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

On the ground: How we work in regeneration schemes and gradual decants

April 16, 2021

From our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, shares details about how our service works in different contexts. In a previous post, we explored how Dot Dot Dot mobilises its service in large or complex properties. This month, we look at the way that guardianship can support projects that involve large numbers of flats or houses as they are decanted across a regeneration or refurbishment project.

Regeneration and refurbishment schemes can bring some of the most important changes that communities ever experience. For housing associations, local authorities and other partners involved in their delivery, they are all-consuming projects. And regardless of the unique characteristics of each scheme, the decant stage can be risky and challenging. As ageing estates become increasingly empty, life for local residents can become worse just when timelines are most critical and when housing teams are most stretched. 

For Dot Dot Dot, this can be an opportunity to add most value. With a depth of experience in regeneration projects, and a commitment to delivering positive social impact, we can help housing teams to manage voids in a way that maintains flexibility and positivity in the decant process.

There are some common factors that apply across most regeneration projects:

  • Typically working with previously tenanted social flats or houses
  • A long overall timeline (often years rather than months)
  • Timelines for individual properties are variable and not always clear in advance
  • Properties are mixed in size and condition
  • Guardians will be housed among existing residents
  • Properties become available to Dot Dot Dot individually or in batches on a rolling basis
  • Working with existing housing or voids teams and processes

These factors set the basic parameters for our service, but what matters more to us is how we match the details of our service to each specific project. This article explains some of the factors that allow us to do this.

Our approach has three important stages:

  • Understand the properties, the project and community
  • Build a workflow that fits around our client
  • Flex and change with the project

This month, we will look at how we go about understanding the properties, the project and the community. Next, we’ll look at what we do once those foundations are in place.

Understand the properties, the project and the community

To develop the most effective proposals for regeneration or decant projects, we like to develop a full understanding of the context.

Understanding the properties

At a basic level, it’s great to understand the likely size, location and type of properties that could become available over the course of a project. More than that, though, we like to understand the age, condition and quirks of the buildings. By combining our wide experience with each client’s deep knowledge of their own housing stock, we can develop a proposal that addresses the particular needs of each block or area.

  • Are there special risks to manage in a particular area of compliance or maintenance?
  • Are theft, vandalism or unauthorised occupation live concerns in particular areas?
  • Do utilities, services or access have any quirks, issues or special requirements?
  • Are there any major differences between properties in condition or in compliance needs?
  • Are communal and structural elements in good condition, or do we expect these to require active management during our work?

Understanding the project

The scope and size of the project, the timelines over which voids might occur that require guardianship security, and the overall schedule of the regeneration are all important.

But as with the properties, it’s important to tap into the more detailed knowledge held by those leading the project and by those handling the properties on the ground. Perhaps there are existing high-profile risks or issues to address, or perhaps there is a deadline looming to prepare for a new phase.

As well as understanding any current pressures or needs within the project, we also try to get a sense of how our service will need to evolve over time. Perhaps we will need to receive or return a very large number of properties at critical points; we might need to deal with particularly challenging properties in some phases; the project could face delays or changes that require us to scale up or down or to take on different compliance responsibilities at some point in the future.

Understanding these factors means that we can not just provide a good service now, but that we can ensure it will remain effective across long (and often uncertain) project timelines.

Understanding the community

This is a subtle but critical part of our planning process. Each community affected by a decant or by a regeneration programme is different, and guardianship can play different roles.

In some cases, guardians are an important component of ‘humanising’ the regeneration process. We might propose ways to give our guardians visibility in the community, helping existing residents to understand the role of guardians or to benefit directly from their presence or from the volunteering that they will carry out.

In other cases, it might be more important to provide a discreet and low-key presence, supporting security but taking a sensitive approach to resident relationships. 

By understanding this, we can shape every part of our service from how we present and maintain the properties, to the way that we select and induct the guardians who will live there. Our unique approach to generating positive social impact in the communities in which we work means that, where it helps the client and the community, we can just tailor our basic service. For example we can signpost our guardians to volunteer for causes which are aligned to our clients’ CSR objectives or based in the local area, and we can report on metrics that clients can then present to their key stakeholders.

The fact we put such great store on how our guardians will interact with existing residents by providing security, reassuring footfall, and, in many cases, contributions to uber-local community projects means that regeneration environments have been the scene of some of our most valuable work. 

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

The 24Housing Awards – A Dot Dot Dot Review

October 11, 2016

Last week Dot Dot Dot went down to the 24Housing Awards in Coventry. We were nominated for innovation of the year. Here’s what happened!

Upon arriving, we were lucky enough to meet Chris Smith, the editor of 24Housing. Chris was a very charming chap who was swiftly whisked away from us by others keen to chat, so we continued to mingle. We really enjoyed seeing our clients and partners in more of an informal setting and to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Awards for Community Achievement in Housing

The 24Housing awards are to celebrate community achievements in housing. It was great to hear some amazing stories and meet some inspiring people from across the country. It was especially nice to talk to housing associations that had brought along tenants. These tenants had either won awards or been working with housing providers towards bigger things.

