Lessons learned

Down like a lead balloon – I was once put in charge of National Housing Week and decided that it may be fun to hire one of those airships that floats high up above a venue and carries an advertising banner. Great idea, right? Wrong! Finding what I thought was a bargain airship from a firm in Wigan, I paid £200 for the airship and the banner. What I failed to do included paying for a self-deflator should it break its moorings; I failed to notify air traffic control that it would be in the sky; and I failed to get a license to fly it. On the morning of the event, I realised my mistake when, what I can only describe as a weird wind, caused the airship to cut its moorings on razor wire. Off it headed in the direction of Manchester airport. At this point, panicked, I started to read all the things I should have read before launching it in the first place and duly notified air traffic control. They immediately investigated the situation and informed me that should they need to request RAF fighters to shoot it down, the bill to my local authority would be in the region of a million pounds! I then called my Director of Housing, who, after he had stopped laughing, began to realise that this could result in the forced sale of all of the Council’s assets. Needless to say I spent a sleepless night chain smoking and drinking whisky, glued to Sky News to see what happened. Early the next day, I received a phone call from my uncle to say he had sighted it floating across a sailing lake in Nantwich, Cheshire and it was heading towards central Wales. To my knowledge it hasn’t been seen since!

Pass the butter… knife – The most embarrassing incident of my career involved calling out the Armed Response Unit to a knife incident in our hostel canteen following a radioed report that someone was threatening our staff and residents with a knife. This shows the importance of good, clear, thorough and detailed communication as the knife in question turned out to be a plastic butter knife!

The pointy end of leadership – Part of my team leader role involved encouraging the estate’s cleaners to include the emptying of the “sharp’s bins” in their daily duties as they were reluctant to do so due to reasonable fears about infection and disease. In a display of “leading by example”, my colleague and I decided to show them how easy and safe it was to do. Unfortunately, we hadn’t read the instructions properly and consequently managed to open the bin upside down resulting in the needles falling over and around our feet. Embarrassed, we then tried following the instructions to use the grabbers and gloves to pick up the fallen needles. The cleaners, who had been looking in horror at our poor attempt at cleaning, gained their composure, and decided there and then that they had to take over the task as it was impossible for them to do a worse job than us!

Making the difference – One of my constituents was an elderly lady of 75 with a 40-year-old son living alone in a neighbouring ward. The son had the mental ability of a 10-year-old which had caused him to be teased and taunted mercilessly by the local kids. This gave his mother such concern that she found she needed to visit him every day to calm him down, which at her age was becoming increasingly difficult. By the time she came to see me, she was at the end of her tether saying that she had been trying for years, through numerous “agencies” and “offices” to get her son moved closer to her or her closer to him and had not gotten anywhere. It turned out that the lady simply had no idea of the correct procedure to request the move but I am pleased to say that within 3 weeks of her coming to see me her son was living two doors away from her. She was so delighted that I received a card that simply said, “Thank god for you”. It is that kind of difference that you can make that makes working in housing so worthwhile.

Learning through experience – In the early 1990s, we received a complaint from a homeless family that the temporary accommodation they had been provided with was sub-standard. On meeting them to discuss the complaint, I discovered that it was more of the culture shock and lifestyle change that they were complaining about, rather than the quality of the accommodation. They had been independent and had their own home, but when their business had gone into liquidation, they had lost absolutely everything. On talking through the trauma that the family had been through, the father became really interested in public housing and took himself off to university to undertake a degree in the subject. We were able to offer him his work placements and I became his mentor. After some time gaining experience elsewhere he returned to us and is now one of my senior managers and that, for me, is quite a powerful tale of how you can turn someone’s personal trauma and explain to them the importance of housing and the role they can play in changing it.

Giving something back – When I was at university I was involved with a charity that took children from deprived areas on holiday. Part of my job was to go to run-down council estates such as those featured in the film Rita, Sue and Bob too and get permission from the parents to take their children on these holidays. I was shocked by what I saw in some of these homes: missing inner doors; no carpets; hardly any furniture. The conditions were so bad that I decided there and then that I could do a better job managing that estate. Only 7 years later, I was, in fact, managing that estate just as it was undergoing a massive refurbishment – how fantastic is that?

Looking from the outside in – About 5 years ago, our office took on a young single mother of 3 who had left school at 16. As soon she started to work for us, she was unable to afford her rent and consequently became homeless. Being homeless, the council organised bed and breakfast for her and her young family. We tried to pay her as much as we reasonably could but there is a limit when the person has no qualifications or experience. After 2 or 3 years staying in this kind of accommodation, her local authority finally helped her get a house. It was really interesting for the rest of the office to see the process from the users’ perspective. She was quite badly treated – we saw her receiving an offer that arrived after the closing date and then seeing her go to the back of the queue again. And, of course, it was never the housing office’s fault. She now has a degree and has exercised her right to buy so she has been a great success story.

The reason why – A long time ago when I was just 16 and still at school, my father, who knew the director of housing for a local council, organised for me to do some work experience on a pretty rough estate. The idea was to put me off working in housing. On my first day I was out on a visit with my housing officer and we pulled up outside a house – all the windows were boarded up and I said in my naïve way, “what are we doing here, surely no one lives here?” In fact, a family lived there – they had already started to remove the panels off the back of the house to use as firewood. During the course of the week, I saw many cases that week that were even worse, and it was this week-long experience that inspired me to work in housing – the rest is history.

When I was a young and naive female housing management officer, I worked for a council that frequently used ‘protected intending occupier’ legislation to evict squatters without the need to have a court bailiff present.  Back in those days we had never heard of risk assessments and always did lone working.  So I made an appointment to meet a carpenter at a house to evict a group of squatters in order that the new tenants could move in that evening. Having the mind-set that no one would argue with a housing officer, I made the arrangements for a Friday afternoon, when the squatters were slightly the worse the wear for a lunchtime in the pub.  They didn’t like being told to leave and pushed me backwards into the hedge, at which point the carpenter said, “I’m not paid danger money”, leapt into his van and drove off leaving me to pick privet leaf out of my hair! It all got sorted out once the police arrived and I learnt many valuable lessons that helped me in my housing career – anticipation, planning, preparation, contingency planning, and, most crucially – delegation!