Keeping to (ISO9001) standard

March 19, 2021

Dot Dot Dot has just renewed its quality certification to the ISO9001 standard. This means we have demonstrated to an external, independent auditor that we have a consistent way of doing things. Fundamentally it’s about ensuring that we operate in ways which ensure that our services meet our customers’ needs and that our services have a clear standard which we strive to achieve every time. 

So, asks our Chief Executive, Peter Brown, what does this mean in practice and what does it mean for our team? How does this show up if you’re a property owner who has a building managed by Dot Dot Dot?

 

The value of a QMS

Our quality management system is focused on the core of our work: enabling buildings to be safely lived in by carefully-selected property guardians for as long as needed. And having clear processes that mean we can hand buildings back to our clients when those buildings are required for their next purpose. So our quality management system covers the range of tasks and activities that our team use to prepare buildings, to make sure that guardians are always housed safely and to legal standards, and, of course, to hand buildings back when the time comes. 

It’s no surprise that we need to follow the law to make sure that buildings are safely and competently managed, and property guardians are housed safely and in a way that is consistent with legal requirements. But there is value in setting this out clearly, and our quality management system does this, as well as making sure that new legal requirements are understood and embedded into our operating processes. And in some cases we choose to go above and beyond what the law requires, so in those cases, these are included in our processes.

Much of how we ‘do’ quality management happens behind the scenes, and because we have had a quality management system since 2016 is firmly woven into how we already operate. We’ve always done a careful and ethical job and tried to do right by our clients and guardians, and our values have always guided us. So one way to consider our quality management system is that it provides the extra technical detail which our team must follow to make sure that our services are consistently high quality. This reflects in much of our client feedback, which often says that we are a reliable and trustworthy service provider. In turn, this is why we are trusted to manage millions of pounds worth of property assets at any one time.

Practically, our quality management system enables us to:

 

1. Meet our customers’ needs

It’s important to me and to our team that we meet our customers’ needs and expectations. Having a set of clearly defined standards means we can consistently deliver to our clients’ expectations and – just as importantly – we can be clear and transparent about what clients can expect when they work with us. It’s also a principle within the standard that we should be ready to adapt and update our standards in line with our clients’ changing needs or requirements. Through our regular client conversations and account management processes, we are always interested to hear how we can do better and differently, and we consider how to incorporate feedback. Whilst most businesses say they want to adopt continuous improvement, having a systematic way to do this takes it a step further.

 

2. Improve performance

Because we have done the work to clearly and unambiguously set out the standards to which all of our processes should be delivered, it makes it easier to deliver on that commitment every day. All of our team members and managers know the standard to which our core processes should be delivered, and are aware of why this is important to our property owners and to the business more widely. Equally, aspects of this same set of standards show up in how our performance is measured at a senior level and within our governance framework. This all feeds into property owners experiencing a high level of attentive service when they choose to work with Dot Dot Dot.

 

3. Give confidence

I think a big part of choosing to have a quality management system is that it gives confidence – both externally and internally – that we are committed to doing a good job, and that we are working within an established framework to work with and understand quality. And that’s even more important in an industry where we sometimes see corner-cutting and a lack of transparency, especially around safety issues. I hope that the fact that Dot Dot Dot has a quality management system gives all of our stakeholders confidence in our service.

 

4. Contribute to our culture 

The most successful quality management approaches are ones that are firmly embedded in the culture of the organisation. For Dot Dot Dot, we always strive to do a high quality job, so our quality management system helps us assure ourselves and others that we are continuing to do just that. A quality management system that is disconnected with the way an organisation thinks and acts will most likely fail, since it becomes a tick box exercise.

We have been lucky to work with Jennifer, Julia and Bird at ISO Quality Services to look at how we implement quality, improve what we do and to renew our certification.

Dot Dot Dot has held a quality management certification since 2016. Technically, this is known as ISO9001:2015 and is the international standard for quality management.

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

On the ground: inspections and monitoring

March 18, 2021

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores some of the details of how our service works. In our last instalment, we looked at how Dot Dot Dot mobilises in large or complex properties. This month, we look at how we use inspections to monitor properties over the life of a contract.

 

Why inspections matter

When managing voids, an ‘inspection’ is often focused on condition. An ‘inspection’ might be completed in minutes by an operative who is covering a large patch. If you manage residential properties, you might use more intensive inspections that support your compliance regime. In some cases, they might also be part of your system for resident and community liaison.

That last model is more similar to the approach taken by Dot Dot Dot. Although we are managing our clients’ ‘voids’, those properties are also the housing stock that we provide to guardians, and we monitor properties with both of those things in mind.

For Dot Dot Dot, inspections achieve several goals:

  • Regular direct contact with our guardians in their own homes
  • Confirmation of guardian occupation and compliance
  • Actively using our right to enter properties
  • Monitoring property condition or changes
  • Ensuring safety and compliance.

Because inspections are so key to our operation, we rely on our in-house field team for this work. This team works with our properties and guardians at every step, from initial mobilisation to final vacant possession. We use customised software that allows our team to log inspections directly in the field, providing immediate and auditable inspection information back to head office.

