Housing repairs £4.5m over budget but still award winning

While the Sentinel were reporting today that Stoke-on-Trent City Councils housing repair bill was £4.5 million over budget, Kier Stoke were publicising that had won a Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS) award for its work alongside Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

The company was announced the winner of the ‘Excellence in Working Together’ category for its project ‘Reigniting the Customer Experience’, at the TPAS central region finals. Kier Stoke ensured its responsive repairs service was both time efficient and cost effective, while meeting the needs of the local community. Continue reading

When’s A Workman Not A Workman?

Pits n pots have been contacted by a concerned resident who wanted to highlight an issue they had seen with a Kier employee. Kier Stoke are the company formed as a joint venture between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and construction and support services specialist Kier Building Maintenance to take on the repairs to Stoke-on-Trent City Council housing stock in 2008.

I was going shopping on Friday in the north of the city, I went to the pay and display meter to get a ticket, while I was getting some change a Kier workman came out of a pub near the meter on his telephone. He was in his work clothes with the Kier badge on them and saying to the person on the phone that he was still on a job and wouldn’t be able to take the job they were trying to give him. Once the call had finished he went back in to the pub.

Kier Stoke seem to be going through some turbulent times at the moment. Chief Executive John van de Laarshot brought Vanguard, a ‘systems thinking’ consultancy, in to look at ways that the City Council could work smarter and save money. The first place he sent them was in to the housing directorate to look at the contract with Kier and how to provide quicker, better and more cost effective services to council tenants.

A suggestion, if I may be so bold, might be to know where your employees really are when they tell you they are still on the last job you gave them.

0844 ““ Stoke-on-Trent Housing Repair Number ““ What’s The Point?

Pits n Pots broke the news last week that the council were to change the housing repair report telephone number from the area STD code 01782 to a non-geographical 0844 number.

Nearly a week later, and we are no closer to understanding the reason for this change.

The council claim that neither themselves, nor Kier are making any money from this change. Indeed it is costing Stoke-on-Trent City Council £400 per month just to have the privilege of having and 0844 number.

This after an initial set up cost of £700, which includes £200 worth of training and some £650 spent on producing 30000 leaflets informing tenants of the change.

£200 worth of training?

What is the training for? Answering the telephones? I guess the council staff would know how to do that already.

I really cannot see why the council would need to implement staff training just for the sake of a phone number change. For the members of staff concerned nothing has changed, the phone rings just the same.

There should be no need for training unless a new phone system [hardware], or a new call handling system [software] has been installed.

In a notice to elected members, the council claim:

As a part of the on-going series of improvements to the Housing Repair Service the City Council is setting up a dedicated team to handle repair requests from our tenants. The team will be working in a location designed for the purpose. They will be able to focus on the task of handling repair requests and managing the communications with the repair operatives across the city. By bringing the essential elements under one roof we will be able to bring further improvements to our customers.

The new service will also have a new dedicated phone number which will be available for our customers to use 24 hours a day seven days a week.
0844 894 0145

The new service and the dedicated phone number will be available for our customers from 8am on February 10 2011.
Calls to the new number will cost approximately 3 pence per minute *from a BT residential line*.

One of the key benefits from the new service will be that calls can be handled quickly minimising the time and costs to our customers. Previous improvements have seen the length of time that customers spend on the telephone reducing steadily. Many repair enquires are now completely dealt with within 4 minutes and the launch of the new service will enable us to make further improvements.
Our free-phone service in One Stop Shops will also continue to operate. Customers can visit during opening hours and use a dedicated phone to contact the repairs service.

Later this year we will be making some improvements to our e-mail and web based reporting facilities which will bring further ways to make it simple and quick to contact the repairs service.

(*Call charges for mobile phones and for other networks will vary)

It is that last line that concerns me and should strike fear into all our elected members:

*Call charges for mobile phones and for other networks will vary*

Those responsible for implementing this change should realise that not all council house tenants have a BT landline, in fact as a councillor representing a large council house tenant estate commented to me yesterday, residents prefer mobile as they struggle to find the money when billed quarterly.

