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  • Writer's pictureConnaire McGreevy

The Forgotten Child - Maintenance

Just the other day one of my Contract Managers presented me with a job request from a client. It was to remove multiple baths, replace internal doors and other associated works. Total value around £55k. I looked at the page he set in front of me and back towards him. Pondering why am I being shown this. It took me awhile but the penny dropped. These were brand new homes in Northern Ireland. They had been purchased 'Off The Shelf' but they did not meet the needs of the social housing landlord or their customers nor did they comply with legislation around fire prevention. I could hear the legal side saying "but we have a Building Control certificate". If this was a one-off event i would not be too worried but it is becoming ever more present across these islands which is leading to massive increases in maintenance budgets down the line. Unfortunately, it is not the only head wind towards the maintenance sector in Social Housing and below I try to set out some of them.

Image from OC Housing News

In 2020, for very obvious reasons the number of repair job requests has dropped across the sector. However, this presents the first big challenging question. Where did these repairs go if they have not subsequently been picked up? For me it means potentially these repairs are now ignored and could become a much bigger maintenance issue down the line which could mean enhanced capital maintenance budgets required. Maybe there will be 'pent up demand' and once the vaccine rolls out maintenance contractors and DLO's will be operating at increased workloads. Either way, it will present a challenge.

Covid has been the headline in 2020 surpassing the Brexit word too (but i will come to that). Covid has presented problems this year, more from an access to peoples homes challenge than most other things. However, there has been increased costs to PPE, travel cost due to limits on travel numbers in vehicle's and of course sickness. Loss of profits and bank borrowings will all feature in how various businesses try to recoup over the coming years. In my opinion, Covid won't be a long-term issue but I have no doubt that the lasting effects will be additional costs through the supply chain which will come through in new procurement's. If it is to be a new seasonal flu like virus then businesses will have to factor that in going forward. There are already a lot of legacy employment contracts in the maintenance sector with operatives having 6 months full sick pay and 6 months half sick pay. These will feature heavily on contratcors minds as and when tenders come up for extension or re-bid. The other long term feature from Covid will be who pays for the Government support and when. Again, this will no doubt see costs increase in the maintenance sector.

The second headwind is Brexit. I was asked the other day by an English based journalist how prepared we were for Brexit. I answered with a question: what is Brexit? Unfortunately, we still don't know what the full implications of Brexit are until we know if we have a deal to trade with Europe or not. We have done what we can but like our supply chain we don’t have the resource to stockpile like we did at the last couple of cliff edges as we all try to keep cash to deal with the Global Pandemic. A ‘no-deal’ WILL see costs rise and more than likely see Clients and Contractor's debating as to how to cover these price shocks. Already there are material shortages in timber, plasterboard and we just have to wait and see what happens. The construction materials coming in from mainland Europe are quite extensive and if Brexit doesn't pan out okay I think we will need to rethink a lot of our ways of constructing and repairing. Unfortunately, only time will tell on this front.

Building Regulation changes are another thing that is coming at the housing maintenance sector. The much-hyped 1st January change to near zero energy building is sitting in limbo but it is in the regulations at Article 43 which states; All new buildings erected OR for which a new building regulations application is made, after 31st December 2020 apply. The Building Control NI website doesn’t even mention it but the Finance NI website has a 2 pager published last week (4th Dec 2020).

However, it is important that Housing Associations fully consider what the upcoming changes will mean not just for development costs but for maintenance costs. Certainly, our experience of heat recovery units, solar and water butts tells us that the developers are finding the cheapest possible solution and installing it by an untrained sub-contractor. If that trend continues to tick the box next year there is no doubt there will be a rise in mainteance costs. I have been appointed onto a UK wide Near Zero Carbon Panel under the guidance of the Crown Commercial Services where i hope to learn more than i will bring to the panel.

There there is the implications of the Grenfell tragedy and the Hackitt Report. What will the Hackitt ‘Building a Safer Future’ report mean for Part A, B , C and F of the Regs? There are some alarming pieces within that report and one line that stood out to me was that “the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible rather than to deliver quality homes which are safe for people to live in’. if that is true of the past, then how do we as a sector ensure that is not the future? In Northern Ireland we await the results of the October Consultation and if the likes of a sprinkler system in buildings of 11 metre ridge height will be required.

