With regards to the housing management service, the tenancy and estate management service includes a good range of measures to tackle anti-social behaviour both internally and in partnership with the police and social services. Service improvements such as the introduction of Estate Wardens, a corporate approach to abandoned vehicles, and physical measures such as the installation of door entry systems and CCTV have developed directly from previous service reviews and customer consultation.
In addition, rent collection and arrears management performance is strong with a good variety of collection methods and a seamless, fast track approach to tenants' arrears that ensures that the council's total level of arrears remains within that of the top performing district councils. The homelessness and housing needs service provides good support and advice to applicants including reasonable, self-contained temporary accommodation for vulnerable households. Customer consultation is developing and the council is actively supporting both tenants and residents living on council housing estates.
The Audit Commission inspection team awarded the community alarms service two stars because the newly outsourced service has resulted in improvements in operational performance together with high rates of customer satisfaction. The new service has addressed the shortfalls that the in-house service had with regard to the requirements of the Association of Social and Community Alarm Providers Code of Practice and has resulted in significant savings for the Council and its customers.
'We found an enthusiasm for improvement to services from staff at all levels and evidence that the housing service is capable of turning poorer elements of service around. Managers and operational staff are well motivated and show a high level of awareness of good practice and innovation. We were impressed by the council's commitment to the provision of high quality community alarm services to its customers.'
The inspection reports highlight a number of key strengths. For the housing management service:
- There is an established framework of tenant and resident associations together with a housing advisory panel that enable tenants and leaseholders to become involved in the management of their homes;
- Environmental improvements and the introduction of estate wardens has led to a reduction in anti-social behaviour;
- There is a close working relationship between the service and the police, housing benefit, the voluntary sector and other social housing landlords in the provision of estate management, homeless and housing needs services.
For the community alarms service:
- The service users' satisfaction level has remained high with an improved level of satisfaction since the new contractor began operating in October 2001;
The community alarm review's recommendations are clear and outcome-focused, specifying the resource implications. Its aim has been communicated to the staff, individual and corporate stakeholders. Furthermore, the expected outcomes for continuing service improvement are detailed in the subsequent service plan and are being monitored on a monthly basis.
However a number of aspects require further attention. In terms of the housing management service:
- The average length of time taken to determine a homelessness application is 45 days and as such is well below the performance of the best performing district councils;
- the average re-let time for council properties is 43 days and is slow compared with top quartile performance of 26 days.
In terms of the community alarms service:
- The target manual and the performance monitoring and management system have not been adjusted to take account of the reporting requirements for the community alarms service;
- The improvement plan was developed before the decision was taken to externalise the service. Since out-sourcing the plan has continued in use but has not been revised to reflect the new contractual arrangements and does not identify the lead officers or the resources required to move the service forward.
To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including for the housing management service:
- Development of a comprehensive homelessness information pack, and a strategic plan for the homelessness and housing advice service, taking account of the needs of all household types, young, single and families;
- Development of a systematic, open, clear and measurable methodology for feeding the views of tenants and residents into the council's decision making process; and
- The introduction of clear reporting responsibilities, targets and monitoring arrangements for the staff involved in the housing management service, and members, ensuring that the appropriate level of performance monitoring and review is fed into the new cabinet arrangements.
For the community alarms service:
- Supplementing the information within the tenant's handbook with a comprehensive list of service standards for the community alarms service, information on the council's complaint's procedure and how to appeal to the local government ombudsman;
- The introduction of clear reporting responsibilities, targets and monitoring arrangements for the staff involved in the community alarms service, and members, ensuring that the appropriate level of performance monitoring and review is fed into the new cabinet arrangements;
- The development of a systematic, open, clear and measurable methodology for feeding the views of tenants and residents into the council's decision-making process.
The specific service areas identified to be covered in the housing management review were rent collection and arrears management, void properties and allocations, tenancy and estate management, and homelessness and housing advice. The services are delivered through two housing reception areas and the housing advice centre, with a budget of almost£4.5m.
The community alarms review covered the community alarms service provided to the tenants within the council's sheltered and non-sheltered elderly persons' dwellings, as well as elderly and vulnerable people purchasing the Lifeline Service privately or through corporate clients from the RSL sector. The contract to manage the community alarms service was awarded to Tunstall Lifeline Limited and began in October 2001.