What “doing our best work” means in practice

July 22, 2021

One of our key goals at Dot Dot Dot is to “do our best work”. That mantra is meaningful to us because it expresses several different important concepts at once, explains our CEO, Peter Brown.

These concepts link our identity as a social enterprise to our choices about how we go about doing the work that we do.  I’m clear that everything we do at Dot Dot Dot must contribute to our mission of providing housing that makes it easier for people to do good, and understanding the conditions that need to be in place to achieve that is vital.

Our tenth birthday has provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on all of the projects we have set up, the areas where we have worked, the people we have housed and the hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteering that our model has supported. We have been thinking about what worked well and of course about the times when we could have found better ways of doing things. 

How best work translates into great results

Dot Dot Dot’s mission hasn’t changed and the company values that we are well known for aren’t changing either. But by exploring the concept of ‘best’, all of our staff can form a view of how they can combine their skill, energy and professional commitment to deliver exceptional results.

Results here can be seen through the lens of social impact, or through creating consistent housing that’s both safe and well-managed, or when considering the financial performance of our operations. It’s also the case that the positive results of our work can be felt in several directions too, because our social enterprise business model has benefits to several groups all at once: the people we house benefit personally and financially, the communities where we have buildings benefit from great neighbours who are community-minded, charities and good causes benefit from our guardians’ volunteering, and of course our clients benefit too.

For me, the phrase “doing our best work” also fits with a more focused way of thinking about and describing the value that we create. So for our marketing and services teams, it’s about making sure we recruit and house guardians that are diligent, conscientious and who make socially responsible occupants. There are plenty of housing choices and options out there, and we choose to house people who understand our approach and who will benefit from our good-value accommodation. It’s our guardians who look after our clients’ buildings, who will vacate the buildings when we need them to, and who will contribute to communities through their volunteering, so our choices about who to house is crucially important. We know that people who are committed to supporting charitable causes are more likely to be conscientious about looking after our clients’ buildings, to be good neighbours to our clients’ existing residents, and to have the support network and resilience necessary to leave their homes with 28 days’ notice.

Finding the clients who allow us to do our best work

For our business development team, it’s about finding buildings where we can apply our efficient and effective management model to make appealing temporary homes that meet our safety standards, all while delivering projects which are financially viable for all involved. We seek clients who understand the inextricable link between our model and the quality of service we can provide as a result, and who may also be excited about our social impact creation in the communities where their buildings are based. Our model has always been distinctive, and, as we embark on our second decade of existence, we continue to demonstrate how the fact we exist to create a positive social impact actually allows us to deliver a better service to clients and communities.

If you’d like a conversation about how we look after your empty buildings and how our distinctive approach to property guardianship can help you, get in touch at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com

Never knowingly underhoused

July 20, 2021

At Dot Dot Dot, we know from our own experience and from our guardians that finding a home to rent in the private rented sector is a gamble.  Some landlords are considerate and diligent, and some homes are well maintained and in good condition, but many aren’t.  Creating an alternative to this uncertainty by providing well-managed, inexpensive homes is part of our reason for existence.

New entrants into rentals market

So it’s good to see household names entering the market for private rented homes on a large scale, with an intention to provide a consistently good quality experience for residents and a long-term commitment to the sector.  John Lewis has announced that it will build around 10,000 homes for private rent, and Lloyds Banking Group plans to become a large private landlord too, through its new brand, Citra Living, which it launched this month.  Citra is making 45 flats in Peterborough available over the coming weeks, with 400 more to follow this year and 800 expected in 2022.  

The homes will provide the businesses with a reliable rental income, making up for earnings both are seeing disappear elsewhere as John Lewis stores lose out to online shopping and Lloyds’ profit margins on lending are hit by low interest rates. 

Given the size of both businesses – and the value of their brands as signifiers of reliability – they can’t afford to provide a poor service through these new offshoots, since to do so would tarnish their reputation as a whole.  Also, because they will be planning to own and manage their buildings for the long haul, they may be able to offer greater security of tenure to their tenants, giving confidence that residents can stay in one place for as long as they like, unlike many private sector tenants who have to relocate every year or two.

The growth of “Built to Rent”

It is likely that they will be followed by more well-known businesses into this ‘Built to Rent’ (B2R) market.  Research by Savills suggests that there is huge scope for growth here.  It estimated that there were already 30,000 completed B2R homes in 2019, with 37,500 under construction and 72,200 in planning.  While these are large numbers, the completed homes so far make up only 1% of the total value of privately rented housing in the UK, dwarfed by the millions owned by individual landlords.  