 

How we inspect

Our normal approach is to use three types of inspections to monitor our properties:

Monthly space inspections

We use the word ‘space’ to refer to the part of a property that is allocated to one guardian, whether a room or a larger part of a property. Our unannounced monthly inspections involve checking each space for basic condition and safety, including checks of fire and CO alarms. The main focus is to check that each space is being properly and safely occupied by the correct guardian. 

In most cases, inspections are a chance for a positive interaction with our guardians. Our in-house field team means that guardians can have a conversation with a direct and informed member of our team. Inspections also allow us to identify any issues arising from occupation, and we can quickly escalate any concerns:

  • Is there evidence of additional occupants or unaccompanied guests?
  • Has the property been left unoccupied without our knowledge and permission?
  • Are children staying at the property?
  • Might smoking or drug use be happening at the property?
  • Is the guardian keeping the property secure?

 

Monthly property checks

Alongside our space inspections, Dot Dot Dot also carries out a larger monthly set of checks at every property. These checks will be familiar to most residential property managers, and include critical condition and safety checks:

  • Are exit routes clear and safe?
  • Are communal facilities (kitchens, bathrooms, refuse areas) sanitary and in good condition?
  • Are doorways and perimeters secure?
  • Are communal safety systems functioning correctly?
  • Are there evidence of disrepair, vandalism or ASB?

Depending on the property, checks of safety systems could vary from a simple check that shared stairwells are clear, to a full battery of on-site checks covering fire systems, water monitoring, CCTV or other systems. 

In some properties, trained guardians will have specific duties to provide additional monitoring. This could include tasks such as carrying out call-point tests or flushing unused plumbing outlets. Our monthly checks will include checking the guardian logs and escalating any gaps or discrepancies.

These checks are standard across all of our projects, regardless of the formal division of duties between Dot Dot Dot and our clients. This gives us peace of mind that our guardians are in safe homes, and gives our clients the assurance that their properties are being monitored with the diligence required in a residential setting, even if their own records say ‘void’.

 

Quarterly in-depth checks

Every three months, each property is subject to a deep-dive inspection.  This lengthy and detailed inspection includes a rigorous check of compliance, condition, occupation and upkeep.

Taking several hours for our larger properties, these inspections take our staff into every space of a property so that no part of a building is ‘unseen’. We check for changes in property condition, and examine the overall upkeep and hygiene of the property in detail, looking both at guardian activity (such as upkeep of communal areas) and at broader issues such as maintenance needs in gardens or other external areas. We also carry out much more detailed checks of compliance issues, with particular attention to doors, exits, stairways and other structural and safety elements that can deteriorate over time without being easily identified by guardians who live there every day.

Our field software means that our team is guided through each check in detail, and can capture notes and photographs of defects directly into their reports.

These quarterly checks include customised elements where needed, so that we pay special attention to the things that need particular attention for each property. Examples could include accessing client-managed outbuildings, checking ducts or roof spaces, assessing the impact of local ASB, or confirming that contained/managed asbestos remains undisturbed and safe.  

 

Taking a complete view

The three types of inspection described above apply to every area where Dot Dot Dot works. In more complex buildings, they might also be accompanied with other forms of monitoring that the property requires. These can vary from weekly flushing regimes to daily site inspections.

This range of inspections allow us to have a detailed view of each property and of how it is being occupied by our guardians.  It allows us to keep our guardians safe, but also to ensure that our guardians are observing our guidelines. Our team’s visits allow us to develop a good understanding of each project, which can be important in old or unusual properties that might not be a priority for our clients.

As well as monitoring our own performance, our inspections allow us to inform clients of emerging defects or risks, and even to offer insight into issues affecting other local residents that have been hidden from view. The combination of committed guardians, dedicated staff and structured inspections allows us to have a complete view of even the most obscure property.

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

Life as a Dot Dot Dot guardian: Mahmoud, Oxford

February 26, 2021

From Dot Dot Dot guardian, Mahmoud, Oxford

I first heard of Dot Dot Dot through a friend who was a property guardian in Oxford. At the time I was living in a flat near my restaurant, Za’atar Bake which was expensive for the area. When the lockdown started last year, I realised I needed to save money in order to be able to sustain my business – otherwise I’d lose it. I saw that there was a Dot Dot Dot flat available so took my chance and applied. Now I’m saving hundreds of pounds each month which gives me peace of mind that my restaurant will be OK.

Last May, we started offering free home-cooked meals every day during lockdown to the homeless and others who couldn’t afford to buy their own food in our community. We thought maybe 10-15 people would show up. We ended up regularly giving away 60 meals a day. A lot of the money I’m saving through living with Dot Dot Dot is redirected to the restaurant and goes towards providing the free meals. I’m grateful to know that I can do this with comfort and continue to do so once we can reopen which I’m hoping will be in March for our community.

