“We continue to work exceptionally hard for our tenants”
I’m Sarah Murphy, Housing & Property Services Senior Manager overseeing the operational work of the Housing division. I’ve been at Southdown for two and a half years now. Prior to this I had been working for other local social landlords.
I first became interested in social housing during my Geography degree when I interviewed a group of social tenants whose iconic but brutalist homes had been sold by Sheffield City Council to a big property developer and were about to be re-developed into a block of luxury city centre apartments.
The development was shrinking from something like 1000 social units to around 50 with all the rest being for market sale and residents being re-housed all across the city. They were really feeling the loss of their community and generally disempowered and it gave me a real insight into the value of good quality social housing and the impact of local decisions which don’t have the most vulnerable at their heart. I’ve been fascinated with social housing ever since.
My main responsibilities involve overseeing the smooth day-to-day operation of the division and building relationships with external partners and keeping them updated on developments that might be of concern or interest. I ensure our policies, procedures, and work practices evolve alongside best practice developments and newly emerging legislation.
This last 12 months I have been tracking developments with the Fire Safety Bill and Building Safety Bill as they pass through Parliament to try to understand how we might need to plan for and work differently because of the associated secondary legislation. We’ve also had to digest and action numerous government updates to legislation around notice periods and evictions.
I attend a lot of meetings with colleagues in our support teams and Learning Disability services as well as with partner landlords and district and borough councils to ensure we are working effectively with all these key stakeholders. I’m also involved in lots of Southdown’s internal groups and attend the Safeguarding Strategy Group and the Data Protection Group.
Currently I’m helping Jim, our Director of Housing, appraise architect plans for a possible new development in Brighton. We’re checking to ensure all aspects of the flats will meet the new standards for planning permission, as well as ensuring that the spaces will feel welcoming for the client group and that the scheme is financially viable. It’s fascinating work but a total minefield of different regulations and standards that require careful consideration.
In addition we’re just about to complete on the acquisition of 18 units of accommodation in Brighton from other registered providers. We’re undertaking final compliance and due diligence checks and producing a plan with our solicitors on how we can bring one block onto weekly rent charging so that it is line with our other units.
We’re also in the very initial stages of discussion with a sustainability consultant who will put together a proposal for overhauling the heating systems and insulation at two of our blocks in Eastbourne. This will hopefully become an exciting flagship project for us to try out new technologies such as air source heat pumps as a way of reducing the carbon usage of our buildings as well as working on bringing the EPC ratings up to at least a C.
As a registered provider, Southdown will have to ensure all of our properties achieve an EPC rating of C or better by 2030. This is going to be a big challenge for us. This current project is the beginning of the road for us as we start to consider how we swap out older heating systems for something new and more environmentally-friendly.
It’s quite a challenging world out there and frontline Housing and Support staff are often some of the last people left for vulnerable tenants to seek support from. As other external services have been cut back I think this has presented greater challenges for us in trying to provide a basic level of support to people in areas where we are not experts.
An example would be the difficulties we experience in trying to get mental health services to engage with our tenants who need their support. It can be really difficult. The roll out of Universal Credit and the impact on the affordability of our rents as well as new case law around the use of Enhanced Housing Management charges are also likely to present big challenges to Housing going forward.
I’m really proud of how the team have faced the challenges the pandemic has thrown up. They have found innovative ways of working remotely with clients to process new lettings and sign-ups and have been out conducting essential welfare visits throughout.
The team have come a long way in terms of getting to grips with our new database system and really professionalising our approach in terms of quality and the workflows for different processes dependent on the type of tenancy, support and lease / ownership arrangements.
Over the last six months I have worked with our Housing Systems Manager to build workflows that help simplify complex processes for frontline staff. The voids process was a real labour of love with no less than 46 inter-related workflows built to manage the process depending on the type of housing scheme, head landlord, and the reason for the empty property – for example death, abandonment, move on, or eviction. Whilst it was complicated work for us it has certainly made the process easier for frontline staff.
The Housing and Property Services teams continue to work exceptionally hard for our tenants to provide the best service we can. As a division, I think we’re becoming more and more open to how new technologies and applications can help us simplify and streamline our processes.
I encourage everyone in Housing to come forward with observations and suggestions for innovation wherever they spot problems or frustrations. We are excited about Southdown’s Digital Transformation Project and looking forward to seeing how new systems and applications can further simplify our complex processes and allow us to dedicate more time to the important work of supporting our tenants.
We are a specialist housing provider and landlord for around 580 tenants and shared owners across Sussex. We provide different types of affordable housing from temporary accommodation to a long term home. As a supported housing landlord, we provide additional support for our tenants to help them manage their tenancy and maintain their home.