Podcast Episode 5
Keith Simpson from the Direct Works Forum
This week, we're talking with Keith Simpson, the founder of the Direct Works Forum. We talk about how he got into housing, whether there is enough tradespeople to actually deliver Net Zero, how we can promote careers in housing maintenance and the evolution of the Direct Works Forum.
Hi and welcome to the Switchee podcast. I’m Alastair from Switchee and I’m joined today by, a bit of a drum roll, please. A legend from the social housing community. I’m joined by Keith Simpson. And I thought I would just ask you, first of all, Keith I ask most of our guests why they got involved in housing and so why and how did you get involved in housing?
Well, I started life, my employment life, as an Apprentice Draftsman in one of the steel operations in Sheffield and a friend of mine, in the mining village where I lived, became a pop singer. And he invited me to go and join him on this adventure, not knowing whether it would last five minutes or whether it would last a year or whatever. This was in the early 60s and I joined him and, bear in mind, I’m living in a two-up, two-down with no bathroom, an outside toilet and all that business in a mining village. And all of a sudden, we were in Hilton hotels in Brussels and Paris and stuff.
Going around the world for seven years, having the most amazing time and that actually was a really important thing in my life, because nothing could impress me. I’m not impressed by anything. I’ve done it all, seen it all, in those seven years. You can imagine what happened. Full of energy and stuff. So I went on this adventure and then it finished. And I’ve got to get a job. And a friend of mine had got a small building company and he said, "Well, come on come join us." so I started work with him as a Bricklayer and as an Apprentice Bricklayer. And then he said to me, "You can't learn enough with me. You want to go to the council. They're building a thousand houses a year. They're building schools and magistrates courts and things." so I went to join Sheffield city council and had a fantastic time there. With the intention that, you would never leave. Because people never left Sheffield in those days. There were too many hills around it's a bit like Rome. And if you get a job with the council, that was a job for life.
So I joined the council and very quickly became a foreman bricklayer and a general foreman then a site agent and then finished with quite a good job in Sheffield. And that's what took me into the social housing thing, I fell in love with it. I was really interested in the sort of societal impact that social housing can have. And the need for it in a civilized society. And one of the things that has depressed me, over the last few years, is, I think, that a lot of organizations have lost the plot with that. They've become entrepreneurial developers and they've left behind the poor. And we've gone into this affordable housing nonsense instead of building social housing.
So I’m pleased to see that to some degree that is coming back. But that's what took me there. That's what kept me there like a drug. Because wherever I went, I found corruption of some sort. And so, I went down to Peterborough because everybody was in prison for stealing and then went from Peterborough to Islington where I got all the services and everything. And there was a lot of malpractice. The district auditor was in there and all things like that.
But I really enjoyed taking it all on and making sense of it. And making sure that we got value for the public purse, which has always been the driver. So that's how I got into it. And that's why at 77, I’m still in it. And like a drug, I can't give it up.
Indeed, indeed. I think that's great Keith. For most people that I speak to in the housing sector, there's always an element in there of the societal good part or it's the main part. I see what you're saying and I agree with you about the move from helping people in poverty to more of a kind of finance vehicle. I think that's a shame. The one good thing that comes out of that, though, is a bit more building within the sector. Because you know, doing a thousand new builds a year is a lot and I don't know many housing providers now that are doing that. So it's great that you got that experience. And hey, being on tour - I’ve played a gig for the first time in five years on Friday night. It probably wasn't as raucous as what you remember. But it was all socially distanced.
So I’m really interested to talk to you about people and skills today. And I think one of the things that, from some of our previous chats, I think is quite interesting is there's this big push towards net-zero and trying to get a lot done. But do you actually think that we've got enough people to deliver these measures?
Well, I certainly think we've got enough people. We haven't got enough skills, that's for sure. We're going to have a plethora of people with the scale of unemployment that's going to hit us, as a result of this pandemic. But, I do think just going back to the last point, one of the great things to come out of this COVID scene is the focus of organizations has gone back to the customer a lot more than to the Finance Director. And I think that's a blessing that's come out of this tribulation. That they're finding their way back to where their roots were.
And certainly, when I talked to members of the Direct Works, they're all passionate about that and enjoying this transformation of emphasis. So I think that's great. But in terms of the resources - yes, we've got plenty of people to train. That's not an answer. That's a challenge. And with the advent of Brexit and the exodus of the European workers in London going off construction sites things are even more difficult for the new build side of things.
