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Launching a Corporate Plan in a Pandemic

At the Pioneer Group we were all set to launch our new Corporate Plan on 1 April 2020. We had spent over a year engaging with clients, researching and understanding what we had achieved since our last plan, and what the next five-year direction should be. However, just at the exciting point of sharing our new Vision, Mission, Aims and Values, we found ourselves responding to an unexpected event and to be honest an event that wasn’t mentioned in our planning or in our Corporate Risk Plan – a global pandemic.

I know now that the risk of a ‘pandemic’ was very much on the Cabinet Office National Risk Plan – shown as a high impact, low likelihood event. I am sure we will all pay more attention to risks like this from now on. (Gate gently closes behind me). We are now reviewing those particularly low likelihood, high impact risks that could strike us, as these have tended to get less attention.

The view back in March 2020 amidst such uncertainty, was that the timing was all wrong to be launching a new plan. However, as we learnt more about the pandemic and its impact through 2020, we realised that our sector and business that was not going to be devastated. We feel extremely fortunate for that.

We chose to launch some of the key aspects of the new plan internally– the elements that we felt most unlikely to change. The new plan was an evolution from the 2015-20 version, which was already a game changer for the organisation. It was the biggest shift since the organisation had been formed. We had ventured in a more meaningful way beyond the boundaries of our core Castle Vale heartland, been invited to use our skills in Stockland Green and Falcon Lodge; we had responded to the housing crisis and delivered housing growth and set up a group structure that facilitated our ambitions to sustain regeneration and play a full role as an anchor organisation in our communities. We had also diversified into some new areas – taking on an early year’s nursery and football stadium on Castle Vale.

Our immediate assessment was that our WHY wasn’t going to be shaken by the impact of the pandemic – we would continue to work through our partnership of people and organisations to make people’s lives better and ensure our communities are places where people can thrive. In fact, it became very apparent very quickly that this WHY and the newly crafted VISION to make lives and communities better was going to be more important than ever.

As the previous plan was coming to an end, we had sadly faced a steady downward trend in overall customer satisfaction year on year. Whilst regression analysis pointed to some challenges in responsive repairs, we also knew we had to get in control of this trend and back to basics – improve the customer experience by listening and acting on our tenants and residents’ concerns. With the new plan, our Board was clear – less was perhaps more and let’s deliver core services really well.

In March 2020, as we triggered our business continuity plan, and started to respond to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, my reflection now looking back is that our organisational values played as crucial a role as the structure and leadership in place.

The structured activity run by the Covid Response team was important, but there were equally countless examples of colleagues (and partners) feeling #EMPOWERED and trusted to get on and make decisions in our communities. Our #COMMUNITY values are in our DNA and that paid off hugely. We were able to rapidly develop a Covid Community Offer  shaped by listening and engaging with what was most needed in our communities – from food distribution to online learning, we quickly had a plan to cover the most pressing needs of our tenants and residents. This was done with our traditional partners and with a raft of new ones including small charities, faith groups and volunteers. This was built on #RESPECT and the sense of being #BETTERTOGETHER.

Even now with a Lockdown 3.0 feeling tougher than ever and with staff fatigued and flagging under the strain, our organisational values continue to help. We have created a welfare offer for colleagues that has helped build resilience and empathy. Our own mental health first aiders reach out and help each other. Managers have quickly adapted to ‘agile’ best practice.  We trust our people and support them with wellbeing and mental health support and whilst I don’t pretend we get everything right, the feedback is our provision has made a huge difference to our colleagues.

Delivering our aims for great safe homes, strong vibrant communities and business excellence

When looking at the new Corporate Plan afresh, we needed to understand if the WHY, VISION, MISSION, VALUES and the three new AIMs remained valid.

There was no doubt that with tenants and staff spending more time in their homes than before the pandemic has raised some questions about our homes being suitable for the abrupt shift to home working and home schooling. Our AIM 1 is to provide GREAT SAFE HOMES. This still feels right. However, we will be looking at our development design standards and considering space and communal spaces as we continue on our ambition to complete 250 new homes by 2025.

We have identified our complex buildings and worked incredibly hard to address safety in all its forms across our communities and most importantly within the culture of our business – my personal state of ‘chronic unease’ is quite deliberate and conscious, and I take every opportunity to thrust it on others in the business – I ask as many questions about green performance indicators as red! The collective effort had to change after the tragedy of Grenfell, and our organisational culture welcomes questions and challenges, where people who make mistakes will be encouraged to speak up and are not blamed.

The plan is set to continue to address the climate emergency. Our approach over the next five years will be ‘fabric first’ and focussed on addressing financial exclusion, in particular fuel poverty – for many of our tenants spending a winter home schooling this has been brought into even sharper focus. Equally the digital divide has been highlighted, and I am pleased our plan will continue our work on digital skills, after all laptops, devices and cheaper access to the internet are crucial as well as the skills to use the technologies. As the pandemic and even Brexit eventually enter the rear view mirror, the response to the global threat of climate change will dominate the housing sector for a lot longer than the next five year plan.

