video Podcast Episode 4

Marc Baines from the South East Consortium

This week, we're talking with Marc Baines, the Managing Director at the South East Consortium. We talk about the role of procurement in normalising innovation, what the South East Consortium have been up to and the gaps housing providers have when it comes to energy efficiency technology.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
Hi and welcome to another “Switchee podcast” I’m Alastair Thorpe from Switchee and I’m joined today by Marc Baines. He's the Managing Director of South East Consortium or SEC as we know it. Hi, Marc! thanks for coming to join us.

Marc:
Hi, Alastair! Thanks for having me.

Alastair:
No problem. No problem. I wanted to kick off the conversation today with a big round question of how and why you got involved in housing.

Marc:
Yeah, sure happy to answer. So my journey in this sector started in 2008. I came out of university and I was looking for a graduate development training opportunity and I joined an organization called Moat. I was there for a couple of years then moved on to Optivo and then on to MD at SEC, South East Consortium. So I had a great, great journey - so why housing? Well, in my first placement at Moat as a Customer Experience Officer, I quite quickly grew to love it and I’ve never looked back. I don't think I could work in anything else now. I think what really attracted me to this sector was the sheer diversity of people you can be talking to, roles that you can be playing, things you have to do and really make a difference. So I absolutely love it. I couldn't see myself doing anything else now and I know I’ve moved over to a much more commercial place, but I think I’ll never forget my roots. I’ll never forget that it's all about putting yourself in the customer's shoes and what would you do if it were somebody that was really close to you - how would you help them? Never forget that. So, it gives us a unique edge and culture at SEC around how we do public procurement but keep up our customer care. So, yeah, that's a little bit about me, Alastair.

Alastair:
That's great. Thank you for that. It's always interesting to find out how and why people got involved in the industry and I think making an impact comes through quite a lot. That seems to be a really big theme with younger people that are looking at what careers they're going to do and I do feel quite passionately that the housing sector is a great place for young people and graduates to get involved in that. They might not always think of it straight away but there we go. So look, South East Consortium, some of the viewers will know about what it is. Could you just give us a really quick overview of what SEC is and what you do?

Marc:
Yeah, of course. So we are a central purchasing body. We're one of the traditional procurement solutions, organizations, put together in 2005. We generally are most well-known for providing the sector with frameworks and they're usually around strategic asset management. They can be consultancy, they can be compliance and they can be planned maintenance. We've changed somewhat over the years. So we now offer support around technical documents, specification writing, price models. We have loads and loads of data to help people make informed decisions. We can run bespoke tenders for individuals as well. And we also assist with kicking contracts off and getting them off the ground. So that's a bit about what we do in terms of our DNA.

We're a non-profit, unincorporated business that is owned by its membership. That membership is 37 different housing associations and local authorities across the Southeast with a huge range in sizes from 55,000 homes down to 100 homes. So what's great for us is we enjoy providing a service where it isn't one-size-fits-all and again completely designed to support the sector and make a difference.

Alastair:
Fantastic. Thank you for that and interesting that you're saying designed for the sector and their needs. I just so happen to know that you guys are working on a kind of climate emergency net-zero carbon reduction framework at the moment. I want to hear more about that but, I guess the first thing would be - do you actually think that our industry is ready for this energy efficiency technology boom or green recovery?

Marc:
I think it could be. I know that's not necessarily a direct answer to your question. I think it could be. I think the only way it can be achieved is through absolute proper planning and, as I said there Alastair, we work with organizations with 100 homes right the way through to 55,000. Dare I say, it may be budget depending a little - it might be a bit easier for some of those smaller organizations where it is woven into the DNA and the strategic ambition of the business because let's face it. This is a major investment for any organization to follow its dreams of becoming a zero-carbon organization. So we feel like we're going to be doing our bit by putting this framework together and the framework will be designed again, I'll tell me a bit more about it later Alastair, to make people's lives easier and it will have tested the market in areas that people will be interested in.

I think in short, I think yes, the sector could be ready. I think some organizations will be ready sooner than others but it is all about full and proper planning and that's from FDs allocating and planning long-term budget commitments. To Asset Managers who are going to be thinking about technology that needs replacing in the coming years. To Chief Executives that are going to set out the vision. To Officers that are on the ground talking to their customers and residents about maintaining these pieces of equipment. And yes, I think it's a much bigger effort than many of us may even be considering right now. And we all embark on it as a sector together and we can collaborate and we've got some ideas around that but yeah, I feel like I’m sitting on the fence Alastair but I think it certainly could be.