Savills predicts that the proportion of homes rented out by large businesses will rise to 35% of the private rental market, worth £544bn, when the B2R sector reaches maturity, though this will take decades.  Even at the predicted scale, the B2R sector in the UK would be smaller than that in the US, where 47% of rented homes are managed by institutional investors.

At Dot Dot Dot we welcome this shift, not because it is a perfect solution but because it should incrementally improve the experience of private tenants.  This should occur directly, through B2R landlords offering a better service, but also because high-street estate agents and small landlords will need to up their game in terms of quality and reliability to compete.   

Pushing up standards

In the same way, we want to make sure that property guardianship is a reliable option for people who want flexible housing that is also great value.  That means all property guardian companies need to reliably meet basic standards, so that would-be guardians can choose the company whose approach and properties they like best without worrying about safety or professionalism.  We work towards this by delivering our own work to high standards so that others have to improve to remain competitive, and also by publicising the legal minimum standards all guardians are entitled to.

Improvements for tenants and guardians are particularly important since the government’s current focus on supporting homeownership alone isn’t a complete remedy for Britain’s housing problems.  Given the levels house prices have reached, many people – including many of our residents – believe they will never be able to afford to buy even with help from government schemes, which in any case often only serve to push up prices even higher.  Large numbers of people will be renting in the private rented sector – or living as property guardians – for the foreseeable future, so pushing up standards here has got to be part of the solution.

 

Property guardianship isn’t just for Londoners: Letchworth Garden City

June 25, 2021

In 2019, we brought our mission to provide safe, affordable housing for those who want to do more good to Letchworth Garden City, the world’s first garden city, in North Hertfordshire. We have partnered with Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (LGCHF), a self-funded charitable organisation, to secure a block of flats in the town centre, housing 36 guardians in 19 1- and 2-bed flats across the three years. 

Letchworth still upholds its original vision, set out by Ebeneezer Howard before its conception in 1903, that income generated by managing local assets will be reinvested back into the community. LGCHF continues this work today, working to invest in initiatives with its community in mind. 

We are proud to support the foundation not only in securing their empty assets, but in their placemaking objectives, assisting them to ‘support, fund and deliver activities to meet [their] charitable commitments for the benefit of our local communities’. Since the project began in 2019, our Letchworth guardians have contributed 4,147 hours of voluntary work to local charitable causes such as Letchworth Foodbank and Love Letchworth.

Not just for Londoners

Property guardianship has typically been associated with cities, and particularly London, and if you asked someone to describe a ‘typical’ guardianship property, they will probably describe an unusual building, likely a pub or a bank, in a desirable location in the heart of the city. In reality, the need for property guardianship is widespread, and there is no such thing as a typical property or a typical guardian. We have taken on a huge variety of residential and commercial properties, and myriad projects in areas beyond the M25, from Shoreham, to Manchester, to Henley-on-Thames. 

Empty properties are not just a problem for London’s housing circles; all over the UK, long-term vacant dwellings are a security risk, a nuisance to the communities that surround them, and a financial burden for their owners. In 2020, there were 268,385 empty buildings in the UK, with 30,548 of those in London. Outside of London, it is a similar story: there were 26,275 empty buildings in the East of England last year, which is almost the population of Letchworth. Our experience has shown that towns are not exempt from the predicament of empty buildings; there is just as much of a need for property guardianship in Letchworth or High Wycombe as there is in London. 

Setting up outside of the city

The age of the Letchworth’s original buildings and its additions in the 60s and 70s has inspired LGCHF’s plans to regenerate several of its assets. The long-term nature of the regeneration has left some buildings empty with an uncertain purpose, leaving them vulnerable to potential security risks. With our broad experience of delivering property guardianship outside of London, we were able to mobilise a management plan quickly, allowing LGCHF the time and space to solidify their plans whilst we secured the building. 

Filling voids in non-traditional property guardianship areas requires a tailored approach. With a different target audience in our smaller, town-based projects, we have to think differently when marketing our properties. Motivations for moving and priorities may differ from those looking to live in a city, people might use different channels to look for their housing, or they may not have heard of property guardianship before.

One thing that all Dot Dot Dot guardians do have in common, however, is that they are interested in giving back to their community. One tactic we employ is to build a base of interest through contacting voluntary organisations, in order to reach volunteers who are looking for housing. This also helps us to establish a network of organisations, to which we can direct our guardians’ voluntary efforts. This was important in Letchworth, where the foundation’s mission is focused on funding charitable initiatives in the area. In a survey we conducted in 2020, 67% of Letchworth Garden City respondents volunteered in the borough. 