AIM 2 in our plan is a commitment to continuing to create STRONG VIBRANT COMMUNITIES. We are committed to investing £2.5 million through our ‘community pledge’ in what the regulator would call non-core activities. The pledge pays for services identified as most valued by our tenants and residents. There is no doubt that by continuing to listen and act on the voices we hear in our communities, we will be well placed to shape and flex this offer as we understand more about what a post pandemic recovery looks like and the demands it places on us.

Certainly, we recognise the growing evidence of the impact of the pandemic being felt disproportionately and most harshly where existing inequalities were already pervasive. We will not shirk our responsibility to play our role as an anchor organisation.

The plan understands that for the Aims 1 and 2 to succeed we need Business Excellence and that is the focus of Aim 3. As we approach the final quarter of the year, our core business metrics have not been shaken. We have ensured that the basics are solid, with a focus on helping tenants pay their rent – arrears are on pre-pandemic target and we have largely managed to continue to let our empty homes. We entered the year in a healthy cash balance position and will end the year with a healthy cash position. Again, we are not a business that will suffer in the way others sadly have. We secured a £35 million bond with Scottish Widows last year that will help us deliver the new plan, and consolidated much of our remaining debt portfolio onto new fixed rates for added certainty.

However, we recognise there are huge challenges to come for our tenants and communities. We have a strong record of engaging in skills, employment and support through our charitable subsidiary Compass Support and this will be severely tested. Going into the pandemic the charity and third sector was already feeling the strain of a decade of austerity, many funding streams had dried up and the funding available tends to be short term. The annual strain as Compass faces the challenge of annual deficit sadly shows no sign of easing.

Our youth service faces its biggest challenge with young people, particularly the most vulnerable, facing a huge range of issues as we respond to and recover from the pandemic. I am also aware that many issues have been going on behind closed doors that require attention – we know of the alarming rise in domestic abuse and I am equally anxious about safeguarding concerns that may have been hidden and that need to be addressed. The ray of light I can shine is just how resilient and adaptable the charitable and third sector has shown itself to be in responding to the pandemic. The work of BVSC (Birmingham Voluntary Services Council) and an array of partners in this sector has been awe inspiring. Partnerships are a legacy of The Pioneer Group’s journey to this point, and are set to be more important than ever moving forwards.

We are a people business – as I write this we have staff ill and those who have suffered from the virus, some have lost close family and friends but none of our staff have died for which I am truly thankful. I know others in the sector, particularly those with care facilities have not been so fortunate. Equally I know the strain this has placed on staff, tenants and residents in our communities, many of whom work on the frontline in a way I do not feel I do. So much stress and anxiety, so many lives shattered and in a largely invisible way – with so many deaths happening away from us and funerals limited to small numbers. I do not underestimate the long emotional recovery and grieving many have yet to do.

Whilst we have attempted to deal with the pandemic, we also had sight of the government’s vision for the social housing sector in the form of the long-awaited Housing White Paper. Another opportunity to test our Corporate Plan before finally pressing the go button. Again, I am pleased that in very many ways it plays to our group strengths. Of course, safety and compliance rightly feature heavily but also a strengthening of consumers standards. These are areas already firmly on our agenda. Interestingly whilst there is of course the Conservative obsession with home ownership as the big housing solution in the White Paper, we have seen a new AHP settlement (albeit with a right to shared ownership slipped in). There is also a recognition of good quality ‘neighbourhoods’, so a subtle rebalancing perhaps away from sole focus on new build? Or at the very least allow tenants to have a pet…

The pandemic has rightly dominated the news agenda, but with less coverage than it might have had we have also left the EU. I, like I suspect many, am genuinely pleased we ended up with a Brexit deal. The alternative would, I suggest, have been catastrophic. However, as I heard a commentator say (I paraphrase) – we are now rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic but months after the ship has sunk, in the meantime the EU is claiming salvage rights. Whatever your view on Brexit, our core communities will be the ones most challenged by the ongoing economic downturn, the depth and length of which I cannot predict, but few in our communities are likely to be sat on those ‘sunny uplands’ any time soon. This also raises an underlying concern around community cohesion in the communities that voted for Brexit – will it deliver for them and if not how will they respond to those they see ‘in control’ and I suspect that includes their landlord.

With reflection on post pandemic recovery, the White Paper and economic challenges ahead, we had to decide if the new ‘Pioneer Corporate Plan 2020-2025 – Making Lives and Communities Better’ was ready to be launched this week. The conclusion was yes – it sets out a clear and compelling Vision and Mission that still feels relevant, arguably even more relevant than it was last March. As ever it will be the delivery that matters and the ability to flex and be agile in the months and years ahead. The challenge is on.