Alastair:
Good stuff. Yeah, I mean, like you say, organization-wide beyond that it's worldwide, isn't it? In this situation, the consequences of not doing anything or getting it wrong are massive but the solutions that we currently think are there to do it - it's not as simple as whacking something in or on to sort that out. I think there's also an element of knowledge within the sector. Do you think that there are any particular gaps that we've got within your clients or just the sector in general?

Marc:
Yes, I think they are and this kind of goes hand in hand with the other points really. I think that what we're trying to achieve with the new framework is a way that organizations can get support with things like what funding is available, with how you can deliver a strategy that is built around having a zero-carbon future or carbon reduction. So, yeah, I think there are skill shortages but that's probably beyond housing. It's probably something that, as a nation, we need to consider because this impacts on everybody, doesn't it? We're talking about housing today. But your home, my listener's homes, eventually we're all going to get there and I don't know about you, Alastair. I know your stuff around technology but, I sometimes struggle with my thermostat. It's like, who knows - we're talking about a complete culture shift here, aren't we? So we're all gonna have to get to grips with it, whether that means that those that work in gas contractors (South East Consortium has heating framework for example) dare I say, is that a declining market? You know - what next and how do we ready ourselves for it.

So I think yes there's definitely a skill shortage. The gaps though - I think it's a fascinating piece of analysis for someone much more clever than I to tell us who those people are. But do we know enough about funding streams available? Probably not. I know I don't. Do we know enough about the forms of technologies available? Well, I think we feel like we have a really good grasp and I did a really interesting exercise with a fantastic climate consultant called Bevan Jones. Bevan was working with myself and some of our members to almost draw a house on a whiteboard and then place your forms of zero-carbon technologies into it. And as a group, we're great at that but what we soon recognized is all of the things that we're talking about for the future currently exist. So what about the next bit? What is it that is coming up and how do we keep innovating and how do you stay on top of that. And I know I’m posing more questions than answering yours. But, yeah. It's a really fascinating landscape that we're going to embark on yes, I think there are some gaps. Yes, in the sector but probably in the nation as well and it's probably all of our responsibilities to try and bridge that gap.

Alastair:
Indeed, very interesting. I love what you said there about, I’m going to paraphrase here, but the future exists already. This sort of future house that people think of with battery walls and renewable technologies and smart control and monitoring and sensors. It exists already. The difficulty, certainly from the sort of manufacture and supplier technology side, is actually within the housing sector. It feels like you have to normalize innovation and technology to get it to roll out at any sort of scale - that's been an issue from a start-up perspective. Here's a question for you. How can you stop organizations from taking a bit of a shotgun approach to trying to solve this big issue?

Marc:
Yeah, yeah. Brilliant question and I think one of the ways you could do that is by asking organizations like us to develop intelligent frameworks. What you can do through proper planning whether it is that you need some assistance as a customer or housing association in the sector with developing a plan or implementing a plan, it's something that what we're trying to do through this new framework. We're trying to bridge that. We're trying to build and I suppose to give you an idea of one of the things that we're trying to do Alastair in the new framework. There's basically, I suppose outside of the kind of technicalities, there are three key elements of it. The first one is on design. So this really is going to allow the customer to source a consultant or a firm or an organization to assist with appraising their homes, or to assist with developing a strategy or to assist with funding available in the market. So the first part really is all about design. So, for example, thinking about the questions you've asked me already, there's a possibility there that an individual or an organization that is struggling to see the wood through the trees - for them to understand what they're going to do, they could use that framework for a solution.

The other two elements really or the second element I should say is around maintaining and installations. So, again, we as a Consortium did some research with some of our members and it was really clear that people can already buy these technologies as you and I have discussed. But, maintaining them came up as an issue as did systems internally for housing associations. So, we’ll give you a great example because my background is housing ops. So, you get a call from a customer. The call goes into your contact centre and what the system doesn't tell you is that Mrs Miggins’s property needs a specialist contractor because there's a heat pump. The system tends to be very basic and say that actually, it's our gas contractor that needs to go out. So that came up as quite an issue. So second one is installations and maintenance of technologies and within that as well, we're thinking about being innovative and we're thinking about dashboards and wraparounds and systems that our organizations can use. Because I think that's really clever the stuff, isn't it? I mean, much like the Switchee products, you can tee a customer up or a client office up to understand what's going on with the makeup of somebody's home and make informed decisions. So, it's really important that dashboard part.