During a conversation with Mike Rawlins last week, the cabinet member with responsibility, Cllr Brian Ward informed him that the majority of callers to the housing repair service use mobile phones.


Another elected member told me yesterday that he had spent 29mins holding for Kier through the 01782 number. From Thursday, if he was calling on an Orange pay as you go mobile phone, that call would have cost him £11.60.

If that call had been made on a Virgin landline service there would have been a connection charge of 12.24p and then 7.13p per minute giving a total of £2.19.

These charges are totally unacceptable to a council tenant who is on benefits and for families where money is scarce.

The council claim that this change will not make money for either them or Kier so why the need to change at all?

I can understand the changes if the council were gaining revenue from this venture, understand that is, but not agree!

This change, if we are to believe what we are being told, will cost the council £400 per month. So why the hell pay out money that you don’t need to in these times of austerity?

This service is being offered to council tenants 24/7 these lines have to be manned, so if there is revenue made by the council from this 0844 number, will it be used to offset the cost incurred by operating 24/7?

Our Chief Executive Officer John van de Laarschot is all
for openness and transparency. Recently I admit that I feel quite sorry for the guy.

He must wonder if a skeleton is going to leap out of every cupboard he opens and shout Boo! Relating to something that happened before he got here.

Well John, this is most definitely on your watch!

Some head of service has made a decision to change a strategic service within the council and then claim that no revenue will be realised from that change. In fact it will incur extra costs to this city council at this time of unprecedented cuts.

I can [because I have] set up a 0844 number at my company for no charge. I certainly did not pay an amount up front and neither is the service costing me every month.

What I do get is a rake off on all incoming calls. This is used to give me a rebate on my monthly phone bills, meaning that I spend less on outgoing calls effectively.

I sense a closing of the ranks on this matter.

There seems reluctance in divulging the true extent of the deal surrounding the decision to implement a 0844 number which will mean a massive increase to the majority of residents who use this service unless you are lucky enough to have a BT landline.

Every 0844 number has a standard number attached to it.

When i received complaints off some customers that it was costing them more than a local rate call because they happened to have a different provider or were using a mobile, I decided to give out the 01782 number. I did this because I did not want to lose my customers business.

I don’t think that this will happen at the City Council, for as much as council tenants are described as customers, they have no alternative provider.

Like it or lump it is the phrase that springs to mind…

Another Kick In The Teeth For Stoke-on-Trent City Council Tenants

On the day that Stoke-on-Trent City Council release their updated budget book, with details of which services are going to be cut as part of the cost cutting measures, it appears that they have come up with a new revenue generation scheme. A scheme that will hit some of the cities poorest residents.

From 10 February Stoke-on-Trent City Council & Kier, their housing maintenance partner are going to start using a dedicated new number for tenants to report housing repairs.

The new 0844 number will be available 24 hours a day according to a leaflet handed to Pits n Pots by a council tenant this afternoon.

I have just had this leaflet pushed through my door, telling me that from next week I need to call a 0844 number if I want to report any repairs.

I get local calls for free on my home phone, but now I will have to pay for the call. Last time I rang I was hanging on the phone for over 20 minutes while I tried to report a problem with my bathroom. If I had to pay for the call how much would that call cost me?

This latest ‘tax’ on council tenants comes under the watchful eye of Vanguard the company brought in by John van de Laarschot to oversee the restructuring & improvements to the way the council work.

0844 numbers are classed as ‘non geographic’ meaning that the cost of calling the number is the same from anywhere in the UK. Pits n Pots can’t think of many reasons why anyone outside of the 01782 area code would need to call the repairs line apart from the odd instance when a family member may be calling on behalf of a council tenant.

According to a number of companies who provide 0844 numbers, people who use an 0844 number for business can enjoy revenues of up to 4p a minute depending on the number of calls.

Using the new 0844 number council tenants who use BT as their phone provider will be forced to pay a flat rate of 5p per minute on. So a call of 10 minutes will cost 50p

Virgin Media customers, on the other hand will be forced to pay a 12.24p connection fee and then 7.13p for each minute they are on the call, making a 10 minute call 84p

Council Tenants who rely on a mobile phone on Pay As You Go contracts can expect to pay upwards of 20p on O2 and 40p on Orange a minute.

