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Peabody investigation: opportunities missed

Lessons of cuts to neighborhood management not leaned

 

Large patch sizes at Peabody contributed to failure that allowed resident’s dead body to lie undiscovered for nearly two years.

 

Staff and resident warnings of devasting consequences of cuts were ignored and have not been addressed in latest report

 

Housing workers and housing association tenants will study the findings of an investigation into the death of a Peabody resident whose body went undiscovered for two years with concern. Inside Housing’s headline is telling, “Large patch sizes at Peabody contributed to failure that allowed resident’s dead body to lie undiscovered for nearly two years.”

 

If vital lessons are to be learned the question of why the number of homes managed by neighbourhood managers (patch size) was increased, despite repeated warnings from Unite and residents, must be addressed. Unfortunately, Peabody management have failed to address this.  

 

Listening to staff

 

The body of Sheila Seleoane was mostly “bones and dust” when discovered by police in February. The coroner concluded that it is “difficult to fathom” how someone could go undiscovered in this way in 2022. Contrary to the impression given in some press coverage this was not a case of a community that did not care; neighbours repeatedly attempted to raise concern.  Local MP Harriet Harman has criticised Peabody’s poor communication with residents even after the death.

 

Patch sizes, workload for neighbourhood managers and workplace culture were amongst areas that the coroner considered as part of the inquest into Ms Seleoane’s death. But staff had warned that cuts leading to unmanageably large patch sizes for neighbourhood managers were dangerously misconceived. Residents also protested against to cost cutting restructure. The independent report following the tragedy fails to address these warnings and makes no recommendations on listening to staff or residents.

 

Managing up to 1200 homes

 

The report does recommend that patch sizes are reviewed after it conducted a roundtable discussion with other sector leaders which found that participants had patch sizes of between 200 and 800 homes. In Peabody neighbourhood managers could manage up to 1,200 homes. New policies are reducing patch sizes now.

 

Protest against cuts and restrucure

 

It is welcome that workload is referenced but the lack of consideration of why explicit warning from Peabody staff through Unite and residents’ concerns seemingly carried no weight means the report is inadequate. Chief Executive Ian McDermott simply says, “we didn’t join the dots” and fails to mention resourcing or workloads. Does Peabody senior management understand the workload issue created by its restructure? Will the views of staff and residents be fully considered in future restructures?

 

Cut housing management budgets by £1 million

 

In 2019 Peabody announced a plan to cut housing management budgets by £1 million. Unite warned the plan had “potentially devastating consequences to residents and workers.”  The plans to cut neighbourhood managers came on top of the ‘deletion’ of the posts of the respected Community Safety Team in spring 2019 which staff also opposed through Unite.  This team dealt with high level anti-social behaviour including drug crime.  This cut alone put huge extra stress on housing management staff.  Further cuts profoundly shifted the culture of the organisation.

 

In October Peabody put proposals to slash the number of housing managers from eighty to sixty-five. That meant more work and less people to do the work. Management defended this restructure claiming that the new structure would “augment service improvement and integration changes that have taken place.” Staff could see no service improvement!

 

Cuts cost lives

 

An example was reported by a Neighbourhood Manager at the time; a team of seven had been drastically reduced to two, with the remaining staff members told to work through over five hundred cases in a day! At the same rime a compulsory out of house rota was imposed. This was in addition to their own workload and included high level anti-social behaviour cases. Staff reported unacceptable stress.

 

At a last-ditch protest against the cuts in February 2020 protesters warned that “cuts to the community and neighbourhood services cost lives and are counter-productive.” 

 

Increasing criticism

 

One tenant commented, “We've had three neighbourhood managers in as many months. We now have an interim neighbourhood manager who's got 1,000 properties to deal with” and a worker said, “Every time a new executive member comes in, you know there’s going to be another restructure. It wastes time and resources and is completely unnecessary”. 

 

The restructuring that led to increased workload was justified by a drive for cost saving and not be the needs of existing residents. Unfortunately, this is all too common in housing associations which have rightly faced increasing criticism in recent years.

 

Return to investors

 

A chance to seriously consider how decision making takes place and why repeated warnings were ignored has been missed in this case. Peabody is a not-for-profit organisation in that profits are not distributed to its shareholders. But it is driven to deliver returns to investors and that drive increasingly takes precedence. At the time of the cuts Peabody boasted about its large suplus and financial strengh but management wanted more.

 

At the time that the death of Sheila Seleoane came to light we noted that it is no longer common practice for housing association board papers to be made public, but a transparent review of these events should publish board papers surrounding restructuring of housing management.  In the event no serious consideration has been given to the decision-making process and why views of residents and staff were pushed aside. Unfortunately, there can be no assurance that vital lessons have been learned.

 

Paul Kershaw Chair Unite housing workers LE1111

 

See report of protest against neighbourhood management cuts here.

 

 

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