But retrofit is a new challenge and the only experience we've had of it, to any great degree, isn't relevant unless you're my age (77). In Sheffield when I was with Sheffield City Council when we stopped building houses in the 70s with Thatcher and Blair. They stopped local authorities from actually building things and determining they should be the provider of opportunity and not the provider of services. We were put onto home improvements, as it were then, which is a bit like the Decent Homes Program. And I was running half of Sheffield, that's 30,000 properties, in the northern part of Sheffield on this home improvement job. And we did everything to that property, including hacking the plaster off the walls and replastering, new rewires, new central heating, new roofs - everything. With the tenant in occupation. And we put the tenant into a bedroom with a kitchen sink and said, "That's where you're staying for the next two weeks, three weeks until we get you to another room." and the tenants put up with it.
Not a word, not a murmur.
Can you imagine trying to do that now? How many times you've been caught with tenants wanting to get rid of the rent arrears by taking you on for not providing proper hot water and all that sort of thing. So, we're in a different environment now.
But this retrofit does provide a phenomenal opportunity to do this essential piece of work, in terms of getting to zero carbon. But, we've got to realize that it's work that needs doing with tremendous discipline. More discipline than building a new house. If you build a new house and you build the kitchen an inch too big, that's not an issue. Retrofit's got to be done to the millimetre if you're going to achieve the result that you want. Which is airtightness and all that efficiency gain that we need. And we've not got that. We've not got the skills that are used to working to great tolerance with new products.
So we've got all these new products that are going to come on stream in the next 25 years, that we've got to teach people how to use. And that's battery storage, hydrogen boilers, heat pumps, all this stuff. Solar tiles and things that, that people are going to have to acquire skills to get. And don't pretend that we can do that in five minutes.
You know, if you think that in the year 2000, Michael Latham wrote a report called "Rethinking construction". You're just about old enough to remember it. I don't know whether you did because I don't know if you were in the sector then, but it was looking at the construction industry. One of the things that I’ve never ever forgotten from that was his comparison between Germany and England - to demonstrate the inefficiency of the British model or the English construction model. And he said, that in Germany to build a house, ignoring the land bit because they're quite different. In Germany, you regularly rent properties and don't own them so it's a different model. But the British statistic for building a house in the year 2000, was that 60% was labour and 40% was material. And that, I don't believe, that's changed one iota and since this report, the quality of design and finish on houses that have been thrown up by the national house builders has deteriorated. I mean, I drive--, I used to drive around the country and on occasions, nearly wanted to throw up looking at these estates that have been built as affordable housing.
Oh goodness! So uninspiring, it must be so depressing to live in those situations. You know, I started my career when Parker Morris was in the game. And Parker Morris standards that we built all our housing to in Sheffield before we were stopped. The average size for a three-bedroom semi, the smallest, was 100 square meters. And now, the average size for a three-bedroom semi is about 80 square meters. Every house had got a shed. Every house had got a facility to have a garden but a proper garden. Do you know what I mean? With space that the children could enjoy themselves. And part of the criteria was that you've got to have rooms for people to do homework, people to do this, people to do that. And he thought about all this, whereas now, you look at the bedroom sizes at 8ft x 6ft and you know, that's a second bedroom 8ft x 6ft.
And Keith, interestingly that, that comes full circle with the requirement for people to work at home. Not just sort of doing school homework or indeed if people had other occupations back then. We're all "Hello, we're all at home." and you feel the pinch. I’m in London - properties are not large here and some of my friends are in quite small flats and you know, having to live and work in these environments, that was probably a bit too small to just live in anyway. It's really difficult.
Yeah, it is and all these converting redundant office blocks into accommodation, that is a potential nightmare. If you think we've got a suicidal problem now, you wait till that hits us. With people living with no blinking windows and in rooms, well not in rooms, in one room, that is sort of 12 feet square and everything's in there. Goodness, gracious! You know, where are we going? We've got the smallest housing size in Europe. And they're all going forward and we're going backwards. What's all that about?
I'm not sure. So maybe on a slightly lighter note. Starting with a bad point, first of all, there are lots of people that have been on this furlough scheme and that's ending... Ended. And there are a few other measures, that are there as a bit of a safety net. But I guess there's going to be a huge amount of people that are going to be on the job market. And we were talking about this move to net-zero and the deep retrofitting and requiring a huge amount of skilled people.
Have you had any thoughts on you know, how we can marry those two opportunities together, of mass unemployment and the requirement for mass skilled labour?
Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I’ve been writing to BEIS for the last six months. And I’m a real pain, with them. Just explaining the fact that what we don't want to do again. I guess one of the reasons for your existence at Switchee is the result of the last Green Deal, where we just cocked up every initiative that we had. Sticking insulation on the outside of houses and causing more problems than it was worth. So everybody got black mould, everybody got condensation. We spent a fortune trying to resolve it and putting that special paint on that never lets it occur again, or whatever it is, I don't know.
But, it was an absolute nightmare. I mean, we used a consultancy then. We used to look at the solar panels and they had a transfer on the face of it. A Chinese transfer. The panels didn't work. And the organizations would never check whether they worked. We had houses that were not connected properly. We've got all this nonsense going on and that was the green deal and no wonder it finished. It was just a waste of public money. So, I wrote to BEIS at the beginning of this process and said, "Look, if you want to do this - it's desperately important with a view to what we're spending on COVID and the cost to the economy - that every penny that we spend, we get value from. So don't go rushing in, with the normal political quick win scenario." and I can understand why politicians want to keep giving, you know, a progressive message out about what they're doing. But we can't do this quickly. A) because our sector needs a lot of work doing before it's ready itself, to launch this. And they're talking about this 30-year gap between the delivery of this whole program. And so we've got this challenge for the sector but we've also got the challenge for the training providers. Because there's been an under-investment in further education for the last 30 years.
So I had a call last night from a pal of mine, who is very knowledgeable on the London scene in terms of further education and training. And he told me that the colleges are so desperate now, that he's just come across an Apprentice, just out of his Apprenticeship becoming a College Lecturer. They're so thin on the ground, people that have served a legitimate apprenticeship and have got the ability to teach young people what they need to teach them in an apprentice these days. There's a massive issue around further education and colleges. And we've highlighted that in Direct Works. That's why we've created new apprenticeships because the apprenticeships themselves are not fit for purpose.
You know, they've never been sector-led. So one of the problems with the social housing scene is we've never had a technical organization representing us, at a high level. So we've got the National Housing Federation. They're all about policy and all that sort of scene, we've got the Chartered Institute of Housing, who are all about housing management. They've tried to get into the technical field and failed and they nearly went bust as a result of buying a consultancy that didn't work. So here we are, we're just the Direct Works Forum. Me and Rodney - two geriatrics that have been at it for 20 years and we've got Rob Bryan, from "Vantage", who's got another group and we've got Dave Miller from Rand with another group. And we're all doing bits of technical things, but nobody on a national scale. Well, we operate nationally but we've not got a national voice. And as a consequence, we've never had proper training, proper technical training, professional training as well as operative training. The Apprenticeships that have been created for multi-skilled and the other Apprenticeships have been totally inappropriate and everybody's been cheesed off that they don't deliver what they're supposed to deliver.
So, we've taken it upon ourselves, just before I retired, to create new Apprenticeships for the sector. And we've just agreed it with the institute for apprenticeships, which is absolutely brilliant. I mean they think we can walk on water. Make no mistake. They could not believe how we knew what we wanted and how precise we were on what we wanted from an Apprenticeship for a multi-skilled operative. And Alastair, it was the easiest thing in the world. All I did was to ask the 20 big members of the Direct Works Forum to send me their spreadsheets of the jobs they did in a year.
So I got 180,000 from L&Q and whatever. And all we did was analyse them and we found out that 72 jobs represented 90% of the work. They all do the same thing. Tenants do the same thing in every home. We put the same rubbish gear in, that breaks in every home. You know, what I mean? Nobody's got really clever.
I think Liverpool Housing Trust have got pretty clever. Liverpool Housing Trust - they've uped their standard of fitting. But we're all doing the same work. So we create an Apprenticeship with around 72 jobs and then the institute Apprenticeship says, "Right that's going to take two and a half years - you can't do that in one and a half years. And if you want to give them an advanced certificate, that's another 18 months." So that's a four-year Apprenticeship, that they will pay for.
So it's not as though we're asking the organizations to front any money up. They're getting the grant from the Institute of Apprenticeships because they believe it's worthwhile. And we ought to be doing that, in every aspect of the sector.
That's really interesting and inspiring. I think the fact that all of these housing providers have the same type of problems in the same jobs that they do. It's funny to think of it that way. The other thing I was going to say, Keith, I was having a conversation last week about Apprenticeships and it's not something that I know a huge amount about. But they were saying, one of the things that they're hopeful of is, using technology, to kind of assist more Apprentices out in the field.