We were lucky enough to be sitting next to a nominee for ‘Best Green Scheme’. This was a woman who works for Newport City Homes but is also a tenant. They cheered every time Wales was mentioned! She helped the housing association to create a woodchip fuel system farmed from sustainable forest which provided energy to an estate. It was brilliantly innovative and it was nice to see tenants involved in a partnership like this. A good learning for all!

We were also sitting on a table with Wayne Campbell, nominated for housing professional of the year with Sixtown Housing. On boxing day he was having lunch with his family when he heard about flooding in the area. He went out and spent the rest of his Christmas holidays helping people struggling with floodwater. A lovely guy!

Our Award Nomination

Dot Dot Dot were up for innovation of the year for our approach to regeneration and empty buildings. Whilst we were sad not to win, we were delighted to see that Poplar HARCA were recognised for their drive of turning empty spaces into community assets. This was done through OpenPoplar.com. This is a site that allows local people to browse empty spaces and think of innovative ways to use them. It’s a great way to encourage entrepreneurs, small business space and community development generally.  So well done to them!

All in all it was a lovely occasion which afforded us the opportunity to hear many inspiring stories and meet an array of amazing people. We look forward to attending similar events in the future and building upon the relationships we created.

Our 24Housing Award Nomination!

October 5, 2016

We’re delighted to have been nominated for a 24Housing Award this year. We’ll be heading to Coventry tomorrow evening to find out the results. We’re excited to hear about some of the great things that have been happening in housing this year. And we’re looking forward to both seeing some current partners and meeting some new ones.

Why have we been nominated for an award? Read on to find out for yourself!

An Innovative Approach to Estate Regeneration

Housing providers across the country are pursuing estate regeneration.  Managing empty properties is an essential part of this process and this increasingly involves property guardians. During regeneration there is change to both physical assets and, most importantly, communities.  That is why, unlike other property guardian companies, Dot Dot Dot places social value at the heart of what we do.

We believe that social sustainability – building communities that people want to live in – becomes even more important during change.  By preventing decline, we can improve regeneration outcomes, ensuring that new homes are provided in an area that has retained a sense of identity and community. This makes new homes more attractive for new and old residents alike.

Our Approach to Guardianship

Our innovative approach to guardianship is a winning combination.  We select our guardians carefully. From artists to zookeepers, all are reliable and flexible and are committed to giving back to the community through volunteering.  In return, guardians live for less in properties of a good standard knowing they will be treated with respect.

Housing providers save money through property guardianship. But by working with us they also address the social issues associated with regeneration, and enable others to invest time in initiatives that benefit their communities.

For local residents our guardians become valued neighbours. They prevent social isolation and encourage a sense of community and pride during the transition phase. This should not be underestimated.

Our approach doesn’t just work with one kind of property owner or guardian or neighbourhood. Rather, we’ve worked successfully from inner-city estates to home-counties villages. And managed everything from office blocks to stand-alone houses with all sorts of owners. We’ve flexed our methods to suit local needs, but our overall approach has stayed the same.

Where has it worked?

Providing a friendly face for elderly residents in sheltered accommodation

So far this year, we have placed over 40 guardians into properties in High Wycombe. This has been to oversee building security and to strengthen community amongst the remaining residents of a complex, late stage, sheltered accommodation transition.

Our guardians were chosen due to their commitment to and confidence in befriending the elderly as well as their ability to tackle anti-social behaviour.  Consequently they have integrated well with the remaining residents and during 2016 they will achieve the equivalent of 4+ years of fulltime work in volunteering.

One building, over 30 properties, 65 guardians and 6,277 hours of volunteering

In 2016 Dot Dot Dot guardians in an East London building volunteered with 263 organisations, for an amazing 6,277 hours. Additionally, they recorded 15 anti-social behaviour incidents as well as spending 41 hours litter picking!

Beyond the Award Nomination

We have a 100% track record of returning properties in good condition with vacant possession, on time and on budget. Moreover, we truly believe our innovative model works because of our values and not despite them.  Now a team of 18 dedicated individuals, we are not just a social enterprise. We are a business and we are ethical and fair, a good employer and a great organisation to partner with.

So it’s for all those reasons that we’ve been nominated for a 24Housing Award. We’re looking forward to discovering the outcome and celebrating either way. So thanks for the nomination 24Housing – we’re excited for tomorrow!

Hopefully reading this article has convinced you of the great work we do in different contexts. This could be regeneration, commercial buildings or otherwise. Consequently, if you have an empty building and you’d like us to look after it, please get in touch!

How do we cultivate social sustainability during times of change?

