem to be on there but heat pumps are. And then secondary measures are even things like windows. Smart heating controls are included in that as well. But I think there's a lot of money to try and spend by March. It looks like from what we're told, that they will continue it after March as well. So that's the kind of fingers crossed bit.

Emma:
With some of these situations, if we can demonstrate that we can do that, we'll be more likely to get that funding afterwards. So that's what I’ve asked my team to start looking at straight away.

Alastair:
Yeah, definitely. That's a really good and sort of proactive approach. If you do it once during this period, you know that when it comes again. A: they're more likely to do it because it's worked and B: you're more likely to get it because you've been through it before.

Emma:
Yeah.

Alastair:
I wanted to just thank you for being so open about the downgrading situation there. I think there are lots of housing providers that are working on data in so many different sources and it can be quite difficult. And I’d just like to concur with something that you identified where the lockdown threw up lots of different challenges but, one of the sorts of advantages was being able to move resource. So if you're entering fewer properties to do planned works, for example, you can use those people to do something else like going through data. We had a similar situation, where we were able to really drill into last year and this year's data. We wanted to be able to give some of our client's insights during the lockdown as to what was happening in the properties to tell them to either get in under emergency circumstances or to be aware of it for when the lockdown was eased. And one of the main takeaway points that we found out is that unsurprisingly, humidity is on the increase.

So comparative to this time last year, every month of lockdown has been 20% to 30% higher within properties. Now usually that absolute humidity would cause more damp and mould but we've actually had really nice, warm weather comparatively as well. The thing that we're trying to shout from the rooftops and tell as many people as possible is we believe this is basically going to create a bit of a mould bomb when the bad weather sets in over winter. You have more moisture in the air and when the temperature goes down, you get higher relative humidity. Which is one of the causes of condensation and therefore damp and mould. So, keeping an eye on how those properties are performing, checking in with residents to see if they're getting mould at all, even if it's a little bit, it's the sort of thing that you might want to just to do to be proactive about more so than in previous years.

Cool. I did want to just stay on that theme of kind of tracking building performance. I don't know if you've got any ideas about some good approaches for social housing providers when it comes to tracking the performance of buildings?

Emma:
Yeah. So, I really believe that there are good products out there and I think there's something in having that kind of immediacy. So having real-time information. We have good examples of trackers on vans that are able to give us lots of real-time information. I like the idea of having the trackers on heating systems. So we're able to look at things remotely and make decisions on that basis. Something which is very similar to this theme that I’m really interested in, particularly with our tower blocks, is having really good data on the tower block. This is in response to Hackitt. So I am moving away a little bit from the internet of things. One of the positions a lot of housing providers are in is they've not got great plans for their existing stock. A lot of it was built in the 40s, the 30s. And you're lucky if you get some paper plans and you're lucky if they're the right plans. So there's a lot of work now being done with BIM on new builds and there are some really good examples where whole buildings have been done with it.

Using elaborate BIM techniques and then it's passed through to management and none of it's used and it's such a shame. So from an asset management position, I’ve been working with BIM for housing on how we might apply that to existing buildings. And I was involved with a tower block where I’ve just come from, the housing association I was involved with, that was a big tower block in Blackburn. It had lots of fire compartmentalization works that were needed. We'd had a death in the building as well. The building had performed as it should be but all these things sort of say, we really need to look at this building. So, I worked with an architect to actually apply BIM to it. Very basic BIM to it. But it enabled us to get some really good plans. It enabled us to get some really good measurement. So what it really helped with, we worked with the local fire brigade on the plans for the building and what they wanted to see. Where things needed to be. It also really helped with options appraisal. So then having a really good, robust, knowledge of the building, I was able to provide our board with that assurance that we really knew that building and what we needed to do with it.

The other thing that BIM allows you to do is to get more accurate pricing because practices aren't pricing in risk. So that was another benefit from it. And so this whole idea of having electronic data, having much more detailed records, you know, it's quite labour-intensive. I think there's a whole market in looking at how that can be done quicker but it's definitely moving in the right direction and I think it's something that will be mandated over the next few years.

Alastair:
Yeah, very, very interesting I think what you've just described there is sort of the power of having that information and in a way that's relatively contemporary. It's kind of useful at a point in time when you've got a problem that you want to go and solve and what we see a lot is that housing providers have got lots of data. That's the first thing. They've got lots of it. Not always the right data and not very clean. It's not all being used but even when you get lots of useful data into a place where you can use it for a particular problem, it sometimes will just sit there and only be used for that particular department's issue. And so the golden egg or whatever the expression would be is continuing to collect and gather data, continuing to store it and analyse it but then for it to be used on a daily basis in front of people's eyes. I think in the big Capitas and Civicas and those type of asset and housing management systems. We do kind of look to them to try and merge the information in because those are the systems that have your operatives eyes and ears most of the time. But it's not quite got there yet, with all of the different systems that you can put in. Interesting with regards to the options appraisal, am I right in thinking that that's got something to do with whether you keep or repair or dispose?