Based on figures seen by Pits n Pots Stoke-on-Trent City Council contact centre get an estimated 60,000 calls each year for repairs. With an average call taking around 10 minutes which could generate an income of over £24,000pa for the council, an income funded by some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the city.

I checked with the Director about the number when I saw it printed on the leaflets and was assured that it is not a premium rate number but a local call number.

I was not told about any possible rake off of call charges coming back to the council as revenue, I’ll going to the Civic Centre later this afternoon and will be asking some questions about the number and the charges.

Brain also said, residents are able to use phones in any of our buildings and make calls to the contact centre including the new repairs line for free

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Publish Spending Data Over £500

Just scraping through inside the 31 January deadline imposed by Eric Pickles, Stoke-on-Trent City Council have published spending data over £500 on-line.

The data for December is available in .csv format and .pdf.

We have not had time to delve too deeply in to the data yet, but have noted that Kier Stoke have been paid £2,962,255.49 mainly billed as Private Contractors and Vanguard Consulting £68,696 billed as miscellaneous expenses & services

Before you get too excited about the data and what you can find out, be aware that you will have to enter a FOI request for each invoice you wish to find out more information about.

Vanguard ““ Simply Misunderstood?

I’ve blogged before about the problems of stepping into someone else’s shoes as a new councillor ““ and it’s not just on local issues that you notice this. The subject of Vanguard, the consultancy firm brought into Stoke-on-Trent City Council by our Chief Exec John van der Laarschott, seems to me at times to be just another of those things where the new councillors missed the “Ëœbig discussion’ and are now frantically trying to work out what it is we’ve missed.

Or have we?

Vanguard have been working with Kier, the Council’s housing maintenance contractors, initially, and as a member of the Improving Communities Scrutiny Committee, I have seen several reports on what is happening, and have also taken up the opportunity to visit the Kier office in Cromer Road and talk to staff. Having done this and spoken to other councillors and officers, it seems to me that really the problem is that a lot of people, not just new councillors, don’t “Ëœget’ what Vanguard are all about.

The simple illustration that Vanguard are a consultants and will bring savings, doesn’t really do justice to what is actually happening. Let me make it clear that this blog isn’t intended to be a banner-waving exercise for Vanguard, but simply my view of what they are doing in our Council. It’s also my take on what I see happening now, because don’t forget, I’ve only been a councillor since May!

The housing stock in the City is split into 3 sections, similar to the parliamentary constituencies ““ North, South and Central, with teams of workers for each area, all based in Cromer Road, Northwood (which is in Central). The Vanguard approach is to look at the processes in place and refocus them on the customer, which means cutting out many of the steps that really doesn’t benefit or interest them.

Speaking to the staff at Kier, both those in a managerial position and also spending time with a Kier tradesman, really showed me this in practice, and that the change in working style for responsive repairs (which is currently only in place in the Central area) really brought this home to me. We visited tenants in the South of the City who told me umpteen visits before an issue was sorted was the norm, whereas tenants in Central got it done first time, at a time that suited them. Having seen the statistics on housing repairs, I know what I saw wasn’t put on ““ responsive repairs in Central really are better.

So how does that stack up with saving money? I guess you could say it is the unintended consequence of improving the service to customers. In the “Ëœold’ system, a supervisor went out first to gauge a repair, followed by a trademan, when he was free. If the job needed parts, he would go off to get them. If they weren’t easily available, he could be gone all day, and rebook to come back another time, when the part was available. In the “Ëœnew’ system, a tradesman goes out at a time convenient to the tenant, with a van fully stocked with items. If he needs a part, it is delivered to him so the job gets done faster. Under the “Ëœold’ system, a week to 3 months for a job to be finished (start to finish) was the norm. Under the “Ëœnew’ system, it is often done in a couple of days maximum. Cutting out the unneeded steps will hopefully lead to a position where responsive repairs are literally that ““ responsive. Some of the tenants I met in South told me they just don’t bother reporting minor things as it isn’t worth the hassle of waiting for weeks for a repair, so these minor repairs eventually turn into bigger jobs, and are no longer really responsive.

