However improvements in the overall housing service cannot be guaranteed following a fresh start by East Durham Homes - the arms length management organisation (ALMO) which took on responsibility for managing housing services in April this year.
Inspectors from the Audit Commission's Housing Inspectorate found that staff in the repairs call centre are friendly, helpful and efficient and deal with customer calls responsively and sensitively, while the quality of workmanship of the operatives is highly praised by tenants. However, too many emergency repairs are carried out, and the service cannot show it is achieving value for money. In addition, the service does not meet the Commission for Racial Equality code of practice in relation to housing.
A team of inspectors also judged that services provided by East Durham Homes are currently of a fair, one star standard but prospects for improvement are uncertain.
The overall condition of homes within the district were found to be poor, with 66 per cent failing to meet the government's Decent Homes Standard. If current spending levels are continued, only 44 per cent of homes would meet the standard by 2010. There is no long-term strategy in place to explore the future of sheltered housing and put in place clear plans for housing services for older people.
The system of allocating homes is unclear to customers, with no follow up information about waiting times being given to applicants.
Nevertheless, all staff in area offices are committed to providing high standards of customer care and have received comprehensive customer care training. Customer needs are met sensitively and staff in the area offices, without exception, are smart, helpful and friendly.
Nick Atkin, head of housing (North Region), said:
'The council has made rapid progress in delivering improvements in the repairs service that are of direct benefit to customers. However, there has been slow progress in some other areas and the service cannot demonstrate it is providing value for money. Nevertheless, the council is working well with customers, often making changes in direct response to their feedback. A range of improvements since our last inspection include evening and Saturday appointments; a freephone contact number; and improved choice and quality of materials such as kitchen units, worktops and doors.
'Staff are enthusiastic about working for the new ALMO, East Durham Homes. However, these are early days, and East Durham Homes faces a significant challenge to turn the service around and make areal difference to tenants' quality of life.
'While some improvements have been made, significant weaknesses remain and there is slow progress in some key areas. Although prospects for improvement are currently uncertain, managers and staff are positive about the move to the new ALMO and are upbeat about the range of potential benefits for tenants which could result'.
Inspectors found the following strengths:
- Tenants find it easy to access the repairs service and there are high levels of customer care. Tenants are positive about the service they receive, and the service is responsive to the needs of vulnerable customers.
- The council has developed, and is applying, a clear and consistent standard for the quality of cleanliness and repair that empty homes must meet before being re-let.
- The council takes a robust approach to gas servicing, with over 99 per cent of required gas services carried out in 2003/2004.
- Staff in area offices are helpful, polite and friendly. All offices are clearly signed and have level or ramped or lift access, and have private interview rooms and a language line translation service.
- Work has been done to develop housing benefit and welfare rights advice. This includes benefit take-up campaigns; benefit surgeries in housing offices; home visits; leaflet drops; and local newspaper articles. The service also works closely with agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Age Concern.
However, there are some significant weaknesses, including:
- There is no tenant's handbook and customers are unclear about what repairs they are responsible for, and what the council should be doing.
- Too many emergency repairs are carried out. The service is currently carrying out 42 per cent of repairs as emergencies, compared with the Audit Commission recommendation of 10 per cent.
- The IT system is weak and inefficient, and does not provide adequate support for the service.
- Information provided to tenants on rent statements is unclear and confusing for tenants. Current rent statements do not specify if they are for house rental, garage rental or warden care services and show a credit balance as a minus figure.
- There is a lack of consistency in the range and quality of housing and general leaflets provided to tenants at different offices. It is difficult for tenants to find relevant leaflets and to be confident that they are both accurate and up to date.
- There is no publicised number for out of hours access to homelessness advice or temporary accommodation and there are no standards in place for the quality of temporary accommodation provided by the council.
To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations including:
- By August 2004, produce and distribute a tenant's handbook covering a wide range of customer information including freephone and out-of-hours numbers, how repairs are prioritised, and a clear list of tenants' responsibilities.
- Ensure that all documentation includes information about translation services, and offer publications in Braille, large print and audiotape.
- Ensure the repairs freephone number is accessible at all times.
- Look at new, more efficient ways to manage rent arrears; and make sure rent statements set out what services customers are paying for, and clearly show any credit balances.
- By December 2004, set up a clear timetable for estate walkabouts that is consistent across all areas; establish clear responsibility for cleaning communal areas in flats; and make sure estate services are of the same high standard across all areas.
- By July 2004, improve the homelessness service by providing a dedicated out-of-hours service, developing prevention and support services and, by September 2004, ensuring minimum standards for temporary accommodation.
The council has set up an ALMO called East Durham Homes (EDH) with effect from 1 April 2004. The ALMO has delegated responsibility for providing housing management and maintenance services, and receives a management fee for doing this. The ALMO Board consists of five councillors, five tenants and five independents (currently with one independent vacancy). If EDH achieves at least a two star rating in January 2005 from the Audit Commission, it will receive£23.6m to 31 March 2006, and an additional£93.9m subject to satisfactory performance.