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HOUSING REPAIRS SERVICE IN PRESTON 'IS ON THE MEND'

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There is light at the end of the tunnel for tenants in Preston, according to an report published today by the Audit...
There is light at the end of the tunnel for tenants in Preston, according to an report published today by the Audit Commission.

Preston City Council's efforts to improve its housing repairs and maintenance service have been recognised in the report which found the service is now of a fair, one star standard, with promising prospects for improvement.

This is a big step forward for the council which could have faced referral to the secretary of state by the Audit Commission if it had failed to improve on its previous 'poor' rating for this service.

A new task force is now spearheading improvements and budgets are under control following serious overspends in previous years. However, a great deal of work remains to be done such as ensuring a consistently high standard of repair work and reducing the number of emergency repairs carried out.

Nick Atkin, lead housing inspector, said: 'Although the service has not previously had a track record of delivering improvements the council has now achieved a real step change which should begin to make a real difference to the quality of life for local residents.

'Important changes that have help drive this have included the establishment of a specific task force responsible delivering improvements and the bolstering of capacity and focus by an innovative interim management arrangement. This has contributed to the development of a fresh and dynamic approach to this key service.'

Preston entered into an arrangement with an external housing association to provide a medium term housing directorship and interim capacity solution in July 2003. Since then the interim housing directors have brought in additional staff to share expertise and deliver customer-focussed solutions alongside existing council teams. So far this approach has been advantageous to both organisations and has enabled a number of changes to be introduced more quickly - for example estate-based option appraisals and investment planning.

Inspectors found the following strengths:

- Tenants are being given a number of different opportunities to have a real say in how things are done and a customer care charter has been launched.

- The council is listening to its customers and responding positively, for example, by introducing more appointments and improving how repairs are prioritised.

- The council has improved the way it deals with empty homes by setting up 'Smartmove': a new central lettings team.

However:

- The council is not yet doing enough to improve the quality of repair work or to ensure work gets done on time. The most common complaint from customers is of poor quality work carried out too slowly.

- Too many urgent and emergency repairs are carried out, and there is no sign yet of any real improvement.

- There is no clear system in place for accurately deciding if a pre-visit is necessary before carrying out work. This can lead to inefficiency and inconvenience for customers.

Inspectors found that the service has promising prospects for improvement because positive drivers for improvement outweigh any barriers that exist. Drivers for improvement identified in the report include: strong political leadership through the housing maintenance task force; strong departmental leadership; corporate commitment to improvement in the service from other council departments; and a clear strategic context for delivering improvements to the repairs and maintenance service.

Although all improvements have not yet been delivered the Audit Commission found there was a clear plan for those issues that were still outstanding.

Inspectors made the follow recommendations to the council to be completed by April 2004:

- Work with customers to look at where neighbourhood offices should be located and what facilities and opening hours they should offer.

- Make greater use of customer feedback and satisfaction surveys to ensure that the service meets the needs of local people.

- R educe inconvenience to customers by putting a clear system in place so that customers know if a pre-inspection is required prior to work being carried out.

The budget for the council's housing maintenance service is£8.099m for 2003/04. There are about 150 staff in the repairs and maintenance service team based at St Paul's Road depot. The service includes day-to-day repairs, repairs to empty homes, planned maintenance and major improvements.

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