I have chatted through the Vanguard approach with friends and colleagues outside the Council, and really it is the good application of private business practices, something that has been long missing in local government, however delivered in what I perceive to be a “Ëœstate of mind’ approach rather than a prescriptive way. One colleague asked me, “If it’s so obvious, why haven’t we done it before?”, and I did wonder about this. The explanation however seems to be that what Vanguard do is so different and back-to-basics that it is actually ripping up what we did before and starting from scratch, thinking the unthinkable, which even in cutting edge private industry is knife-edge stuff.

So am I any clearer about Vanguard? Yes, and also the potential Vanguard can bring to the rest of the Council. There is massive potential to change the way the Council works for the better, and I do have confidence that the Vanguard approach can help change this, but really elected members need to understand why we need these changes and what is behind them.

Pioneering Trial In Stoke-on-Trent Increases Number of Housing Maintenance Repair Requests

More call handlers are set to be used to respond to council housing maintenance repair queries after a pioneering trial to improve the service attracted up to 800 calls a day.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is looking to boost the number of contact centre workers from seven to eleven over the coming weeks to field enquiries from council house tenants.

The pilot is a groundbreaking initiative between the city council and housing maintenance repair company Kier Stoke. It is initially focusing on more than 6,000 properties in the central part of the city.

“The trial is generating significant numbers of calls from tenants, and the challenge is to direct the manpower to carry out repairs at a convenient time to the customer.

“Extra staff will be used to handle calls to ensure that tenants are receiving the best possible service. Some tenants may have found that they have had to wait for their call to be answered, and we ask residents to bear with us while the changes bed in.”

The trial has seen customer services staff temporarily relocate from the council’s contact centre in Fenton to the offices of Kier Stoke in Northwood, so that the services operate from a single base.

Such joint working means that when a tenant reports a leaky tap, broken gate or faulty boiler, for example, calls are fed directly to workmen in the field who can respond more rapidly. The workmen are then able to look into any other repairs that may need to be carried out, and take appropriate steps to address them from that initial point of contact, where necessary. This is cutting down on travel time, reducing inefficiencies and improving the experience for the customer.

“Our electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other staff are all exceedingly busy making this work and improving services to tenants.

“Due to the high demand for services, we ask tenants to bear with us, and not to be put off if they have to wait longer than we would like them to wait for their queries to be answered. We will respond to each of the requests in turn, and issues will be resolved.”

Antony Colley, 36, and wife Lynn, 43, have benefited from a number of repairs to their Water Street, Stoke property, after initially only reporting a hole in their kitchen ceiling.

“Under the old system we had been waiting for a number of months for this repair to be looked at, and we called on the help of local councillor Pauline Joynson who has been very helpful in looking into this.

“With the new system in place, we were visited by a plasterer who filled in the ceiling. We were asked if there was other work that needed to be done, and a plumber repaired the flushing mechanism on the toilet, and a joiner replaced the bathroom door. I can’t fault the service, and would like to thank the joiner by name ““ David Mee ““ for his excellent attitude, he did everything straight away.”

The central area has initially been chosen for the scheme because it has a good number of large housing estates, meaning a large cross section of tenants can be reached. It is also more central to dispatch stores, meaning replacement parts can be distributed more quickly.

Council Customer Services Staff Partner With Kier For Pioneering Housing Maintenance Trial

A pioneering trial to improve the housing maintenance service provided to council tenants has seen customer services staff and tradesmen work out of the same office for the first time.

A team of seven Stoke-on-Trent City Council contact centre workers yesterday (Thursday) temporarily moved base from their Fenton offices to the authority’s housing maintenance provider Kier Stoke at Cromer Road, Northwood.

The pilot is a groundbreaking initiative between the two organisations to improve services for customers.