Now nothing takes away from being, you know, one-on-one with someone out in the field on jobs but you might get to a stage where the Apprentice has gone through a certain amount of their training. And having videoing facilities whilst they're on-site can help them do some of these jobs that they're more familiar and comfortable with and get them out being self-sustaining almost and giving back to the organization. So, I think there's some technology that's come about that can progress that as well, which is really fascinating.
So, look we've covered off some massive topics here in terms of skills shortages for the big retrofit in net-zero. Whether we think that the people coming out of furlough and the unemployment crisis, that if it's not happening already is happening soon, where they could merge these two things, to become a great opportunity. And you've mentioned Direct Works there - we've got a podcast coming up with Russell soon and we're really interested to find out more about what they're doing to develop that organization to become the technical voice, the national technical voice, of the sector. Before we wrap up, is there anything else, that you want to tell our viewers, tell us that is coming down the line, that we haven't heard about or anything that we should be worried about.
Well, no. Well, to be worried about? Yeah. To be worried about, that we go wasting money. And give people jobs that aren't real jobs. My absolute dear wish here, is we've got to create 100,000 jobs to do this work. That's my calculation around the fact that we've got, goodness me, we've got to get to EPC Band C, by 2030. And then we've got to do 1500 properties a week, to get to zero carbon, if we started today.
And that is 4.3 million - 4.3 million housing association and local authority properties. So, we need an investment of somewhere around £9/10 billion to do this.
And the government are gonna have to stump up some money but they won't stump up all of it. So we're gonna have to get clever as well. And my view is that the challenge for the sector is that they've got to marry their 30-year business plan for their properties, to the retrofit agenda. And they've got to do that in a very sophisticated way. Because to do retrofit, one of the things that is required, is that you've got to coordinate the activity in a specific way. So, you can't, for example, put the external wall insulation on - which is fairly easy and everybody will go rushing to do it. And then in five years time, take all the windows out, and replace the windows. You know, it's got to be done in a coordinated way or else we're going to not get the energy efficiency that we're looking for.
So my view is that the organizations have got to look at their asset strategy. They've got to determine what are we going to sell, what can't we get to zero carbon. There might be a lot of offloading of duff properties that the private sector is then going to look at because they won't do it either - so we've got a challenge there. Yeah? But we've got to look at the properties that you can do, and bear in mind you're gonna have to do all the new properties because they're probably worse because of the way they've been constructed.
You know, certainly, worse than the 60s properties and 70s properties that were built of brick and breeze-block, not timber frame. So, big challenges for the sector in getting this right. But, for the Direct Work Forum, I think it represents a fantastic opportunity. Because we've got upwards of 10,000 operatives that do repairs and maintenance all over the country. And we'll have a good site on a good number of them that are getting a bit cheesed off with going around in a van and this might have really tipped the balance, this COVID thing. They're looking for a lifestyle change and so we've got potential mentors for these young people, to put them in the working environment. There's some teaching to do for the mentors, but it's not a big ask that.
And they've got to learn about new technology, which you know is also not a big ask. I mean you can tell us - how long would it take for somebody to understand what the functionality of Switchee is and the implications of putting it in.
Yeah. So, I don't want to make this sound too great, there are challenges around it all, but what I think we're blessed with is having this resource. We've got organizations that cooperate. So Russell has started at Direct Works. He started a working group of people to look at retrofit and there are about 18 people. They're absolutely chomping at the bit to cooperate. Now, one of the things that this sector's not terrific at is cooperating, because they all want to take each other over. They've all wanted to get the other one into trouble, haven't they? And grow their organization for the last 10 years.
So it's really refreshing to find that we've got this group really looking to cooperate to get the best value from this retrofit, but before we kick off, we've got to decide what gear we're fitting. What's the best value for money in the sector? We've got to procure it on a national basis. Because I’ve just seen this Green Homes Grant that has been kicked off in the private sector and I’m having phone calls from people that want to access it because they know that I’m in the sector and they're saying we want this £5,000 that you can get to do some insulation or to upgrade my boiler or whatever, but I can't find a contractor. They're telling me I’ve got to go to Aberdeen to get a contractor, I live in Stanford in Lincolnshire. Yeah? That's the only contractor available, who's got the accreditation to do this work. So that's got to be done by April this next year.
There's not a prayer that that money is going to be spent by next April and what we're going to get is poor quality work, and poor quality materials used, with no controls. So I’ve looked all the way through that green thing - that green homes grant. I can't find anywhere where it says you've got to thermal image insulation to make sure it's done properly. Nowhere. Now what an obvious thing to do, but we're not going to do that apparently.
