Opinion: The Access Conundrum – Are we missing a trick?

I’ve been inspired by the recent ASCP National Social Housing Safety & Compliance Week’s excellent session on gaining access to residents homes to write a little of my thoughts on this subject that we didn’t get a chance to explore more in the session.

The 90 minute session was excellent, with a variety of speakers taking us through several critical areas, including the challenges of taking account of resident vulnerabilities, the challenges of the legal position and the courts system and the dilemma of whether and how to agree and implement a “guaranteed access” procedure – essentially entering the property to complete a safety check or isolate a boiler or other asset until proper access can be agreed with the resident to complete checks and ensure that it is safe to use.  

What it did get me thinking more about though is that for many organisations, the first part of the access process is basically the same as when I started working on gas servicing contracts, over twenty years ago. For the most part, this means two or three appointment letters and knocks on the door followed by a series of warning letters, legal notices and ultimately court action. 

For most landlords there will of course be a variety of phone calls, staff visits and welfare checks, but often this only happens after an engineer has knocked on the door two or more times. I think we should be focusing our efforts on the early stages at least as much as the more complicated (and costly) later stages.

This approach clearly works, but it’s wasteful and costly both in terms of the obvious expense to the landlord as well as the hidden costs for the contractor or DLO who spends an awful lot of time driving around being little more than a postal worker – dropping no access cards through letterboxes. 

I think that we all know that there must be a better way. Part of the problem in delivering this is that changing these baked in procedures is hard work. To do this, we need to align our policy, procedures, systems and get buy-in from the supply chain, whose systems are fundamentally built to deliver a variation of the sector’s traditional access process. 

Critically, we also need senior leaders to embrace the need for change and to give the issue of access the attention that it deserves within the organisation. This can mean all sorts of things of course, but should always include:

  • Getting buy-in and support from the corporate communications team to make sure that there isn’t just an “access process”, but a full and clear communications strategy designed to maximise access rates and give residents the information they need to encourage cooperation and support.
  • Making sure there is absolute clarity on who is responsible for legal processes.
  • Having agreed timescales and time-bound gateways for intervening in cases where residents are hard to reach.

As part of your “access strategy”, you should consider front loading direct customer contact. We’ve had text message alerts for a while now, and they can be effective, but in my experience, there’s nothing like speaking to residents directly to arrange and confirm appointments at the earliest possible stage of the process. 

It may not be considered practical to speak to every resident, every year but is it cheaper than the cost of failed access, court action and skilled engineers acting as postal workers for anything up to half of their working day.

One of the most successful access processes I’ve ever come across was at a 10,000+ home housing association with a gas servicing DLO. Staff there called every resident the night before their gas service appointment to confirm the appointment or rebook within a strict timeline if the resident couldn’t make the appointment. 

Combined with staff calling residents immediately that a “no access” was reported to check that they hadn’t just missed the door knock, their successful access rates were regularly in the high 80-90% range and they virtually never had to go to the expense of taking court action to gain entry.  

Of course, the system wasn’t perfect, and just like every other organisation, there were sometimes issues with missing phone numbers, resident vulnerabilities, hoarding and just the occasional admin error, but it helped, and by minimising the number of wasteful repeat visits, staff had more time to concentrate on residents whole were, for whatever reason harder to reach. 

Adding additional, often new and interesting sounding technological phases to the process is unlikely to help when simple, person-centred options have not been included.

Peter Salisbury is Director of Housing Consulting at Manifest.