We also did a meal for 90 people on Christmas Day for people who didn’t have anyone to spend it with – we were really supported by the community who gave us a Christmas tree, decorations, lighting and we were even gifted 300kg of rice! Oxford Hub (a social action charity committed to bringing people and organisations together) invited us all to have a free buffet to say thank you and I even spoke to the Oxford Lord Mayor about more ways to give back to the community. It’s great to see people paying attention and thinking about other ways they can help.

Since we started offering free meals we have also seen our sales increase through people coming in to support us and our bond with the community has gotten stronger. We didn’t want donations or to make money off the back of offering free meals, so the best way that we can be supported is through people coming and enjoying the food at Za’atar Bake. Giving is about giving to everybody and doing charitable work is an amazing feeling. I want to spread good vibes and hope to the Oxford community and I’m proud to do it. It keeps us all going to see people being positively affected by what we’re doing.

I love sports and staying active, and last June I set a challenge for the community called ‘Running for 30k’ (or ‘Walk for 30k’!). People had one month to either run or walk everyday until they reached their goal of 30k – the aim was to get people outdoors in the fresh air and enjoying sport. Once they’d reached their goal of 30k they were able to come to my restaurant and claim their free lunch or dinner. So many people got involved and one woman told me it was the first time in her life that she felt fitter and lost weight. It shows what happens when you give people a challenge and spread hope.

A lot of people don’t think about giving time to charity when they’re busy with their lives and working hard. It’s all too easy to not think about giving back. Since living with Dot Dot Dot, I’ve not only saved money but gained flexibility in my life in order to give what I can to my community. I enjoy living in a society where we do what we can to help others.

You can find out more about the work that Mahmoud and his team are doing for the Oxford community here. You can also read more stories here from our guardians on how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

When “security” isn’t actually that secure

February 19, 2021

From our Chief Executive, Peter Brown

Much of our work supports property owners delivering estate regeneration programmes. The complexity and phasing of these schemes often means they take many years. As a result, they tend to be organised in phases across multiple blocks within a wider regeneration zone – with different areas needing to be secured on a phased basis. But security without people involved can mean a double whammy of both expense and ineffectiveness.

Due to the phased nature of regeneration activity, property guardians can be a very useful solution, because the number of properties that arise as empty at any point in time can be hard to predict in advance. A local authority or housing association will want to have a strategy that is flexible and which can mesh carefully alongside its existing regeneration plans. 

Another consideration for local authorities can be the need to use regeneration properties to support homeless families or those in acute housing need, particularly when the regeneration timeframes change and properties are available for longer than initially thought. Property guardianship has the flexibility to allow this because guardians are temporary and can move out with relatively short notice, in ways that other strategies like decommissioning a property and boarding it up do not.

We have seen and worked alongside a variety of security / deterrent measures – some more effective than others…and none, by themselves, as effective as having people on the ground visibly using the property.

Metal void property security screens on doors and windows are common and can be helpful for physical security – particularly when a property is at the end of its life and has been decommissioned. However, they do serve to advertise the fact that a property is empty, so can be counter-productive if owners are worried about attracting ASB.

Remotely-monitored rented alarms specifically designed for void properties have the advantage over security screens by being discrete and not advertising a property as empty.

And there’s always the option of disguise! If the practical risk of damage or unauthorised access is low, then disguising properties can be surprisingly effective. We have clients who have used a simple kit: curtains, a few pot plants and perhaps a light on a timer can go a long way.

It’s important to note that these measures certainly can’t bring any guarantees that properties will stay safe and secure and for an extended period of time. In many cases we’ve seen clients disappointed when they try these measures without property guardianship alongside them, because they have invested money in security only to find it was less effective than they had hoped. 

There can be a range of problems when property is left void, including unauthorised access of the property, break-ins, property being used for unlawful activity and metal stripping and theft. Only the human solution of property guardians can bring both the confidence that a property will be cared-for and protected through occupation.

Pricing people in, not out

February 17, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert 

For people who rent their homes, finding a nice place in a convenient location for a price you can afford has been a challenge in the UK for a long time.  This issue was a key reason why Dot Dot Dot was launched in 2011, and the situation has become worse over the past ten years.  This contributes to a wealth and an opportunity gap as well as making life more difficult on a day-to-day basis for those who struggle to house themselves.

The problem

Over the past decade, the price of a property in London has nearly doubled, while the proportion of younger adults renting or living with their parents rather than owning a home of their own has grown.  This has created a widening wealth gap as those priced out of home ownership have got poorer and those who already owned homes have got richer, recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown.  This gap broadly falls along generational lines – by and large, older people are homeowners, whereas millennials have been unable to buy.  

As rents have gone up, saving for a deposit or for any other reason has become harder – at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, one in five people who rent their homes had no savings at all.  Then, when the lockdowns came, renters saw the biggest hits to their incomes, according to the Resolution Foundation.  As a result, 6% of renters are now in arrears whereas only 2% of home owners are behind on mortgage payments.

Meanwhile, many homeowners have seen the value of their homes rise.  The low cost of borrowing for those with substantial deposits and the government’s decision to cut stamp duty has pushed house prices to an all-time high in December, up 6% from a year ago, according to mortgage lender Halifax.  