Emma:
Yeah.

Alastair:
We think the kind of ongoing monitoring, not just of what's in the property at the start of it. So you know the plan of what's there and its life cycle of when it might need replacing. But also how it's performing at any given time will really help with that side of it. It will help you keep on properties that you thought you might have to get rid of or indeed choose to dispose of ones that might become a compliance risk further down the line. Okay, great. If you had to think about the one thing that Peaks & Plains have been doing recently that other housing providers, maybe even of a similar size, larger or smaller, should be replicating. Is there any particular process, idea or innovation that you guys have been using?

Emma:
Yeah. So, I think going back to some of the Foundations work. Some of the programs that have been built to report on validation are absolutely brilliant and are very robust. They are emailed daily and I think the work that's gone into them (they've been built by the in-house team) is something that I think we should be speaking to other people about because it's a really good assurance tool. We've just finished the gas report. We're just doing the electrical safety report at the moment. It's not just a spreadsheet, it's got lots of checks and balances in it which enable us to get some really full assurance from it. We did get it audited as well from our external auditors and they gave it full assurance.

The thing is even if you've not been downgraded, there's so much focus on compliance data on the back of Hackitt and it's massive. It's absolutely massive and it does take resources. Taking it away from people's day jobs initially but then it's got to be part of day jobs going forward. There's probably a lot of learning on how we've approached that, which I think would be something that I would say is probably unique to us as well.

Alastair:
Fantastic. Just changing the subject slightly. We had a conversation another time and you mentioned Pankhurst women's centre and I just was sort of going back to the beginning of our conversation of the lockdown effects and how it's affected certainly housing and our sector but can you tell us a bit about that centre and whether it was able to continue to provide services? How did that work?

Emma:
Yeah. So and the Pankhurst Centre is based in Manchester and it manages five refuges that are in Manchester, women's refuges that were formerly Manchester women's aid. They're housed on Grafton street, which was Emily Pankhurst's home when she set the Suffragettes movement up. So there's a small museum there. The fact that the offices are there helps support it because the museum does not get any support at all. You don't pay to go. It gets some donations but it's run by volunteers. It's amazing because before I go on to the refuge bit, I’ll just give you a bit about the museum because we've got some amazing artefacts of the suffragette times. Stuff that belonged to Emily Pankhurst but because they're not a museum, they can't display any of it. They haven't got the money for those display cases that you see in museums. They're thousands of pounds and they have to have special monitoring of the air and light and everything else. It can't get insurance as a museum as well because it's not a proper museum. So that's what the heritage lottery bid is all about. We've not been successful over the last couple of years, but we are working with the heritage lottery fund to try and get that money to make it into a proper, robust museum. So that's something that I’m really passionate about because what we've got is just so inspiring. It's so good the times I’ve volunteered there - some of the younger people that are coming in are getting really inspired by the fact all this great movement of not just the Pankhurst, but other political movements in Manchester it really made strong people.

So it's really inspiring but the other side is definitely the refuge side and it provides community facilities for lots of women's groups. Throughout COVID, the museum was obviously closed, and I think it's just about to reopen. Some of the outreach works still carried on and the refuges stayed open, but with lots of precautions about social distancing and PPE. One of the unfortunate consequences of COVID was that domestic violence saw a huge rise and the other stat I’ve read today on Twitter is suicides of young women have doubled over this time which is just staggering and really, really sad. I was actually on one of the refuges boards for a while - so one of the things was the number of pregnant women that come in. So pregnant women are being abused and then a lot of these refugees also have funding from children in need. So they have little creches or play areas for children that are fleeing as well. But I know that those refuges are full. So what happens then is when somebody's fleeing, they're having to go halfway across the country to get to a refuge that's got some availability.

So yeah, as an organization we saw an increase in domestic violence and so one of the things that we did as well as part of COVID and we're still doing up to this day is we've got some KPIs that are attached to COVID to do with income. ASB is one of them where we're looking at. Hate crime increased but domestic violence also increased. Some KPIs today did say that it's slightly going back down again though. So I don't know whether that's something to do with some of the lockdowns in some areas have released a bit more, schools have gone back, but it's the really sort of sad but interesting dynamic of what's happened.

Alastair:
Yeah, very much so. I hope that the recent small trend shift is going to continue because I’ve also read lots of reports about that and it's not nice reading, unfortunately. So, look to change the subject slightly, I just wanted to come back to the sort of housing world. You mentioned the greater Manchester area. We've seen from a podcast we did last week and some other involvement that we've had over the last year that the greater Manchester area seems to have banded together quite well in the drive for net-zero carbon, electrification of heat, improvement of new-build energy efficiency and also deep whole house retrofit works. With that theme in mind, where does Peaks & Plains sit in this zero-carbon retrofit world?