In Northern Ireland the NHMF Code Books have become synonymous with housing sector maintenance. The amazing thing is though is each housing association applies things slightly differently. But that is not the only issue. What we have noticed is a massive increase in the emergency job requests issued by 27% from the pre-tender information that gets issued. I have chatted to most maintenance contractors in NI over the last year or so and this trend is everywhere. It is easy to see why that happens as the rate a contractor gets for an emergency job is the same for a routine classified job. However, that continuing trend will drive costs higher. One way to prevent the misuse of the job classification is to introduce a separate percentage adjustment for Emergency classification compared to other classifications which is found in other schedules such as the PSA.

There is a drive for more units to be built and added to portfolios. Indeed in Northern Ireland we need to get 10,000 units per year for 10 years to deal with the 'housing stress'. That figure is a mixed portfolio of private, social, public, and rented. The Housing Association movement is doing fabulous work in adding to the portfolio and soon we expect the Housing Executive to shoulder up beside them to push the boulder harder and faster up the hill. All very welcome. The challenge though is how we make sure the houses are of top quality. This used to come through a traditional type of procurement with the client engaging their internal or external designers and making sure it was designed to the correct specification. However, more appear to be coming through via ‘Off The Shelf’ or Design and Build. Anyone in the maintenance side will no doubt have had conversations with their respective development side of their association at one point or another but while there was limited control through the traditional procurement model and how it was specified, the 'OTS' and competitive D&B is certainly showing us, to be poor workmanship and inferior materials or non-certified material's. Housing Association maintenance departments are picking up excessive tabs to brings some of these units into line with the Housing Association design criteria and safe home standards.

For me, this is not value for money, as the maintenance costs are not, in my opinion, analysed fully as much as it should be over on the development and acquisition budgets.

How does this relate back to the NHMF books? The standardised code book is designed largely on a standard specification. The Housing Association stock in Northern Ireland is a very wide and diversified architecturally portfolio. Something as simple as ironmongery, which is already one of the toughest items to procure, has no standard specification and indeed the likes of non return door handles and internal door handles could vary into dozens of types across each association. This makes a first time fix nearly impossible. Recently we were met with a Change of Tenancy. At pre-inspection the customer had installed all new non-standard santiaryware. Upon taking possession to carry out the COT works the sanitaryware had all been removed. Unfortunately, we are seeing more of this albeit not in the same scale.

Random sample of door handles with various prices

This is only fixed if there was a standardised list of approved materials and well trained Housing Maintenance Officers are in place.

Some will say sure we have a Building Control Certificate. Unfortunately, Building Control is more of a certificate collection service these days. The scope of the Regulations has become so wide and technical it would require numerous specialist surveyors to give a full detailed check on 'OTS' and other properties. It may be best for Housing Associations to employ specialist consultants before acquiring new properties.

How to improve?

There are actually many ways we could improve. One way could be long-term design, build and maintain contracts or PPP contracts. These would put more emphasis onto the development contractor to ensure the standard of work and quality of materials are in the right range of price and longevity. Of course the ongoing issue is the customer usage (or misuse) of the home. Just this weekend i was alerted to some very serious vandalism to a block in Belfast via another customers Facebook page. In my view, we need more Housing/Maintenance officers who are in the community looking after smaller numbers of homes.

Other simple measure's could be looking at how repairs are reported and more importantly to whom? As our customers engage with technology could the process be more streamlined?

Can we change the inflationary index from CPI (cinema ticket, holiday to Spain, pint of beer etc) to BCIS (RCI or OPI which account for construction outputs)? This would give longer term contracts more value.

Could we create the Emergency job classification as a separate pricing adjustment in the NHMF Schedule?

Could we include planned maintenance works as part of an all-inclusive maintenance contract. This would streamline things and ensure there is a mix for contractors allowing rotation of staff who often get bored/complacent with pure responsive repairs.

Could the contractor fully handle the repair request? The feedback we get often is that our collective customers want the reporting of a repair eased, they want speed in getting a convenient appointment, they want a good service by the operative attending to a high quality.

To achieve all those things, it requires more collaboration and out of the box thinking. It will require both client and contractor taking a leap together into a new territory for housing maintenance in Northern Ireland. The greatest assets an Association has are its homes and its people. I can't help with the people front but I do ask the question how many list the maintenance contractor as a key stakeholder in developing and maintaining one of your greatest assets to fulfilling your mission?

Contact me today to engage in what CTS could do for you and how we can change the maintenance landscape in NI.

Connaire [dot] mcgreevy [at]

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