Taking care of everything

As property owners well know, there can be a huge number of moving parts to consider when managing empty assets, particularly assets that are empty for unknown lengths of time. In Letchworth Garden City, we took on all of the facilities management for the block, allowing LGCHF to allocate their time and resources elsewhere. As we take each project on a case by case basis, we can build in different levels of management where required.

Property guardianship is not only for property owners in London – wherever they are, we give our clients the time and space to support their future plans whilst we take care of everything in the meantime.

If you’d like to find out more about how we collaborate with our clients, you can contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com or sign up to our newsletter.

On the ground: Regeneration schemes and gradual decants – build and flex

May 20, 2021

Last month our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explained how we put in place the right support for regeneration schemes and other long, gradual decant programmes. In that first piece, he explained how we like to understand the properties, project and community to deliver a tailored service.  In this follow-up, he explains how tailored workflows and a flexible long-term approach can help our clients to achieve their goals.

Build a workflow that fits around the client

Our careful up-front research gives us a strong chance to hit the ground running in a regeneration or decant project. As well as giving us useful knowledge and a tailored model, we have already engaged in great conversations with our new clients, which helps us to establish working relationships quickly when the work starts.

Part of this preparation is about the detailed work of designing procedures and workflows that fit around our client’s existing operations and teams. This is key to the success of regeneration or decant projects. We need to be able to receive, manage and return properties to the client in a way that fits with their resources and needs.

At an operational level, this means understanding how the client wants to prepare and handle properties before handing them over to us. This usually involves agreeing a clear specification for the client’s voids or maintenance teams to follow. This will cover familiar areas such as:

  • Gas and electrical compliance
  • Clearance
  • Key cutting and locks
  • Fire safety systems

Some clients will do significant work and others will do none – this varies according to each client’s compliance needs, budgets and operational priorities. Our work needs to fit around the agreed specification, filling the gaps and ensuring that the property handover process is smooth and efficient. Getting this ‘recipe’ right is a key step – it gives our clients certainty about their own workflow, it allows us to make detailed plans, and it gives us an insight into the unique pressures and preferences of a new organisation or team.

Beyond that, we will also put in place the tracking, reporting, administrative and compliance elements of our service so that each client can access the right service and the right information in a way that works for them.

As well as the obvious property management issues, each client’s way of working needs to be accommodated. This is not just about ‘receiving’ properties, but also to their ongoing management and maintenance.

  • How are utilities handled and how should we transfer those services effectively?
  • Do operational staff prefer to share documents in paper form, by email or by using shared online drives and documents?
  • Do the client’s teams want us on site so that we can react to a flexible timetable? Or do they want a more structured approach with fixed schedules?
  • Do clients want us to liaise directly with their contractors and suppliers? Or should we work directly via the client’s own representatives?
  • Does the client have specific policy or practical requirements around anniversary or repeat compliance checks?
  • Are there particular elements of housekeeping or maintenance that are particularly important for the client? Perhaps one area or block needs special attention?

These are just some of the factors that we consider, and although this seems like a lot of detail, we are able to get ‘under the hood’ of these requirements quickly by combining our wide experience with good quality client conversations.  We have our own standards for high quality guardians and well-managed housing, and we understand how those can be delivered in a wide variety of operational contexts. We love the challenge of moulding our service so that we become a flexible and low-hassle part of each client’s toolkit.

A lot of this is worked out at the proposal stage before a contract starts, but detailed process-building continues after we are on the ground and working closely together with clients. We like to build high quality relationships with both decision-makers and operational staff within our client organisations. This allows us to respond intelligently and quickly, to find efficiencies, and to pre-empt risks and difficulties. 

Flex and change with the project

Regeneration and decant programmes can change and evolve significantly over time. Our detailed planning is not just about what a client needs now, but also about what could change in the future, and our experience helps us to understand how our service may need to adapt.

We are typically prepared for the changes in size, pace and structure that could affect us, but we are also used to responding flexibly to unforeseen issues. By working collaboratively with our clients, we constantly review the outlook and risks for each project, and we are ready to adjust plans rapidly if needed.