This has made those who already owned their homes wealthier, but has put home ownership even further out of reach for the young, especially as mortgage lenders pull back from lending to those without large deposits.

Buying is particularly difficult in London.  First-time buyers in the capital paid an average of £420,618 for a home at the end of 2020, the equivalent of more than nine times their earnings, according to Nationwide Building Society – a level which is almost impossible for those without very large savings or money from families. 

Long-term solutions

Just as we at Dot Dot Dot have seen the situation get worse for renters, we have also seen growing calls for solutions.  Suggested options for improvement abound – the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange last week launched a report recommending a form of blended mortgage product that would deliver 95% loan-to-value home loans.  The loans would be provided by three different financial institutions, with the riskiest bit – the part of the loan between 95% and 85% of the home’s value – would be provided by an investment bank.  Retail banks would provide a middle slice while the last part would be delivered by long-term investors such as pension funds.  The economists behind the paper argue that this – in combination with a land value tax and the abolition of stamp duty – would create a house-building boom.

Meanwhile, politicians on the left and in the centre argue for greater government intervention to stimulate house building.  Ahead of the 2019 election, Labour’s housing manifesto promised to build 150,000 new council and housing association homes a year.  At the same election, the Liberal Democrats promised “New direct spending on house building to help build 300,000 homes a year by 2024, including 100,000 social homes.”

How Dot Dot Dot’s work fits in

Any solution to the housing problems faced by those in the private rented sector will take time to agree and even longer to put into effect.  So until the political will is found to get on with building more houses at sensible prices in the right places, we at Dot Dot Dot are committed to creating as many inexpensive, well-managed homes as we can by using property that would otherwise be empty.  By working with property owners, we’re able to prevent the blight void buildings can cause, provide homes that otherwise wouldn’t exist and support volunteering.

In fact, even if the housing crisis was solved and everyone who wanted to own a home could afford to buy one, there would still be a need for inexpensive, flexible accommodation that property guardianship is perfectly set up to provide.  Home-ownership isn’t right for everyone – some will always want a place to live with less long-term commitment, and guardianship is a good chance to try new areas or live in quirky buildings.  And meanwhile property owners will always need buildings looked after on a temporary basis while they prepare for regeneration projects or to sell.  

So property guardianship is not only useful due to the housing crisis – but for as long as it lasts, we’re glad to be here providing options.

If you’d like to find out more about property guardianship and whether it’s the right option for you, you can read more by visiting our FAQs, or you can apply to become a property guardian with us.

Life as a Dot Dot Dot property guardian: Tom, east London

January 29, 2021

From east London Dot Dot Dot guardian, Tom

I’ve been a property guardian with Dot Dot Dot for nearly four years. I’ve lived in my current home in Tower Hamlets since January 2020. 

Years of private renting meant rarely picking up a paintbrush, or delving into any DIY. Tight rental rules on decorating, and deposits, means properties have to remain how they are. As a guardian, I have helped paint rooms, put up shelves and hang pictures. It is enormously liberating to know I can try new things without the restrictions normally found in renting. My knowledge of plumbing has also improved as guardians are encouraged to find fixes for small issues themselves before calling assistance. I’m far from a handyman, but I feel I’m getting better all the time.  

Dot Dot Dot’s focus on volunteering has led to opportunities that could have otherwise passed me by. Life can be fast-paced and even with the best intentions, volunteering time can be choked by other commitments. The obligation to do 16 hours a month as part of my licence agreement makes volunteering part of my weekly routine, and never an “extra” thing that gets squeezed in (or squeezed out). I’ve given time to many organisations and causes close to my heart such as male suicide prevention, community sport and local regeneration. I’ve made terrific memories and met lots of new people through my volunteering. I’m currently a listening volunteer at Samaritans 

Guardianship has also given me peace of mind. Dot Dot Dot’s warm, approachable relationship with their guardians is hugely reassuring, especially during a pandemic. I’ve only had one experience of being given notice but I was soon offered another in the same part of London. I knew this wasn’t a guarantee so I was grateful for Dot Dot Dot’s efforts. Staying in the same area means remaining a short walk from my office (when I’m allowed there!) – saving time and money that could be otherwise lost to a commute. Communication from Dot Dot Dot is excellent – it feels very clear what I can expect, and what’s expected of me – which only adds to a sense of stability and clarity.  

A good home for less-than-market-rate cost made my 2019 career change easier. After ten years in one industry I began in another I was more keen to develop in. This meant an inevitable pay cut and the inevitable internal questions. Among everything else I had to think about, I felt fortunate to need not worry about affording my licence fee and could focus on managing the transition. 

Becoming a guardian has introduced me to an unfamiliar area of London and one I now love. Living in modern developments in Finsbury Park and Stratford, I had never spent meaningful time in the Custom House / Canning Town / Poplar corridor, just north of the Thames. I try to visit the river everyday if I can. The beautiful Thames Barrier Park is perfect for exercise and the peaceful Thames path is great for disconnecting from the world. I’ve become a regular open-water swimmer (and a volunteer) at Royal Victoria Dock, completing the 10K Dock2Dock in September and have volunteered with several community events. 