May 6, 2016

As an organisation, Dot Dot Dot aims to have a positive social impact on the communities in which we exist. Next week, our Founder and Director Katharine Hibbert will be participating at a HACT round table discussion on the social sustainability of housing. Here, she outlines her view that building sustainable communities is particularly important during regeneration projects:

kath1Communities across the country are having to deal with the changes involved in estate regeneration, to replace poor-quality housing and to increase density to meet growing housing need. Even if all agree that the end result is worth it, the regeneration process is always disruptive. But while the changes to physical infrastructure are visible, the disruption to communities can be less obvious – but just as powerful.

Focusing on social sustainability through the regeneration process can make it less painful for residents, and maintain their commitment to the overall project. Even if they have to put up with building work and house moves, at least they can continue to live in a place where they feel at home, where they know their neighbours and feel proud of their community. And a focus on social sustainability can improve eventual regeneration outcomes, ensuring that new homes are provided in an area which has a sense of identity, and with an existing sense of community, rather than having to build up these things from scratch – making the new homes more attractive for new and old residents alike.

So how can social housing providers maintain social sustainability through change? At Dot Dot Dot, we’ve seen the value of Meanwhile Use for achieving this. Times of change create problems, but they also create opportunities – and where spaces have come to the end of their previous use, they can sometimes be used temporarily for new ones, such as pop-up shops, temporary gardens and homes for property guardians. All of these uses can support social sustainability during estate regeneration projects by contributing to the five elements of social sustainability identified by HACT’s white paper, as follows:

1. Safety and security

Above all, Meanwhile Use contributes to security – and does so far more effectively than heavy-handed security guards. Because an area continues to look and feel lived in and appreciated by residents, it is far less likely to be targeted for antisocial behaviour and crime, and any problems that do occur can be quickly identified and dealt with.

2. Social equity

HACT blogIf homes are decanted or businesses move out of commercial units in advance of regeneration, empty buildings can form ‘psychogeographical’ barriers to accessing services – even if services are geographically close, residents will be less likely to access them if they have to run the gauntlet of threatening, deserted areas of housing. Placing property guardians or facilitating pop-up uses of commercial spaces can prevent this, making areas feel fresh and welcoming even when the long-term residents are absent. East London housing association Poplar HARCA has worked hard to achieve this, allowing a community garden to be set up on a disused tennis court in a regeneration area, for example, which has created vibrancy and footfall in what would otherwise have been a building site, as well as ensuring that as many of their voids as possible are occupied by guardians.

3. Social capital

Simply having more people in a neighbourhood creates opportunities to build social capital – for people to form ‘sidewalk contacts’ (Jacobs, 1961), the ‘spaces of transit’ (Amin, 2002) need to be populated. Placing property guardians or facilitating Meanwhile projects brings more people to an area and gives remaining residents a reason to come out of their homes and get involved. And on top of this, Meanwhile uses often attract incomers who are motivated to get involved and get to know their neighbours even if they’re only there temporarily – and this can create new bonds and relationships which are advantageous for all. Placing property guardians in decanted units rather than boarding them up means that footfall is maintained in local streets and shops, so chance encounters between new and old residents can occur, allowing everyone to feel that they live in a place where there are people to say ‘hello’ to on the way in and out – especially important for isolated, vulnerable residents, for whom these kinds of brief conversations can be their main interaction of the day.

4. Community stability

A core of long-term residents who are committed to active involvement in the community are crucial for social sustainability, and Meanwhile Use is no substitute for that. However, creating contexts where it’s possible for remaining residents to get involved during a period of flux allows those who have long-standing relationships with an area to continue to participate in the community rather than retreating into their homes and private lives. For example, where Dot Dot Dot was placing property guardians on a large east London housing estate owned by Poplar HARCA that was being decanted, guardians got together to clear and revitalise old raised beds, which were then reallocated to remaining residents. This meant that long-standing community members began to leave their houses and get involved in the public space again.

5. Sense of place

skip gardenPeriods of change are a perfect opportunity to experiment with new uses for old spaces, and to imagine how new spaces could be used differently. When the originally intended use of a place comes to an end, it’s a chance for communities to come together to create something new. This can mean murals, or turning commercial spaces into community venues, or holding events on sites where previous buildings have been demolished. This is a potential source of pride, and gives people a chance to put their stamp on a place. The Kings Cross skip garden has offered a way to experiment with new ways to get local young people involved with growing and building projects, and encouraged them to feel involved in the change that’s happening in the area.

In short, Meanwhile Use is not just a nice-to-have during estate regeneration projects. It can make a concrete contribution to smoothing the process and improving eventual outcomes by supporting social sustainability through times of change.

Want to join the conversation? 

Katharine Hibbert will be part of a HACT dicsussion exploring the role of social sustainability and its relevance within the housing sector further on Wednesday 11th May. You can find out more about the event here.

 

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