This could mean tweaking a compliance policy to address an area of risk, or overhauling our entire contract to take on a new range of responsibilities. We often have insights and ideas from previous work that will help us and our clients to navigate changes. Although the details of every project will vary, there are common challenges that we are used to addressing:

  • Delays that mean old buildings are kept in use for longer
  • Changes in financial or political priorities meaning that the speed or scale of our work changes quickly or that previous decisions about properties need to be reversed
  • Changes to other suppliers that affect teams, workflows and responsibilities
  • Policy or legislative changes requiring us to evolve alongside our clients
  • Issues or crises in the local area that require us to change the focus of our social impact, resident liaison or other work

These are just a few examples of the issues that we have tackled with clients in the past. Because we can draw on insights from multiple projects and organisations, we can be a useful source of stability and knowledge for teams facing new phases or transitions in their major programmes.  An important part of our approach is that we structure our service to be effective throughout the lifetime of a project, with in-built flexibility and resilience, and a commitment to long-term outcomes.

Working sensitively to support regeneration programmes or the decant of multiple properties has always been a core part of Dot Dot Dot’s work. This experience informs every part of our operations, and we take pride in supporting clients in a tailored way through their most challenging and important programmes. 

 

If you would like to find out more about how we could work with you on a new or existing project, contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com

Working with property developers across the country to care for empty buildings and the communities around them

May 20, 2021

With our deep understanding of working in large regeneration contexts, it is unsurprising that some of our client list is made up of housing associations and local councils. Yet the reality is that we have collaborated with a wide variety of clients with varying needs, and we have a broad experience of working with property developers to provide vacant property management through housing guardians, and support their redevelopment processes. This breadth of experience is what makes our model so successful – we are able to draw on all of our past experiences to deliver the best service for our clients.

In this month’s blog, we will be taking a look at how this manifests in our partnerships with property developers, in particular in Marylebone, Cambridgeshire and Purley. We explore how our experience of working with different types of building and a diverse client base has given us the knowledge to best support our clients, not just in their vacant property needs and redevelopment plans but in stakeholder relationship building and fulfilling their CSR objectives.

Supporting relationships with stakeholders

For any client looking to secure an empty building, the needs of all stakeholders – be that local residents, councils or planning authorities – must be taken into account. For property developers in particular, this is key when asking for planning permission from the relevant authorities. 

Working with a social enterprise is valuable for property developers because it can help maintain strong relationships. In 2018, we started working with Dorrington to secure an empty property with plans for redevelopment in Marylebone. Dorrington’s plans were dependent on planning permission from Westminster Council, and thus it was essential that they maintain a good relationship with the council in the interim. 

Due to our holistic approach, we were able to work closely with Dorrington and ensure that the property was well looked after, secure and ready for council inspections.  We were also able to use our varied experience of working with councils to support relationship-building with Westminster.

In Purley, where we worked with Peer Group to secure a large commercial property, we agreed that there would be staff presence on site once a week to provide access to third parties. Maintaining good relationships with third parties ensured that essential works could be carried out to support the redevelopment process, and Peer Group were able to allocate time and resources elsewhere.

A flexible approach

Flexibility is a key component of our work at Dot Dot Dot. For property developers in particular, redevelopment plans can have unknown timeframes and plans can change quickly, so long-term commitments are not always possible. 

In Cambridgeshire, we have partnered with This Land to secure a variety of properties, including residential flats, farmhouses, an education centre and former student accommodation. When plans for the student accommodation came to fruition, we were able to ensure a smooth hand back within 30 days. At the start of each project, a Relationship Coordinator is assigned to deal with any guardian and compliance issues, and this ensures that there is a staff member to manage the hand back process at the end of the contract’s life.

In Cambridge, Marylebone and Purley, our flexible approach to property management and an efficient hand back process ensured that This Land, Dorrington and Peer Group were able to move forwards with their redevelopment plans on the timescale they wanted. 

Supporting our clients’ CSR objectives

This Land has an interest in building social value into their development plans, and we have worked closely with them to support their CSR objectives, including signposting our guardians to voluntary work with homeless people. All of our guardians commit to volunteering for good causes for 16 hours each month, 

Not only do we offer effective security for empty buildings, but we deliver social value in the communities that surround them in line with our clients’ values, and support them in spreading the word to their stakeholders.

Whatever the project – whether large or small, residential or commercial, CSR strategy or not – our extensive experience of working within the public sector bodies bears fruit when working with private developers, because we are so attuned to the positive impact our guardians have on the communities in which they live.

 

If you would like to find out more about how we can support our clients, you can get in touch with the team at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

What does property guardianship free you up to do?