I never shy away from recommending property guardianship with Dot Dot Dot to others. Its’ differences to renting means it usually requires a bit of explaining but I’m happy to take the time. Being a guardian has given me the freedom to pursue my goals, develop skills I didn’t know I had and live in an area of London I love. I’m very grateful to all those who have helped give me this opportunity.  

Read more from our Founder Katharine Hibbert, as she explores what change has meant for our current guardians, and how our model has helped them through periods of transition in their lives.

Be the change – how Dot Dot Dot’s model helps people going through transitions

January 22, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert 

Change is always hard, whether it’s change you chose yourself or change you didn’t want but have to deal with anyway.  We know this first hand at Dot Dot Dot, because change is central to our work – for the buildings we manage, for the people living in them, and for the neighbourhoods living locally.  We regularly discuss how our work fits in with property owners’ transformation plans and how it smooths the regeneration process for local communities, so this blog focuses on the ways in which our work helps guardians who are going through changes themselves.

The most obvious way that we help guardians through times of change is by providing well-managed homes in convenient locations, costing a fraction of local market rents.  With some financial pressure off, guardians who want to retrain for a new job or start a project of their own are sometimes able to cut down on paid work to ease the transition.  For example, our guardian Rachel, a dancer, was able to set up her own business whilst still affording a home in London by living in one of our buildings.

On the other hand, some guardians need this breathing space for reasons they didn’t want.  When a relationship ends, it can be difficult for both partners to afford homes of their own when previously they were only paying for one.  We find that the housing we offer can help people to avoid adding financial stress to an emotionally fraught time.  Similarly, we hear from current guardians that the fact that they were already paying less for their housing has helped them to deal with a downturn in earning caused by the pandemic.

On top of this, the flexibility of the housing we provide is often useful to guardians going through a time of change.  It’s a fact of life for property guardians that their homes are only temporary.  They are placed in them as licensees to take care of them on behalf of owners, and may have to move out at 28 days’ notice if the owner wants them back.  While this lack of security is a down-side of guardianship for some, this flexibility works both ways.  Guardians are not locked into six- or 12-month contracts, and can time their move-out to suit themselves rather than to fit in with a tenancy duration.  This is useful for people who are finding their feet in a new city.  It also enabled some of our guardians to move out of our properties and back to their home towns at short notice when they realised that they wouldn’t need to go to the office for the foreseeable future.  Although we were sorry to see them go, this also created space for us to house new people who had to reconsider their housing situation due to the pandemic.

Our emphasis on volunteering is important for its own sake, but it also helps guardians when they’re going through transitions.  Giving time to good causes is a way to learn new skills and try new things, as our guardian Elizabeth describes here, and can lead to results that look good on a CV and support career changes.  Just as importantly, it often leads to working alongside people you’d never normally have met – whether charitable beneficiaries or fellow volunteers.  A survey by the British Heart Foundation found that four out of five of its volunteers had met new people through volunteering, and more than half felt less lonely as a result.  This mixing is also a way to see the world through a different lens and consider different value systems, which can lead to new ideas and open the door to fresh opportunities. 

Finally, we hear from guardians that our emphasis on neighbourliness and community is a support through times of change.  Leaving the familiar and working towards the new can be isolating – whether that’s arriving in a new place or moving on from a job or relationship, and whether or not that change was deliberate.  Having friendly faces around, and knowing that help will be available if you need it, can make a big difference.  Even though much of this mutual support has had to move online during lockdowns, just exchanging a ‘hello’ and a few words in passing with familiar people who live nearby can go a long way, as The Samaritans emphasise in their ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ campaign, and as The Economist discussed in a recent issue. 

So, while we can’t take away the difficulty of change altogether, we’re glad that through our work we’re able to make it a bit easier for some of our guardians, and we’re looking forward to doing as much as we can to help people through the uncertainty to come in 2021.

Find out more about our commitment to providing great housing to property guardians and raising standards in our industry here. Over the next three months, you can hear more on our Instagram from our guardians about how we are helping them through periods of change or to achieve a long-term goal. Follow us to keep up to date here.

The law has spoken – property guardianship and business rates

January 15, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

Until recently, the situation on business rates for buildings lived in by property guardians was clear – the buildings were exempt from the business rates which would normally be due on empty buildings, and liable for Council Tax instead.  The conclusion last month of a long-running court case has changed that.  This blog by our Founder Katharine Hibbert, explains the situation now, and gives Dot Dot Dot’s response.

What happened?

Back in 2017, London Borough of Southwark challenged the decision that a building on London’s South Bank, Ludgate House, should be exempt from business rates due to its occupation by guardians.  The first round Valuation Tribunal for England agreed with LB Southwark that rates were due.

Ludgate House’s owners appealed this decision in the Upper Tribunal, and in 2019 were successful in overturning it, returning the situation to what was the norm elsewhere i.e. that the building was not liable for business rates, and council tax was payable instead. 

However, LB Southwark appealed again, and last month the case was heard in the Court of Appeal.  We blogged about the case back in November, before the court had heard it, and you can find our previous take on the matter here.

