Housing is a hot topic in the UK. It is likely to be one of the battlegrounds for votes in the forthcoming general election. Housing encompasses a myriad of issues, from planning laws, housing volumes, social mobility, environmental sustainability and the UK's high levels of inflation. For housing associations, there is a need to navigate all of these issues. As a result, data is playing an ever-increasing role. Tasked with that role at Sovereign Network Group is CIO Kevin Ives.
Sovereign Network Group is one of the UK's largest housing associations and is the result of a 2023 merger between Sovereign Housing and Network Homes. The new entity has 82,000 homes and 210,000 customers from London, Hertfordshire and across the South of England. CIO Ives says of the organization:
We have homes in very rural areas, small towns and suburbs, market towns and now big cities including London and Bristol.
Housing associations have become an important pillar in the provision of homes in the UK in the decades following the sale of local authority-owned homes in the 1980s. Often working with local authorities, housing associations provide affordable housing for rent. But as Ives points out, there is more to providing homes for rent than meets the eye:
We provide affordable homes in places where the market can’t provide them. On small sites or in areas where there is a housing shortage for example. We also have homes in very desirable areas where people on low incomes are priced out.
And that adds another significant difference:
These are long-term businesses with long-term assets; some of our housing stock is approaching 100 years old. And we hope that the new homes we are building now will be lived in well into the next century. This gives us a very different perspective on how we invest and where we want to build.
The 2023 merger is the latest in a number across the sector. In this case, it is two organizations in good health coming together to be a combined entity so they can tackle the next set of challenges to housing in the UK. Ives says of the deal:
Mergers in housing are very collaborative. There is a trend of consolidation, which is likely to continue as regulations tighten and the smaller associations may struggle. We spent a lot of time talking about how the two organizations can be stronger together. There was no necessity; it was done to combine our respective strengths.
Whether it's tackling the UK's housing shortage, working with local authorities or satisfying tenants, the sector, just like its cousins in house construction and the public sector, is managing a range of complex issues. Ives says this means the sector does more than build and rent out properties:
Over the last four to five years, Sovereign Network Group has come to the conclusion that we need to play a more active part in place-making.
Place-making is something they share with the local authorities that they work with. It involves planning and managing a public space that engages those who live there and delivers well-being and health. This can include green spaces for recreation, commercial property that can lead to local employment, alternative transport, as well as, schools and health facilities. Ives says:
We work with multiple councils that all have different demands, so you need a very agile approach to your operating model.
To understand and manage these competing forces, data has become vital to the organization, but it has challenges, he says:
No two homes are the same, and no two customers are the same in terms of their needs. So, trying to drive consistency is not always easy. Understanding how our homes are performing and how they react to different environmental conditions will be key.
To begin the process, Ives has ensured that the data team at Sovereign Network Group works closely with the housing development teams:
We have built up our data team, and there is solid technology in place. Microsoft PowerBI is used for the management of board reporting, and we use Microsoft Dynamics as our CRM. Data-led decision-making has improved throughout the organization.
Ives says the merger is an opportunity to rethink all operations within the organization:
It is a great catalyst to do things differently and make sure our technology plans provide those options.
One area where there is a significant difference in operations is that Sovereign had an in-house maintenance team servicing its properties, whilst Network, which typically has inner-city homes, used Plentific a digital brokerage platform that sources tradespeople and suppliers. Ives says:
We need to be very open-minded about our business model. The challenge is how do you retain control of the customer journey.
But the CIO sees this as the moment for change and says housing associations and tradespeople are ready for a new way of working:
The typical carpenter or plumber has been working in the same way for 20 to 30 years; they are ready to do things differently. So, we are completely rethinking how we envisage work. After all, we have all spent a lot of time rethinking office work, and we owe it to our tradespeople to do the same.
We have already done a lot of work on the hand-over processes of a home, so it is much slicker. This means that when a customer calls the maintenance team, then that team has the data available to them. But there is a lot of untapped potential – if we can get better at capturing real-time data about our homes then we will be able to anticipate issues with them before they become a problem for our customer – for example, the hardware we are rolling out that detects moisture levels which could lead to damp in a home.
And we are getting much better at analyzing the data we gather, building up a picture of our customers and their homes. It’s a really exciting time to be in tech and housing both at once!
This rethink follows a restructuring of the technology team. Ives has a digital products, service management and data team and a total staff of 120.
As housing associations move towards place-making and increased customer satisfaction, the role of social purpose for the organization has become far more important, the CIO says. This means that part of that place-making includes career pathways and digital and financial skills. Ives has experience of this; away from the CIO role, he is working to improve inclusivity in cricket.
In our interview, I was struck by the opportunities to rethink field forces and how expert tradespeople are commissioned and deployed. There have been consumer-facing attempts, but nothing has succeeded at scale. With the increasing importance of housing associations in the UK property sector, it is entirely possible there will be an innovation in access to skilled tradespeople born from this sector and its data-led focus.