April 16, 2021

Choosing to use property guardianship in buildings that would otherwise lie empty brings a range of benefits to property owners. Each of our clients usually focus on one or two benefits that particularly appeal to them, whether that’s confidence and managing risks better, security of buildings, or creating social value to communicate to stakeholders through Dot Dot Dot’s social impact model. Saving on costs continues to be an important benefit too. 

Our Chief Executive, Peter Brown, explores another benefit that is less obvious but nonetheless important: freeing up our clients to spend their time and attention on priorities other than managing empty properties.

Too much to do, too little time to do it?

We are all busy people, usually with more things on our to-do lists that we’d ideally like. For some of our clients, austerity and cutbacks have also added to pressures on their organisations. And of course, the difficulties and uncertainties of managing assets through Covid-19 have brought a new dimension to work and challenged our focus. Being able to hand over empty buildings and knowing that those assets will be taken care of, and used to house good people on a meanwhile basis and for as long as it’s required, can be a liberating feeling if there’s a high quality service and a trusted relationship in place.

All of the Dot Dot Dot team work hard at creating and sustaining great working relationships and partnerships. We want to enable our clients to specialise in their work whilst we specialise in ours, and find ways to complement and support our clients’ goals.

Bringing in experts so you can focus on other priorities

For example, one of our clients was a national environmental charity which had a surplus office building. The charity was restructuring its operations and wanted a period of time to evaluate its future property needs. It chose to use Dot Dot Dot to manage the building, where we installed 14 guardians for around 18 months. During that time, the charity was able to focus on developing its strategy, rather than diverting resources and costs to managing the building itself. It eventually chose to sell the building, and we moved guardians out to enable them to do so.

Often it’s the case that housing associations and local authorities don’t have a team or individual with specific  responsibility for empty property. When properties are scheduled for demolition or wholesale refurbishment, responsibility for them can fall between different teams. In these scenarios Dot Dot Dot can act as the internal team they wish they had, by providing specialist expertise and experience that can be brought in to manage empty assets.

Several of our long-standing housing association clients have given us feedback that working with a Dot Dot Dot means that they can focus on other complex aspects of regeneration: managing the project and the development, resident engagement and consultation, liaising with residents and negotiating leaseholder buy-backs. They have commented that having Dot Dot Dot involved in the properties that are empty and awaiting redevelopment means that their housing and regeneration teams are freed up to focus on these activities, confident that properties allocated to Dot Dot Dot are being well managed and will be handed back when theie project requires vacant possession. 

If you’re finding that empty property is a distraction and you’d like to find out how we could free up some of your time, please get in touch at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

 

Supporting long-term placemaking with Poplar HARCA in east London

April 15, 2021

Poplar HARCA is an award-winning Housing and Regeneration Community Association leading a long-term regeneration and placemaking project in east London. Since our foundation in 2011, we have built a long-standing partnership with Poplar HARCA to house guardians in empty properties awaiting redevelopment. We have housed over 350 guardians in a total of 111 guardianship properties in the nine years that we have worked together, and those guardians have contributed 32,663 voluntary hours to worthwhile causes.

Responding to Poplar HARCA’s needs

As part of our bespoke service, we wanted to better understand Poplar HARCA’s placemaking needs and how we could contribute to their vision ‘to create a place where people, communities and businesses can grow and thrive’. In order to do this, we commissioned a survey of our Poplar guardians and relayed their responses to the client, to help inform multiple placemaking projects and gain insight into guardian attitudes towards living in Poplar. We also wanted to steer guardian volunteering towards Poplar HARCA’s community regeneration aims, and three quarters of guardians were interested to find out more about their online Covid-19 volunteering opportunities. 

Keeping it local

We currently house 35 guardians in Poplar across 21 guardianship properties. 89% of guardians responded to the survey, which was conducted online and on the phone. Of those we surveyed, nine were already living in east London before their guardianship, and two were living in Poplar itself. We’re proud to be able to house local people in safe, affordable homes and give them the opportunity to give back to their local community. 

A third of participants volunteered in Poplar itself, and 55% of Poplar guardians (from our guardian-wide survey conducted in 2020) volunteered locally in their borough. Guardians have taken part in a wide range of volunteering, such as dance classes at Poplar HARCA’s Brownfield Community Cabin, the Chrisp Street Maker’s Exchange, hosting befriending sessions over Zoom, tackling isolation in the older local population and delivering food parcels.