So it's a finger in the air if we going to get there.
I think so - I think from the little that I know about the scheme, I mean we were quite excited at Switchee because we would be a secondary measure so we'd be eligible under it. So what I know from some people involved in it they've tried to do the right thing by saying that you must be Trustmark affiliated and PAS 2035. The theory behind that is that you will embed the processes into what you're doing - but as you say, Keith, if it's not written into the thing it might not happen and if nobody's accredited then they can't do the work in the first place.
Absolutely, absolutely. And that leads me on to one of the things that the Direct Works Forum is doing. Let me just go through where I see the future of it, because the reason for appointing Mike and Russell to the post that Rodney and I used to hold, is because neither Rodney nor myself can log on. You saw at one point my bride walked at the back of me. She logged me on here because I’m not at this game at all. And Rodney’s worse. He's somehow worse than me. So when we decided to retire and look for somebody, we wanted somebody younger, somebody that's in the sector, somebody that's got some kudos and Mike and Russell came to the fore in the process. And they've done lots since they've been managing it and that's only since June, this year. We've rebranded - the rebranding is due to be launched shortly. We've taken a new name so they've dropped the name forum. We're just calling it Direct Works as a result of the branding exercise. They created a new website that's going to be launched this month, that's interactive and does all the things that we've never done.
We created a website 20 years ago that we never updated. I just kept all the information around the speakers and things on it. We strengthened the steering group. We've just put two clever women on the steering group I got notice today, that they've put a woman from Riverside and another woman on from one of the bigger associations. We've been underrepresented by women. We've always had one or two women on, but we want proper representation by women. We've got a newsletter coming out every month from Mike Wilson about what's happening around the sector and with members. Russell’s creating partnerships with organizations like the CIOB to develop professional qualifications for maintenance. With the Institute for Apprenticeships for the work that we're doing with them UCAS.
I wanted to tell you one more thing about the forum. We were approached by UCAS some time back to create the UCAS standard for competency management in housing. For repairs and maintenance and refurbishment. So we've put a group of 10 organizations together and I got the private sector involved with the likes of Meers so that they weren't out on a limb and we started working. We were 60% of the way through when COVID hit us in January. Creating this standard and what that standard will do or should do if we're bright enough to take it as a sector, is it will give the sector the opportunity to ensure that every organization is technically competent to a UCAS standard. That's going to be externally validated by a UCAS accredited auditor. Now, that will mean that not only are the operatives at the front line competent but that it's also part of the process. That the supervisor, the manager, the director are all competent in their role. You know, because we've never had it before. I can remember saying, to a Development Director, quite locally to here, who's got a big portfolio "Are your development people competent?"
"How do you mean?"
I said, "Are they competent? Can you prove to me, that they're competent in doing what they're doing?"
and he said, "Well, they do what I ask them to do and that's as much as the competence is."
They could have been doing it wrong forever. Just as we proved with operatives when we did the operative assessments. We found that over 50% were not competent to fulfil their entire job responsibility. Now that's what I think the forum can bring to the sector. We can bring this technical competence, raise the bar and do more than Hackett is requesting in her raising the bar thing because she does intimate that it's about organizational competence. It's more about individual competence for the Building Manager and various other roles, that's what she's come up with. That they're all struggling to define and still struggling to tell us how they're going to make sure they're competent. You know, because you can't have a plastic card to tell you you're competent.
Believe me. The only way that you can tell whether your installer of Switchee is competent, is does it work.
Was his behaviour right in the house? Yeah? Did you make any mistakes, you know, but that's the way. You've got to do these audits - they have got to take place on-site, undertaking the work that they are engaged to do. And although it's a pain, it's the only way to give tenants the satisfaction and the confidence that you're keeping them safe. That they know what they're doing.
So safety is obviously the main driver here. But it's also just doing it properly so it doesn't cost lots of money later down the line you know, with maintenance problems and we do see that. And Keith, we've run out of time. It's been fantastic, speaking with you about these different subjects. They're interesting, emotive, and I think what's really inspiring about this is that there's a possibility of bringing some positivity out of what has been a pretty unpositive time recently. And yes, there'll be lots of people out of work. There's a climate emergency going on and there is lots to do but actually, these things might marry up and we can all kind of work together to actually get there.
So, listen, thank you so much for coming on. And yeah, we shall see you soon at Direct Works hopefully.
Been a pleasure. Thank you!
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