It will see a more rapid, comprehensive response pledged to tenants living in more than 6,000 council properties in the central part of the city, in the following areas:

*Abbey Green
*Bentilee and Townsend
*Berryhill and Hanley East
*Hanley West and Shelton
*Hartshill and Penkhull
*Northwood and Birches Head
*Stoke and Trent Vale

“We have always worked closely with Kier to resolve housing maintenance issues across the 19,300 houses that the council owns.

“But that work has become a lot more focussed in recent months. We have been looking at the way the partnership with Kier is working as one of many transformational changes that is taking place across the council in order to drive through efficiencies and improve services for customers.

“This joint working is seeing some customer services staff temporarily move and housing maintenance issues addressed from a single base. For the central area, it will mean that when a tenant reports a leaky tap, broken gate or faulty boiler, for example, calls are fed directly to workmen out in the field who can respond more rapidly. The workmen can then look into any other issues the tenant may have and take appropriate steps to address them from that initial point of contact, where necessary. This will cut down on travel time, reduce inefficiencies in programming in work and improve the experience for customers.

“The work is initially being piloted in the central part of the city because this area has a number of large housing estates, so that we can reach a good cross section of tenants. It is also more central to dispatch stores meaning we can get replacement parts out more quickly for customers. With it being a pilot scheme, we are looking at the central area first ““ residents in the north and south of the city will have their enquiries addressed in the same way as before.”

The city’s 19,300 council houses trigger around 101,000 housing maintenance enquiries a year ““ over 300 reports a day. It means that on average, each property generates around five calls a year. In reality, around 20 per cent of properties do not generate enquiries, with a further 20 per cent of properties generating 10-12 calls a year.

“Instead of a tenant making up to a dozen calls about their property a year, we want to answer their queries, where possible, from a single point of contact.

“This trial is geared around doing that. It has taken months of detailed planning, involving everyone at the company, from tradesmen to office staff, as well as tenants. It is an exciting opportunity both for us, but more importantly for the customer.

“Our electricians, plumbers and carpenters, as well as residents, have actually helped to design the new contact centre system, and their views have played an integral part in making the pilot happen.

“We have done a mini trial of this work involving 300 properties, and the feedback we have had has been extremely positive.

“We do ask that customers work with us over the first few days and weeks while the new system beds in. If it proves the success we hope it will, we will be looking to roll the initiative out to the other areas of the city too.”

Kier Under Fire From New Resident Association.

Kier Stoke, the firm employed by Stoke on Trent City Council to carry out repair work on council homes, have come under attack from angry tenants living in the Brookwood Drive area of Meir.

They have now formed a new Residents Association in the hope that it will enable them to deal better regarding problems with Kier.

The first RA meeting at the Meir Community Centre on Monday evening seemed to be dominated by problems involving the work of Kier.

Paul Hulme, new chairman of the RA was angry about the plastering work on the kitchen at his Blatchford Close home. This had been done by Kier after the Kitchen had been fitted by the Decent Homes Team. He explained that they had not done the job right with cracks not plastered over. He said that he had asked the council to send Kier back to complete the job six month ago but had heard nothing since. He was also unhappy with delays when trying to contact the council call centre when reporting housing issues.

Another resident, Christopher Shenton told of the problems he has got with Kier. He as been waiting for years for them to carry out repair work on the concrete supports on the eaves of his roof, which due to it’s state, often leaks.

Brian Jones, Wood Farm RA chairman told the meeting of the problems he had with Kier as he tried to get them to repair a tenants front door which was rotting. The poor lady had to wait three and a half years for repairs to be made.

Ward Councillor, Michael Coleman, was present at the meeting. He told of a case of a front gate that was rotten and needed replacing. After two years a Kier workman had turned up, hammer in hand and nailed a length of skirting board to the bottom of the gate.

Kier Repairs Manager Martin Heath told the meeting that Kier did around 10,000 jobs in the Meir area each year and that all concerns would be looked at and resolved as soon as possible. He responded to Cllr Colemans issue saying that it was wrong for repairs to be carried out in that nature.

Are Kier meeting the need of the council and there tenants? We see a lot of complaints in the local press about them, what do you make of it? Have you got an on-going problem, or one that took ages to be completed?

Over to you….