New business

Property guardianship can be a great way of bringing new people to an area and boosting economic activity. Two thirds of those surveyed were new to Poplar, and 98% of all participants like living there. 29% of Poplar guardians run their own businesses or are self-employed, running businesses such as music production, a youth charity, construction, documentary filmmaking, singing and mental health support for LGBTQ+ people. This was significant to Poplar HARCA not only because it gives insight into the economic contribution of our guardians, but it also gave them an opportunity to gauge interest in a new Poplar Business Directory. The directory was set up by Poplar HARCA and lists small businesses in Poplar, to support local residents and businesses and boost economic growth in the community. Of those with their own businesses, six wanted to find out more about the directory and one guardian was already included in it.  

Together with Poplar HARCA we also wanted to explore interest in continuing to live in Poplar after guardianship. We found 48% of guardians would consider living in Poplar long term, and 61% indicated that long term they were interested in buying a home or settling down. 

Through our tailored approach to property guardianship, we have been able to support Poplar HARCA to achieve both their short and long term placemaking aims, working together to help the Poplar community thrive and bring social value to the area.

If you’d like to find out more about how we collaborate with our clients, you can sign up to our newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, or get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

Silver linings on the high street

April 15, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

As Britain’s shops and pubs reopen from lockdown, the impact Covid-19 has had on commercial property is becoming impossible to miss as many units remain shuttered.  These closures are a tragedy for staff members, business owners, landlords and for shoppers who relied on local outlets.  The transition to new long-term uses will be painful, economically challenging and slow. 

However, empty space can be a magnet for creativity and innovation, and Dot Dot Dot is just one of many organisations offering ways to turn empty space from a problem to be solved into an opportunity to do something worthwhile. We hope we can be part of the solution as Britain builds back better.

As one door closes…

While life is returning to the high streets, many shopping parades are looking sadly empty. Household names like Debenhams, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins have gone for good as bricks and mortar retailers, along with countless independent shops, while eight branches of John Lewis won’t be reopening.

In total, there was a net loss of nearly 10,000 chain stores across the country during 2020, according to research by PwC – a record decline since they started gathering this data.  PwC’s experts forecast that the picture is likely to get worse during 2021, because shops that were closed temporarily during lockdown weren’t included in the tallies, and only retailers with at least five branches were counted.

The worst-hit areas are central shopping streets in cities, as people worked from home and didn’t travel into city centres to shop – London, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle have had a higher-than-average number of closures.  Meanwhile, retail parks with large stores and plenty of parking did better, as did small town centres closer to people’s homes – places like Harlow, Eastbourne and Welwyn Garden City have lost fewer shops.

Many shops that remain in business are struggling to pay the rent for their spaces.  Land Securities, one of the UK’s largest commercial landlords, collected only £2m of the £7m they were owed in March by London retailers according to a report in the Financial Times, while outside London its retail tenants paid £5m of the £13m owed.  A ban on evicting commercial tenants put in place by the government will end on June 30th, so more shops may face closure at that point.

This is terrible news for the 180,000 retail workers who have lost their jobs.  The difficulties ripple out – for example, sellers of The Big Issue are finding that the loss of footfall at previously reliable pitches is a challenge. 

…Another one opens

While no one would wish for this disruption and its impact on individuals and the economy, many of the changes caused by the pandemic are accelerations of pre-existing processes, such as the shift to online shopping. 

Some kinds of shops are likely to do well over the coming years – new coffee shops and takeaways are opening, according to the PwC research.  The British Heart Foundation reported a record day of trading when stores reopened on Monday, selling £1m worth of goods, and showing that eBay is no substitute for browsing second-hand treasures in real life. 

Despite these pockets of success, it seems inevitable that high streets as a whole will need to be reshaped.  Meanwhile approaches can ease that process and contribute to designing the future.  Empty buildings are a problem for everyone – most immediately for their owners, who have to pay tax on them despite earning no income, and who face the costs of dereliction or squatting.  But they’re also bad news for everyone else – a scattering of empty shops can make a street off-putting and unwelcoming, harming business for stores that remain and spoiling the experience for shoppers. 

Meanwhile uses solve these problems, while also creating opportunities for experimentation and entrepreneurship.  The Ebury Edge project run by Meanwhile Space CIC with Westminster City Council is a great example. Instead of an empty site waiting for a housing regeneration project, there is now a brightly-coloured, architect-designed set of offices and studios, plus a café run by Fat Macy’s, a social enterprise which creates opportunities to get into catering careers for young people who have experienced homelessness. 

