Zero Carbon, Maximum involvement

By Sue Sutton, Salix Homes chief executive

Customer Voice has never been more important.

It’s essential that we’re not only listening to our customers’ views, but crucially that we’re acting upon them.

It was the Grenfell tragedy that first brought this issue back to the fore, and now the sector is under the microscope to see how it responds to the Social Housing White Paper calling for greater accountability, transparency, and engagement with customers.

Customer engagement is not a new philosophy, but as a sector, perhaps we’ve been guilty of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted – bringing our tenants to the table too late.

Climate change and the mandate for organisations to achieve Net Zero presents a huge challenge for the social housing sector that is well documented, given the age of a large proportion of its housing stock, but with it a massive opportunity to do customer engagement in the right way and right from the start. 

The Social Housing Tenants Climate Jury – the first of its kind for our sector – marks the start of this approach and has considered the Customer Voice as early as possible in the process on this critical issue.

The Jury has brought together a representative and inclusive group of social housing tenants, who have successfully learnt from and questioned invited experts, undertaken personal and group reflection and delivered a strong mandate for action that now needs to be taken up by the sector at large as it faces a colossal challenge towards net zero.

The Jury, which has published its report and recommendations, was launched by the Northern Housing Consortium and has seen 30 tenants come together from housing associations in the North – where it’s estimated one-million social rented homes will require green retrofits.

One million homes is a big ask. One million families, one million households facing upheaval – and that’s just in the North.

Communication with customers is one of the key themes to come out of the Jury’s recommendations, which emphasises why we must consider the Customer Voice at the start of this green-home upgrade journey. This means having honest conversations with our customers about the challenges that we face as providers to deliver our green ambitions, the opportunities that retrofit presents and critically, the disruption that residents can expect.

Climate change is amongst the most pressing issues facing the world as we know it – coincidentally, in the same week the Tenants Jury launched its report, world leaders descended on Glasgow for the COP26 summit to spearhead global action on climate change.

We’re all on a journey of understanding what zero carbon means for us as a sector, and our tenants need to be involved in that learning journey as much as providers.

We can no longer rely on individuals making small changes like switching to energy-saving light bulbs – institutional change is required on a major scale and it’s going to be disruptive.

Whatever the green strategy looks like for the housing sector, if it’s going to be delivered successfully, then we need to bring our customers to the table on a multitude of topics - ensuring we appoint the right people, deliver programmes safely and communicate effectively.

Delivering green retrofits is not an easy task – and without adequate customer engagement, effective planning, and communications, it’ll be very easy to fail. This is why at Salix Homes, we’re proud to have customers who have been part of not only the Jury, but the Oversight Panel as well, who were there to ensure a robust and fair process. 

The Jury’s report and recommendations mark the start of the customer engagement journey for tackling climate change in social housing and at Salix Homes, we know first-hand the benefits this level of customer engagement can bring.

Last year we adopted a new and modern approach to customer engagement, with the launch of our Customer Committee.  It’s a committee of our Board, made up of 12 residents, in a paid-for role and given parity in our governance structures. 

The Customer Committee has very quickly become crucial for us to be able to deliver services effectively – helping to shape and influence strategy. With adequate training and the proper resourcing of customer engagement activity, the outcomes can be invaluable.

Seeing the success of our own customer engagement has spurred on our involvement with the NHC’s Climate Jury, and the outcomes of the Jury will now inform our own Asset Management and Green Strategies.

It’s a new and innovative approach for the social housing sector and we’re incredibly proud to be there at the start of this journey to net zero, alongside the other jury partners First Choice Homes Oldham, Karbon Homes, Thirteen and Yorkshire Housing.

This hasn’t just been a talking shop or box-ticking exercise, it’s about meaningful, strategic, customer engagement where tenants can genuinely make a difference and help shape the future.

As a sector, it’s essential we now listen carefully to the outcomes and recommendations that have been made, consider what it means for our industry, champion their views and ensure we continue to put our customers front and centre of our green journeys.

Afterall, there’s no one better to help shape the future of social housing than the people that live in it.