The Decent Homes program is a 10-12 year, £40 billion government initiative to modernize all social housing in the UK.

CityWest Homes, a stand-alone management organization ( ALMO) which was spun off from Westminster City Council five years ago, is spending £200m on the refurbishment of the 13,000 rental properties it manages for the council in the City of Westminster.

Brian Johnson, who became chief executive three years ago, explains: “We have made the transition from being part of a local authority to a small company that is more independent and able to grow, change, and respond quickly and getting results more, which has entailed a complete rethinking of the attitudes and skills required of us. Many executives and executives here do not come from the public sector, which on the one hand is a great advantage because we are not constrained by our knowledge of, what was possible in the past and what wasn’t. A disadvantage is that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

One of the things Johnson and his team knew three years ago was that they needed outside help to manage the renovation of the properties they managed and that it would be “completely irresponsible” to employ 19 full-time staff on something one would be a lengthy but finite project. Johnson is an experienced and enthusiastic user of interim managers, and hiring interim project managers through the Decent Homes program was, as he says, “a breeze”.

He turned to Impact Executives for help and the consultancy hired Paul Gatrill , a highly experienced civil engineer and surveyor, to manage the project for the modernization and refurbishment of six ugly 20-storey tower blocks on London’s Harrow Road. “The initial cost of the work was £48m and we told him we couldn’t afford more than £36m so we gave him an unreasonable target before he even started,” Johnson recalls.

An added complication was the fact that CityWest Homes’ project management processes were virtually non-existent, Johnson concedes.

“But during his career Paul had helped build a Block Management London high percentage of all tall buildings in London, which gave us confidence that he could deliver reliably, although we had to build the processes around him,” he says.

“And he’s certainly demonstrated his ability to work in a fairly chaotic environment, which is what I expect from interim managers who bring most of their value by being overqualified for the roles they’re put in.”

Gatrill came to CityWest Homes in January 2005 with a blank sheet of paper. “I knew what the budget was and that we had to be ready before 2010,” he says. “I developed a brief and put together a team of surveyors, architects, structural engineers and a health and safety consultant. We worked with the team at Wates Living Space, the contractors for the refurbishment.”

long before Gatrill was able to bring the project’s completion date forward to April 2009 and then to December 2008, reducing the overall cost by £1.5m.

“We actually considered tearing down the buildings and starting over, but that would have cost twice as much, taken twice as long and only given the buildings a life expectancy of 50 years compared to the 30 years that the refurbishment will ensure “, he says. “It would also have meant finding temporary housing for the residents.”

As it is, the modernization is already causing a lot of uproar among residents, and Gatrill admits the “resident advice” was the project’s biggest challenge. “Building is the easy part; the human aspects are difficult and demanding,” he says.

All his project management experience to date has been in the private sector – hotels, office buildings and so on – and all in new construction . “Of course there are all sorts of design and delivery issues, but these are relatively easy to overcome,” he says.

Johnson acknowledges the organization has learned from the experience

“We were right to bring in some very high-level project management skills from outside the sector, but I think we all underestimated the enormous challenge of resident consultation, which is very different from typical project management exercises,” he says.

“There has been limited investment in these blocks over the last 20 to 30 years, and residents’ experience of renovations often comes from television, where people like Carol Smillie show up in orange overalls and transform the place in two days,” Johnson continues away. “This does not reflect the reality of the kind of upheaval involved in our renovations, so dealing with residents’ expectations was enormously difficult. We’ve done a lot of consultations, which is good, but actually most people are much more interested in how the work is going to affect them week by week.”

Gatrill bears the brunt of the residents’ frustration. Johnson says: “Paul will receive calls on a Sunday morning to say that the one remaining elevator in a high-rise building is no longer working – the other is out of service due to being replaced. Throughout it all, Paul has never lost his spark, or his passion, or his desire to do things differently.”

One element of the resident consultation that Gatrill is currently undertaking is the installation of digital television. “The buildings are full of satellite dishes and we want to replace them with two big dishes on each roof and then wire the TV to each household,” he explains. “But more than half of the residents speak Arabic , and we have to offer Arabic, Egyptian and Turkish TV channels, among others.”

But Gatrill and his team are now halfway through the project, and this month the scaffolding and safety netting will be removed from the outside of one of the buildings, allowing residents to see out their windows and use their new balconies for the first time in months be able .

The Decent Homes initiative is just one of many things City West Homes has had to get right over the past two years as it adjusts to more independent living.

“Partly because of our own experience and partly by bringing in others’ experience, we’ve managed to meet some of the ridiculous timescales and budgets we’ve faced,” says Johnson. “It gives us a real impact on government policy and we are now in the top 2% of similar organizations in the country because Paul and others like him have helped us achieve that. You have played an important role in creating a high-performing team. In particular, Paul’s ability to deliver this project on budget and on time is a fantastic achievement.”

Why is London 2012 so unfair?

Is this fair to SMEs who are being asked, if not forced, to put their hands in their pockets to help fund what is arguably a hugely lavish and increasingly expensive event? Local companies are now expecting a very poor return on their forced investments in the games and recent history suggests that it is mainly the global players who will benefit.

The growing problem of small businesses being marginalized and effectively excluded from the economic activity created has recently received increased media attention. However, there doesn’t seem to be a solution yet. At the moment we are not getting anything back for the money that was paid out in the form of excessive business taxes, property taxes and other surreptitious measures.

As Director of VFM Procurement, a leading property and construction consultancy based in London, I recently took the time to write to a number of public figureheads to clarify what is being done to help. In the current climate, we need all the help we can get to improve our chances of sharing this workload. After a period of almost a month I am still awaiting a response from everyone contacted and will update readers in a future article.

It’s a sad reality that we’re not alone in our Block Management London frustration and disappointment, and it’s no secret that many others are reporting similar experiences. A fact reconfirmed at a seminar I attended last week. Out of a total of around seventy eager business owners, only two could confirm that they had won public sector contracts through the government-backed “competition arrangements”. It is not believed that any of these commissions relate specifically to the Olympic Games, however this success or failure ratio must be considered very poor.

The course was run by PERA, the Innovation Network, in conjunction with Supply London, which I now understand to be a support scheme designed to help London SMEs compete for and win public contracts. This group is supported by the London Development Agency and interestingly the project is partly funded by the European Union (ERDF).

Although our real estate and tenancy management consultancy is registered on various websites including ‘compete for’ which is specifically designed to encourage SME participation in the public sector, we have not received any employment opportunities under the Olympic Games Development Scheme.

While the efforts of these groups are undoubtedly well-intentioned, the results remain unsatisfactory. The general consensus at the seminar was that most participants found the ‘competing for location’ and application process a waste of time. Indeed, if this agreement is to help deliver on the Olympics Delivery Authority’s promise – that the London Games will create jobs for local businesses and local people – I have little doubt that promise is likely to be broken.

Currently, only around 20% of workers at the Olympic sites are from any of the five host boroughs – including Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest, Newham and Greenwich – and just 53% of these are Londoners. When only every fifth worker lives on site, this is difficult to accept. Unless there are radical changes it is clear that the legacy of the 2012 Olympics will not be fulfilled and despite the best efforts of small businesses it is almost certain that the majority will be left bitterly disappointed and out of pocket.

We can only hope that ODA’s failure to provide fair opportunities for all gets the urgent attention it deserves – and before it’s too late. As a director of a London based real estate and building consultancy offering quantity surveying services, the current arrangements have been very disappointing.

We should all be able to take part in this event – not just the few in the world. Finally, each of us citizens is required to continue to make sacrifices and endure financial hardship to bring the Games to our city.

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