When the case was heard in December, LB Southwark were successful, and the Court of Appeal decided that business rates rather than Council Tax are due.  This is now the final word on the case, and sets a precedent for all similar arrangements, so is significant to the property guardian sector.

The full judgement is available here, and Giles Peaker, a housing lawyer who is an expert on property guardianship, has provided an in-depth discussion of the legal reasoning behind this judgement on his blog, here

The central issue which shaped the judges’ view was the fact that the owners of Ludgate House retained very significant control over the building and guardians’ use of it. This meant that although guardians were using it as their home, the purpose of their being there was of direct benefit to the building’s owners.  Therefore, the judges decided that the building’s owners hadn’t given up control of it to a sufficient degree to enable it to be removed from business rates.   

What didn’t happen?

Because the judges’ decision was based on fundamental points of property law, they did not consider the point made by LB Southwark’s lawyers that the property guardian scheme in question was unlawful in any case because the property guardian provider (VPS) did not have a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) licence in place even though the building needed it.  As the judges said: “it is unwise to deliver judgments on points that do not have to be decided”.

Whilst no doubt the judges made a wise decision here, Dot Dot Dot would have welcomed examination of this issue at high level.  Existing law makes it very clear that buildings lived in by property guardians need HMO licences if they are HMOs, and Dot Dot Dot always secures such licences or others required by local authorities where relevant.  Not all property guardian companies do so, which puts property owners, property guardians and the reputation of the property guardian sector at risk – not to mention the fact that it enables property guardians to claim back fees they have paid to live in a property which should be licenced and is not.   

It was also not relevant to the judgement that the building was lived in only by a few guardians. Even if more guardians had been present, the property owners would have retained overall control of the building, meaning that rates would have been due.

Dot Dot Dot’s response

At Dot Dot Dot, we are disappointed that buildings lived in by property guardians will now be eligible for business rates and not Council Tax under current legal arrangements.  The previous situation created an extra incentive for property owners to work with property guardian companies by creating tax savings, meaning that more buildings were brought into use as homes instead of being left empty. 

It is not even likely that this judgement will create significant additional tax revenue – a wide range of other rates mitigation schemes are available, most of which have no socially positive effects but which cut revenues to the government.  For example, leasing a building to a newly created company set up purely for rates mitigation purposes, which is then liquidated, is a legitimate way to avoid the tax which benefits no one except property owners and scheme providers. 

However, rates mitigation was never a major selling point for Dot Dot Dot – most of our clients work with us because they are looking for reliable, flexible, cost-effective property security and an opportunity to make a positive difference to society.  And, in fact, the majority of buildings we manage were not eligible for rates in the first place, because they are residential or properties like halls of residence or sheltered accommodation. We have already discussed the changes with the minority of our property-owning clients who it will affect, and are working with them to find ways forward.    

The most positive part of this judgement is that it reinforces guardians’ status as licensees. Licensees have permission to live in the building in order to take care of it on behalf of the building’s owner, rather than tenants who have a right to exclusive occupation.  This distinction has always been clear, but understanding of it is growing as property guardianship becomes more common and widespread, so every further reiteration of the point – especially in the highest courts – is helpful in reducing the potential for confusion.   As Peaker says in his blog: “This judgment does, however, mean that there are greater hurdles to climb in any possession defence by guardians alleging a tenancy.”

More widely, we at Dot Dot Dot agree with those calling for wholesale reform of business rates – including, last month, the Financial Times and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.  Taxes shape decisions for individuals, businesses and local authorities, so we hope that any future update to the business rates regime will encourage socially worthwhile uses of buildings that would otherwise be empty. 

Update 26th January 2021:
We understand that the owners of Ludgate House are challenging the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Supreme Court, so the verdict discussed here may not be the final word on how buildings lived in by property guardians should be taxed. We will provide updates as the case moves forward.

To talk to us about how Dot Dot Dot’s brilliant property guardians could be part of your regeneration strategies, please do get in touch at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.
You can also find out more about our commitment to raising standards in our industry here.

 

On the ground: Bringing guardianship to larger properties

January 15, 2021

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores some of the details of how our service works. In our first article we looked at the ways in which Dot Dot Dot can tailor guardianship contracts to meet the specific needs of individual clients. This month, we explore how we handle the first stages of a guardianship contract, with a focus on large or more complex buildings.

Guardianship can be a very effective solution for larger properties. Examples of properties where Dot Dot Dot has provided guardianship include landmark office blocks, former schools, colleges and care homes. Currently, our largest project is a former hostel housing up to 90 guardians at Booth House in Whitechapel. 

These properties can require long timelines for development. In the interim, they can prove difficult to secure and suffer quickly from dilapidation. Guardianship can offer a cost-effective way to tackle those problems, but many property owners are concerned about how this would be delivered given the complexities of larger buildings.