Then the third element is kind of the partnerships part of the project or framework I should say. And by partnerships what we're looking at here is probably a slightly larger organization. I think the second part install maintain is more driven to SMEs and organizations of specialists, but the third one is much more of a larger organization that can do everything we've discussed. So if you're looking for a partner that is going to be able to advise and is going to be able to look after the properties, going to be able to assist with the wrap as well. So what we're trying to do is be aware of the changing world around us and also be able to support the small RP all the way through to a large local authority.

Alastair:
That's a great summary there Marc. It's a really exciting framework. I wish you well with that - we'll make sure that we put some of the details of the SEC website when we put the podcast up. I think a couple of interesting points - where you're talking about the need or requirement for specialists. Clearly, at the moment that's the case. The technology and the innovation side of things invariably has additional cost and complication at the start but these innovations and complications quickly become the norm. They become cost-effective norms and you don't need specialists anymore for condensing gas boilers as you did 15 years ago. And another interesting element is kind of wrapping up that maintenance and ongoing service element because the further we go with these different technological advancements you find, actually you're connecting a lot of different products and things in the home and what makes them smart or better or innovative is actually when they're talking to each other or you're gathering information from them that you can use remotely. So they all need some form of connectivity and some sort of service package behind that and I think sometimes housing providers are very good at packaging up installing boxes on walls stuff and they're really good at packaging up consultancy services stuff but when the two meet, it doesn't quite work.

Marc:
Yeah.

Alastair:
So, we're hopeful that your framework can do that. So, look, thank you very much for the overview on SEC and that new framework as I mentioned we'll put the details in when we put this up. I just wanted to leave you with something with regards to the funding side of things. So, from what we're aware of there's quite a few different funding streams that are coming out and the bits that we're keeping our eye on at the moment is the green homes grant, which runs until March next year. But they're probably likely to continue it after that - that's around £5K per property and is open to housing providers albeit, there are some complications as to exactly what's eligible and we've done a little blog piece on that, so do go and check that out.

And the other one is the social housing decarbonization fund. Rolls off the tongue. They're doing a demonstrator at the moment where they're trying to deep retrofit around 2,000 properties around the country and they've identified the need for not only really good energy efficiency measures, whether that's insulation or heat pumps, but they're also quite interested in the monitoring side of things. That's something that where we're quite keen on your type of framework and the way that the government are talking at the moment with funding is that they've recognized that. Actually, you need to monitor something to understand if it's doing the job that it's meant to be doing there and it's not causing any other adverse effects. So things like your framework, if you're able to bake into that it's been designed properly, installed properly, maintained properly - you don't get these sort of unknown consequences that you might get from doing unnecessary measures or measures that aren't installed properly.

And I just wanted to make that point that kind of sensors, or whatever you want to call it. Monitoring of some sort is so important and it can be done relatively cheaply these days with modern technology. Great. Look Marc, it's been fantastic to chat with you. I’m going to leave you with one final question, which I certainly haven't prepped you on. If you have to come up in one sentence what you think the biggest problem or area of change or even area of opportunity for housing is at the moment what would it be?

Marc:
Are we talking purely zero-carbon Alastair or we talking in general?

Alastair:
Anything, anything in your wheelhouse! Anything housing-related.

Marc:
Wow! I think I’ve already gone beyond one sentence in my waffle, haven't I? But I think it's all around building safety and I think it does align itself to the future and how we properly plan these things out but it's got to be building safety for me. You just have to look at something like inside housing - the numbers are astounding that organizations have got fined. But, it's so important, isn't it? That, that we get it right. So again, we have a personal mission at the consortium - building frameworks that are clever, that are agile and that completely embrace making safe homes and maintaining safe homes. So, yeah, that's us and thanks for your words Alastair on funding that's really, really helpful as well and a good bulletin from Switchee I saw today. Thanks for all the work that you guys do for the sector. It's always nice working with you and yeah, thanks very much for having me today.

Alastair:
Not at all, it's been great. Thanks very much Marc! Take care. See you soon.

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