Where Has The Trust Gone in Stoke-on-Trent?

OK, let’s get to it, I’m about to make myself mightily unpopular once again!

You see the thing is, I trust the the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, John van de Laarschot to deliver for us.

I trust him to do the right thing by the people of our City. I trust him to reduce the size of the workforce of the City Council, considerably.

Yes, I am aware that he has chosen to bring Vanguard in to encourage and to train the existing council staff in the methodology of ‘Lean Thinking’ and to help rid this authority of the huge amount of bureaucracy that prevents Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s customers from getting the best possible service.

We all know that bureaucracy exists, anyone who has had the mis-fortune to be put through to the Stoke On Call call centre and been asked endless amounts of meaningless and unhelpful questions, knows that. On one occasion whilst trying to get through to C&YPS I thought the operator was going to ask for my inside leg measurement, she wanted to know that much!.

John van de Laarschot is aware of many departmental failings. On Stoke on Call he said:

“The call centre is a disaster, but it is actually only one element of the disaster that needs to be sorted out. It is like TV’s The Office. If it wasn’t so terrible it would be laughable.”

He knows that the Council’s marriage to Kier was heading for divorce:

“The joint venture with Kier was not the smartest thing we have ever done. It doesn’t work for us and it doesn’t work for Kier. We had the opportunity of pulling away from the partnership, but we chose to tackle the issues and sort it out once and for all. But, if we can get it to work like a Swiss clock it will really benefit our communities.”

He knows that the Council is top heavy. He seems committed to ridding the City of those not up for the challenge to deliver change:

“I think this organisation is top-heavy with management and I can’t defend that. I will weed out those who are not up for challenge and who don’t have an appetite to serve our customers.”

He had the balls to pull out of the Strategic Partnership even though the Council had spent some £1.5million on it because in a very short time of being here, he knew it was doomed to failure.

So, are our councillors right to be wary of placing their trust in him? Yes – of course they are! Given the amount of senior officers and previous top dogs that have shown hostility to all those who seek to scrutinise, you can hardly blame them.

Previous incumbents of the top office in our city have treated those councillors outside [and some inside] the executive with complete disdain. They have been kept in the dark over many issues, they have been misled and in some cases intimidated.

Even at the call-in on the Vanguard issue on Monday 7th June, the call in councillors priority seemed to be the political direction of the Cabinet and the views of the relevant portfolio holders. They probed them to see if they really knew what the political implications were of the spending of this £400k of public money, or whether they were simply nodding through officers recommendations for the salary that comes with being a Cabinet member.

John van de Laarschot did not duck a single question, even when some rather rude member of the public barracked him as he tried to explain his reasons for wanting to press ahead at speed with his Transformational Change Programme.

When he was appointed a number of our councillors rang me and made comments like: ‘he was the man’, ‘you couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes’, ‘he’s a smart cookie with a sound business background’, ‘he’s capable of thinking out of the box’ and my very favourite ‘he’s a breath of fresh air’.

Well it’s time to back him [there’s that trust thing again] or sack him!

If he is a breath of fresh air then let’s give him the chance of rationalising the council workforce and making the services delivered the best and most efficient that they can be. Let him rid the Civic of the polluting stench of incompetence

The Transformational Change programme needs to be completed as soon as possible. When it is finished the elected members, working in collaboration with committed service driven officers, will be best placed to make the relevant and most sensitive cuts.

Every message that comes out of the national ConDem coalition government screams cut, cut, cut!

Stoke-on-Trent City Council need to be a lean, mean, first class service machine. They need fit for purpose for surely what will be one of the most difficult times that local government is facing for many, many years.

To get there, if they have to spend some £400k on companies like Vanguard who John van de Laarschot has used in the past and obviously trusts and the consultants from the Local Government Partnerships to save up to £60million in the future, then I say let him lead.

He trusts those who have delivered for him in the past and I think we should all put our trust in him to do the right thing for the City of Stoke-on-Trent.

Let’s be honest, if he fails, then we can trust our esteemed elected members of all political persuasions… To kick his ass out of the door! – Can’t we?