Our first ‘On the ground’ piece explained how we use each client’s individual priorities to guide our approach. Using that knowledge, our approach to larger properties has three phases: 

  • Devise a safe and suitable plan of occupation
  • Find the quickest and most-cost effective path to occupation
  • Deliver value to the client at each stage

1. Devise a safe and suitable plan of occupation

This phase can begin even before a client has decided to use guardianship, and is unlocked through a Dot Dot Dot site visit. Our aim is to establish whether we can meet the client’s needs for the property via guardianship, and if so, how that could be structured in the property. One of the aims of an initial visit is also to establish quickly where guardianship will not be suitable so that clients can quickly move on to other solutions.

Using a combination of our own expertise and, where relevant, external experts, we will devise an approach that allows safe residential occupation. Our approach is strongly focused around achieving a safe basic standard for the property. Fire safety and provision of core facilities are major areas for consideration, and we look across the range of hazards set out in the HHSRS. These will be familiar to most property managers (e.g. electrical and gas safety, water management, safety of windows/doors/access, asbestos management).

What may be different, though, is that we do not need to conform to conventional specifications for refurbishment, and can instead be imaginative in finding ways to adapt the space and its facilities. What can we borrow, move, switch off or repurpose? Are there areas that can simply be isolated or decommissioned? What are the critical areas to protect? What can we modify and what needs to be preserved? With advance knowledge about how we work with our guardians, we can also be more specific in our risk assessments and plans.

2. Find the quickest and most-cost effective path to occupation

For large or complex properties, the first step is normally to obtain reports, surveys and quotes based on the risks and issues that we have identified. This can typically be done in a few days, and in many cases will run alongside active works.The fire risk assessment (FRA) is a key report in fixing our occupation plan and schedule of works, but there can be a range of more detailed in-house and independent assessments. The scope of these checks will depend on the property and on any existing knowledge or documents shared by the client.

In a typical project, the scope of work is surprisingly limited: service the core systems (e.g. gas, electrical and fire safety); complete minor adaptations (e.g. a shower installation); and undertake small remedials (e.g. lock changes, door adjustments). Cleaning or clearance may also be needed. For these projects, we may have agreed a full commercial proposal up-front with the client and will carry out reports and works in parallel, closely managing the schedule to move to occupation in one to three weeks.

For larger projects or properties in need of more work, we may break the mobilisation phase into three stages. This approach allows Dot Dot Dot and the client to manage costs and risks in a more structured way.

  1. A detailed package of reports, risk assessments and quotes
  2. Works toward initial occupation
  3. Final works to achieve full occupation

In more complex projects, typical works include electrical and gas improvements, alteration or replacement of fire systems, changes to partitions or firestopping, installation of basic kitchens, or remedials to larger structures like roofs.

Where this kind of work is required, we work hard to avoid delays which can equate to cost for our clients. Our presence on site may already be enough to mitigate security and management costs in some cases, and our team works quickly. Using a combination of existing contractor relationships and flexible local procurement allows us to work to tight timelines. We also have a heavy on-site presence, actively working with contractors to make quick decisions and solve problems before they cause delays.

This stage is also not a ‘standstill’ on other aspects of our work. With our core operational team involved in setup, and our marketing team engaged early to recruit great guardians, we ensure a tight transition from ‘work in progress’ to ‘guardians in occupation’. 

3. Value at every stage

As projects become more complex, the timelines are inevitably longer. In some cases, early reports and assessments could even rule out the eventual feasibility of guardianship. That’s why, in complex projects, we aim to deliver value to our clients at every stage.

The early work to assess the property will yield a package of reports, risk assessments and quotes that can assist in any future planning. This is particularly useful where property owners lack documentation, or where a property has deteriorated significantly. 

Even if a project does not proceed, initial works can ease the ongoing management of the property, since these will often focus on core ‘hygiene factors’. Examples of the early-stage improvements that yield immediate benefits could include:

  • Clean and clear
  • Environmental hazards identified or made safe
  • Utilities supplies identified and rationalised
  • Water system drained or controlled
  • Basic access/security issues resolved

As noted above, we put a strong focus on reaching the point of initial occupation. This will typically begin to unlock core security, social impact and cost savings benefits. Our plans may include reaching a basic level of occupation, but then continuing with additional works that will increase occupation and therefore improve cost mitigation or other benefits.

Of course, Dot Dot Dot’s goal is always to move rapidly to an effective guardianship solution. But we are mindful of the risks and schedules that impact property owners, and work to ensure that we can unlock value regardless of how a project may change course over time.

The steps described here will be familiar to many people who are involved in property management. What may be different is that, for Dot Dot Dot, property works are not an end in themselves, but are part of our delivery of a flexible and urgent service. Our diverse experience across hundreds of properties and dozens of clients helps us to cut through complexity and respond to the needs of the project and of the client. 

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to our monthly newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, here.

Volunteering: Once you pop, you can’t stop

December 2, 2020

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert 

“Thank you for the diligent chivvying”

Perhaps it’s a surprising thank-you note to feel particularly good about, but one of the most cheering emails I’ve had from a Dot Dot Dot guardian was to let us know that his experience with us had changed his mind about volunteering.