Similarly, the London Borough of Croydon cooperated with a group of local artists and community members to create ‘Saffron Central’, where a previously empty site was planted with crocus sativus – the flower whose stamens are saffron.  This was done to remind residents that Croydon’s name derives from Anglo Saxon ‘Croh Denu’ meaning “Crocus Valley”, and to enable them to pick their own saffron – a spice that, weight for weight, is worth more than gold.

And housing association Poplar HARCA turned one of its empty shops at Chrisp Street Market into a pop-up radio studio to broadcast “Chrisp Street On Air”, a project that shared and amplified local voices and helped increase understanding of how different groups and individuals felt about their area and what they wanted for its future.

Projects like these – which treat their temporary nature as an opportunity to experiment rather than a constraint, and which can point the way to future uses – can help our high streets.  Commentators and think-tanks are suggesting that housing is what our town centres need, while others recommend night clubs or spaces for children to play.  It will take time to put these uses in place permanently – but we can get on with doing it on a temporary basis straight away, creating short-term opportunities, and in the process seeing what works and what doesn’t work. 

At Dot Dot Dot, we’ve been turning empty buildings into good homes that support residents to get involved and contribute locally for the past ten years, and we’re looking forward to working alongside our meanwhile and placemaking peers to breathe life back into the empty spaces left behind by lockdowns.

 

On the ground: Guardianship that meets your needs

December 18, 2020

From our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd

In the first of our ‘On the ground’ series, we explore some of the details of how our service works. In future articles, we’ll look in more detail at how we set up, operate and demobilise our service in different settings. In this article, we describe how Dot Dot Dot creates the right division of property management responsibilities for each client.

How to prepare a property for safe occupation can often seem like the most important question. It’s a critical step (both practically and financially), and we will be exploring the setup phase in future articles. But it is important to think more widely about how property management will function across the lifetime of a guardian contract; in many projects, this is the critical factor that helps guardianship deliver the maximum benefit to property owners. From my experience, this is one of the most pressing questions for clients who have to juggle existing property management budgets and pressures.

 

Matching contract responsibilities to client needs

At Dot Dot Dot, we think it is critical to understand not just the properties, but also the needs and operating environments of our clients. The following examples of issues or pressures are likely to be familiar to all property owners, but we find that each client has a unique set of priorities:

  • Mitigating fixed costs (e.g. council tax, utilities, maintenance contracts)
  • Protection against unauthorised occupants or vandalism
  • Removing day-to-day property management demands (e.g. access, security, repairs)
  • Handling core FM functions such as managing a planned maintenance programme
  • Buffering against occasional costs (e.g. roof repairs, flytipping)
  • Controlling long-term dilapidation and disrepair 
  • Reputational or political pressure around property use

Our goal with any client is to offer contract options that are a good match for their specific needs. We can customise and adjust this very finely, but below are some examples of common approaches.

 

Example 1: Like a lease, but not a lease

Under this model, clients hand over properties at a basic standard, and Dot Dot Dot takes on all of the in-life compliance, repair and management responsibilities. This includes the costs, repairs and maintenance that would normally fall to a leaseholder. Property owners or asset managers retain responsibility for block level maintenance (though we can often assist).

This structure has similarities with a leaseholder arrangement, but there is no lease required. Clients can end our service contract with 30 days’ notice. This model works well in many residential settings, and is particularly useful during ongoing decants with an uncertain pipeline of void properties.

 

Example 2: Shared management 

In larger buildings (commercial or residential), many clients wish to retain their own PPM and compliance regimes. One solution is to share the ongoing management with Dot Dot Dot. We can take on the on-site operations and daily FM responsibilities at the property, including responsive repairs. In major assets, this might include establishing suites of operating procedures and monitoring regimes.

By working with existing safety systems and regimes, we can simplify the cost structure and workload of our client. This leaves them free to focus on predictable upkeep, and on securing the next phase of the building’s life. This is a collaborative approach for hands-on clients. It can be a great solution for complex assets where owners or asset managers want to solve security or FM problems, but need close control of financial and operational risks. 

 

Example 3: Turnkey property management

One of the simplest contract options is for Dot Dot Dot to take on the full breadth of property management. We’ll develop a full management and occupation plan, allowing us to take care of all compliance, maintenance and management in line with the client’s needs.

Clients may choose to take an arm’s length approach and to rely on our reporting and reviews to keep in touch with their property. Others might remain closely involved in monitoring and decision-making. Armed with a detailed understanding of our client’s needs and of the property, Dot Dot Dot can often help clients to navigate uncertain development or sales timelines by assisting with medium-term asset management decisions or projects such as minor works.