Emma:
Well, previous to me working at Peaks & Plains, I was working for another housing association where I had a much bigger environmental team that was at the forefront of all of that. Including doing lots of carbon literacy training externally to commercial organizations as well as to a lot of housing providers. They also had as part of their 10-year strategy - moving properties from a 'D' to a 'C'. So I had the funding to support that as well. Peaks & Plains is a much smaller organization. It's actually not in Great Manchester. It's in East Cheshire. Although East Cheshire has lots of ambition to become carbon neutral as well. One of the things I’m working on with my team is to get that EPC data much more visible. We're going to hopefully use some of this green grant money to help drive some air source heat into some of our properties. We're going to start in the next year or so having a good conversation about gas boilers. So, I think there's a lot of awareness. We're lucky we've got a champion on our board, who is very environmentally focused, who's helping drive some of this to get us where we need to be.

Being part of one of the Nat Fed groups that cover this as well has been really useful because I get a lot of the thinking. I think that if we hadn't had COVID and if Hackitt hadn't been delayed - that's all delaying a lot of legislation that's going to come out on the energy efficiency front which unfortunately is going to delay things going forward.

Alastair:
Yeah. Interesting stuff. Our involvement has been in trying to help housing providers with energy efficiency and some of the challenges that come with that. Where there might be behaviour changes or the system that you're installing requires some behaviour change for it to work well. You realize it's not just as simple as a single measure will solve all the problems. The other element that we've been actually lobbying BEIS and OFGEM about, and we believe there's a kind of change coming, is that things like smart technology and smart heating systems are not currently recognized properly within SAP and therefore EPCs. So where we're reducing wasted energy, the burning of fossil fuels, for example. It's not currently benefiting housing providers under EPCs but that's due to change within the next few months. Finally, something we've been working on for about three years.

The other interesting thing that we've found - we've got some colleagues on-site in Stockport today for a ground source heat pump project and the ability, that when you've got connected devices, you're able to actually assist residents to use systems. It's becoming really interesting and valuable. So, if you install a ground source heat pump, some residents are going to be bang on with it and love it and are able to use it, instantly. They've done all the reading and they're excited about it. Some don't care that much and it will just work in the background and some will be really scared of it or misuse it, unfortunately. And it's that demographic of people, that being able to see how the system is being used, how it's performing and what effect it's having on the property remotely, changes a project from being okay to being a real success. So we're trying to also talk to as many people as possible about if you're going down this route of what can seem like scary, new smart technology from the electrification of heat side of things or new insulation measures or something like that, put some monitoring in. Put some form of remotely controlling or diagnosing those systems and it will help in the long run for it to become a success.

Great. Emma, is there anything else that you wanted to talk about? I am aware that you're doing a few speaking slots in the coming weeks and months and it's something that I used to love doing. I’ve been sat mainly in this chair for the last few months and haven't managed to get out and about much. I've done a couple of online things. Do you think that we're going to return to face-to-face conferences standing on stages or do you think it's going to be nothing from home for a while?

Emma:
I think definitely the conference season this year is all virtual and I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that it's very different. And it's going to be really interesting because I’ve spoken at their housing conference a couple of times but doing it virtually is going to be interesting. Because you really do bounce from your audience and it's so refreshing to get people to have put hands up and ask a question. I think that it's going to be very different, isn't it, when you're posting something very anonymously.

But I do think, I think we've got this for a bit longer. I’m hopeful that a lot of people have rebooked holidays and events for next year. I suppose I was still hoping to go to Vietnam in May. So, I’ve had it. So I’m just a bit like, well, it is what it is and we just need to embrace it. Make the most of it. I think there is something now about trying to do some socially distanced meetings. I do one day in the office and it's just nice to get ready to go into the office and do that commute and see who's in the office. Have a nice chat. We had a conversation today about apprentices at work because they're really missing out because it's very difficult for them to work from home. We should be developing them and they get a lot from being in the environment that everybody else is in. So it's interesting. I’m speaking at about five things virtually between now and November. It's great in terms of I’ve not been to the centre of Manchester since. I used to go to London quite a lot and I’ve not been there either. So, we'll wait and see.

Alastair:
You're not missing much still smoggy. A bit less busy.

Emma:
It's raining today, yeah.

Alastair:
It's raining down here

Emma:
It's raining in Manchester.

Alastair:
I know that's really great. Listen, Emma, thank you so much for joining us today! Some great topics discussed there. We'll put some links to a few of the things that we've been talking about when this goes out. And yeah, thank you very much for today!

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