He had moved into one of our homes prepared to volunteer for a good cause because he understood that it was part of our model, but he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it.   He had chosen to become a property guardian with us because we had nice flats at a good price in the right place for him, and because of our reputation for fairness and thoroughness.  He didn’t mind volunteering for the 16 hours a month we expected, but he wasn’t particularly excited about our vision of a society where people have the time and energy to give back to causes they care about.

But by the time he moved on from our housing, volunteering had become part of his life, and he carried on after he left – so he emailed me to say thanks for the accountability we’d created for him while he got going.

A survey to make us smile

This man’s email was unusual, but his journey wasn’t.  We recently surveyed our guardians, and of the nearly 100 people who replied, 98% of them said they plan to carry on volunteering after they leave our housing, even though nearly half didn’t volunteer before they joined us.  These responses are encouraging, since enabling people to get involved in good causes and supporting them to become lifelong volunteers is central to our purpose.

Two thirds of the guardians said they plan to carry on doing the same amount of volunteering or more than they have done while living with us, which means continuing to give at least half a day a week to a good cause, a significant commitment.  And two thirds of them volunteered within the borough where they live, meaning that our work has a directly positive effect on the local areas where we operate.

Of the 55% of guardians who volunteered before they joined us, more than half now do more volunteering than before.  Only 4% of guardians surveyed volunteer less than they did before they were housed with us.

A majority also replied that they experienced no down-sides to volunteering – although three in ten said they found it difficult to make time for it.  Covid-19 has also forced four in every five of our guardians to update their approach to volunteering – 11% now volunteer with a different organisation, 13% have moved their volunteering online and, for 21%, the venue in which they used to volunteer is currently closed.  Around a quarter are currently volunteering for less time than they did before the lockdown, while 10% are volunteering more.

When we asked guardians what benefits they experienced from their volunteering, the most frequent responses included the feeling of making a difference, appreciating the roots it gave them in their communities, the fact that it gives them more empathy with people in need, and their own improved mental health and wellbeing.

Giving a helping hand…to form a lifelong habit

These results – and feedback like that quoted above – are very important to us at Dot Dot Dot.  We are not here to press-gang people into doing something they would prefer to avoid.  We aim to attract and house people who want to volunteer and who would like a solution like ours to lower the barriers to doing so, and perhaps a bit of encouragement to actually crack on and do it.

We’re very clear with applicants for our housing that if they’d prefer not to volunteer, they’ll be better off with one of the other property guardian companies in the market – and in this respect it’s fortunate that the other providers don’t expect their guardians to help good causes.  We understand that not everyone has the time and inclination to volunteer, and that’s totally fine – it’s just that we exist for those who do.  So it’s great to see that our guardians are committed enough to their volunteering to continue beyond their time with us.

Our experience is that once people get involved with charities and projects that they care about, and once they are using their skills effectively alongside people they’ve got to know and like, the satisfaction and benefits of volunteering create their own momentum.  So even if getting involved is a bit of a chore at the beginning, it quickly becomes worthwhile in its own right. And those who didn’t volunteer previously are much more likely to report that volunteering has given them new skills they can use professionally and greater satisfaction. We’re glad this means that we’re helping our guardians to improve their own lives, as well as encouraging them to help others.

We’ve thought hard about the ways in which we can help to make volunteering as rewarding as possible for the guardians themselves, as well as impactful for the charities they help.  At its simplest, we aim to help people to find more time to volunteer by lowering their cost of living and providing homes in areas they couldn’t otherwise afford.  Many of those locked in the private rented sector have to work for longer or commute further than they ideally would, and the pressure saps their energy and enthusiasm for giving back.  Reducing the burden of housing costs frees them up to do things they would like to do but previously couldn’t.

On top of this, we find that by creating an environment where being a good neighbour and giving time to good causes is the norm, getting involved feels natural.  And the fact that we send round volunteering opportunities and check how all our guardians’ volunteering is going every month creates accountability.

We think of this aspect of our work as being similar to the role of a personal trainer in a gym.  Even if you know that exercising is good for you, getting started can be hard work and you may need a bit of outside help to get you to actually do it.  It’s not that the personal trainer forces you to do anything you don’t want to, they just reduce the amount of willpower you need to exert to get it done.  We hope that our contact with guardians about their volunteering does a similar job for them, in encouraging them to do something they would like to do anyway.

So while we’re very glad we’re able to support our guardians to collectively give thousands of hours to good causes every month, credit for the effort should go to the guardians themselves – they’ve found the charities they want to help and the roles they want to do, and they’re going to continue into the future.  We’re happy we’ve been able to provide some help along that journey.

You can see more of our guardians’ volunteering stories here. Or to find out more about how we are supporting our guardians to volunteer for good causes, why not read How volunteering helps everyone – not just the beneficiaries.

« Previous PageNext Page »

What are you looking for today?

Marketing Permissions

Dot Dot Dot Property Ltd will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing by email. Please confirm you are happy to hear from us by:

Email
You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at hello@dotdotdotproperty.com. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By checking the box, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

GDPR
We use MailChimp as our marketing automation platform. By clicking below to submit this form, you acknowledge that the information you provide will be transferred to MailChimp for processing in accordance with their Privacy Policy and Terms.