This is a good option for clients with multiple competing priorities. It allows owners and asset managers to put assets ‘on hold’, while being reassured properties are secure, managed and maintained until needed.

 

Picking the right approach

Owners and asset managers with experience of guardianship may have a clear view of the service they require, but they do not need to decide in advance which approach will best support them. 

By sharing their priorities and needs, clients enable Dot Dot Dot to identify the right structure. Although guardianship is always at the heart of our service, we recognise that a “one size fits all” approach will limit the value we can offer. Instead, we believe in matching our service to the circumstances and needs of each client.

 

Next in ‘On the ground’ – How we mobilise in large and complex properties.

How Dot Dot Dot can bring value to your area: working with Soha in Henley-on-Thames

September 8, 2020

Mount View Court is an over-55s sheltered housing estate in Henley-on-Thames, made up of 50 flats in total. It is owned by Soha, a housing association working in South Oxfordshire.

Since October 2019, Dot Dot Dot has worked with Soha whilst the estate goes through a period of regeneration, to sensitively and effectively house guardians into empty properties. 

Social impact is at the core of what we do at Dot Dot Dot. We have extensive experience of working with housing associations to secure properties in complex sheltered housing environments, and we only house the most reliable guardians to ensure the transition is as mindful and secure as possible.

 

1. Staggered setup process

During this time of transition, we have worked closely with Soha to develop a management plan that not only provides security for their empty assets, but is also sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders. As a housing association, Soha’s first duty of care is to their residents, so it was important to minimise risk and take the needs of those who still reside in the estate into account. 

We identified three flats which would allow us to house guardians quickly and safely, for an initial three month pilot. The pilot has been a success, and we have an agreement in place with Soha to introduce more guardians in the coming weeks and months.

Using a staggered approach allowed us to secure the properties in a timely way, whilst also ensuring a smooth transition for the estate’s current residents.

 

2. Careful selection and introduction of guardians

When putting together a management plan for Mount View Court, it was important to Soha that the transition to housing property guardians caused as little disruption as possible. We take great pride in going above and beyond in the way we collaborate with our clients. As a result, we are responsive to their needs and the needs of the communities in which they work.

We worked with Soha to come up with a plan to introduce guardians in a sensitive and appropriate way – carefully selecting and inducting three guardians who understood the context of their new community. They embraced the need to be good neighbours and were willing to form relationships with existing residents. We tailored our vetting process to ensure that prospective guardians were interested in helping with activities like shopping, gardening and befriending older residents as part of their 16 hours of volunteering per month. The need for good neighbours became even more important in March when Covid-19 required that everyone stay at home. With isolation becoming a daily reality for many, the need for connection amongst neighbours and the power of volunteering has become more apparent than ever. 

 

3. Supporting relationships with neighbours

Developing strong relationships is vital in any regeneration project where there are existing residents. We have open channels of communication with Soha and their residents to understand their needs and provide information about Dot Dot Dot and our guardians. 

We helped Soha to educate and inform their residents about Dot Dot Dot and our approach, and to assuage any concerns they may have. Before Covid-19, we had planned some meet ups to introduce guardians to the residents and allow a space for the guardians to meet their new community. Covid interrupted these plans, so we had to innovate in a way that would still foster a sense of community, despite the need for social distancing. We shared case studies of each guardian with information about their interests and volunteering, and included contact details should the residents need to contact our guardians. This meant the residents had a listening ear to call on or could ask for help with shopping.

 

4. Making a difference in the local area

Since January 2020, our Henley-on-Thames guardians have contributed a total of nearly 300 hours of volunteering, and have continued to do so during Covid-19. Without them, local charity shops would not have had extra staff, and local music events wouldn’t have been organised. Through encouraging volunteering in the Henley local area, we see the mutual benefits of community to both the guardians and the residents. Samuel, a Dot Dot Dot guardian living in Mount View Court, says: ‘It’s an incredible community to live in and I’m fortunate enough to be a part of it’. 

 

Dot Dot Dot: property guardianship with purpose

The 16 hours of volunteering contributed by Dot Dot Dot guardians is central to our mission, but this is not the only additional value Dot Dot Dot can bring to an area. Careful management allows us to adjust to the needs of individual clients, projects and unique circumstances. Our agile and flexible approach has allowed us to collaborate with stakeholders despite the challenging circumstances presented by Covid-19. By building purpose into everything we do, we are unique in achieving additional value in the communities where we work. If you would like to get in touch with us about securing your empty asset, you can request a callback here.

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