In the third of a series of articles looking at the role played by Bolton at Home staff, digital marketing manager Amy Lythgoe spent the day with Gareth Comber, Tenancy Services Manager at Tonge Moor Housing Office.

Having seen a number of enquiries about issues related to tenancy services come through our social media channels I’m looking forward to getting out and seeing how they’re dealt with in a housing office.

Tenancy services are the first point of contact for customer enquiries, to housing offices and deal with allocations, sign ups, terminations and other tenancy related enquires. As part of their process they identify vulnerable customers who might require additional support from the Support and Sustainment team and signpost people to specialist teams in Housing Services such as enforcement and to other external agencies.

Gareth has worked in Housing Services at Bolton at Home for 16 years starting off in Concierge as a Control Operator. He is experienced in being the subject of a ‘Day in the Life’ article as back in 2008 he volunteered to be interviewed for our in house magazine. Back then he was a Housing Officer and he says there have been big changes in the way that our housing services teams work moving from Housing Officers looking after a patch and dealing with a range of enquiries to more specialist teams such as Income Management, ASB, Estate Enforcement, Support and Sustainment and Tenancy Services. Although the teams have only been structured like this for a year the feedback from customers so far is positive. As well as the in house changes Welfare Reform is also having a big impact upon customers and the manner in which Housing Services are delivered.

Gareth begins the day following up on a client leaving a probation hostel. He’s at the top of the list for a flat but staff are concerned that the area might not be suitable for this particular customer. After discussions with the local police constable and probation services about the current situation in the area it is decided not to offer him the property. It is thought that the types of problems in the area might increase the likelihood of the customer breaching the terms of his licence and lead to him being unable to sustain a tenancy. It is agreed by all agencies that the customer will be advised to express interest in properties in other areas. On average Gareth deals with about two or three allocations every week that require further consideration following verification checks; and for him to work with other agencies to find the right solution.

Next on the agenda is going through list of provisional voids in the north area. A provisional void is where a tenancy termination notice has been submitted for a property and Gareth needs to check whether the keys have been handed in or not. All tenancies terminate on a Sunday and keys need to be handed into the housing office by 10am on Monday. This week three properties are due to terminate and the keys have not been handed in. Housing Officers from Gareth’s team will follow this up through contacting the tenant and if necessary visiting the property to check whether they’ve moved out. Sometimes a tenant not handing back the keys can result in the locks needing to be changed and a delay in a void property being handed over to technical services for inspection and any necessary repairs.

It is possible that sometimes tenants haven’t been able to move out for various reasons for example they’ve been let down by a new landlord or have had problems organising their move. In these cases the tenants are advised that they need to make arrangements to move out as soon as possible as their notice of termination has expired and their tenancy has now ended. If in these circumstances a tenant does not make arrangements to vacate the property it may be necessary to consider legal action. However this is an extreme and hasn’t happened in Gareth’s experience and a solution is usually found in most cases.

Next new termination notices are checked to see that they’ve been registered properly and arrangements have been made to advertise and make pre termination visits to the property.

Late morning we head out to a viewing with a couple who need to leave their property due to structural issues. Customers offered a decant like this don’t have to wait on the waiting list like everyone else, instead they are made a direct offer of alternative accommodation. They do still have to meet the criteria for the propery they’re applying for.

These customers are keen to stay in the immediate area which limits the number of properties available to them. They have seen a property we’re currently refurbishing around the corner. As it’s been given a complete overhaul following major works it looks brand new inside and the garden’s been refenced and levelled. The customer has some concerns about the size of the kitchen and whether there is enough room for a dryer as well as a fridge freezer as some of the kitchen has been taken up with the downstairs bathroom, a requirement given the amount of work carried out on the property. Our surveyor promises to look into how these can be fitted in and the customer seems happy with this. In the living room she requests that the fireplace be fitted on a different wall so she can fit in the sofa and the surveyor agrees to accommodate this.

Having recently been on a few viewings and shown people round properties for private sale in the past this seems like a good service. For investors we would rarely have put the effort in to make amendments to fixtures and fittings for anyone other than a big bulk buyer and in flats I’ve viewed recently I wouldn’t have even thought it worth asking the letting agent.

Later a discussion comes up in the office around unhappy customers and people who are abusive to housing services staff. I ask whether this has increased since the bedroom tax was imposed on people, leaving many struggling to paying their bills. Gareth says he hasn’t noticed this particularly but is in no doubt of the challenge we face to mitigate the impact of welfare reform through debt and money advice and moving options to help people avoid building-up rent arrears.

The rest of the day involves looking at developing new policies and procedures. Some developments are made in response to changing legislation or to providing clarification for staff. Working with our in house legal team changes are made to make sure there are less ways our policies are open to challenge for example on issues such as termination notices. Following up these policy and procedural changes will involve communicating the changes to customers and providing additional staff training to ensure they are implemented smoothly. I had thought that housing services staff would be constantly out and about but there’s a lot more paperwork than I expected. Gareth estimates that he spends about 60% of his time in the office, about the same as the housing officers in the neighbourhood offices.

It’s been good to spend some time in the neighbourhood office and I’ve come away with more ideas for these articles on staff and other aspects of our work. Looking at enquiries from a customer point of view as they come through social media I can see how the processes we have are confusing and sometimes inaccessible but with the massive scope of the work done here, the complex individual needs of customers and the policies and legal framework the teams work it’s hard to see how it could be any other way. There are long conversations about the needs of both individuals and groups of customers and what really comes across from these is the focus of the staff on getting the best service