A housing association in Coventry has lured tenants out of council hands by offering improved homes with a new kitchen and bathroom. Josephine Smit met two of the residents who made the leap.
A tick in a box on a ballot paper, perhaps a couple of quid on the weekly rent, and in return your long-neglected council home will have all its niggling problems repaired and be brought up to a decent standard. In the Midlands, reception to that offer, made under the large-scale voluntary transfer process, has been mixed. Birmingham council tenants voted against the transfer of their homes, but nearby Coventry's 20,000 tenants gave their assent, although by a slim margin with 54% in favour.

The housing association set up to take over Coventry's council housing, Whitefriars Housing Group, is 18 months in to tackling the backlog of repair and improvement work in its stock of predominantly 50-year-old homes. It is making a £240m investment in the stock in its first five years. This money will be spent on re-roofing existing homes, fascia and soffit replacement, adding double glazing, renewing central heating boilers and, for the poorest quality housing, demolition and replacement. The average spend on each home is £12,000, with about £6000 devoted to internal works, including the key optional element of Whitefriars' improvement process: kitchen and bathroom refits.

Tenants opting to have their kitchens and bathrooms re-fitted have to pay a small increase in rent and have a limited choice of three kitchen and bathroom colour combinations. In return they get a refit that is individually designed around their existing white goods and includes the added bonus of an over-the-bath shower.

Like the other improvement works, kitchen and bathroom refits are being masterminded by just two contractors, Wates and Lovell Partnerships. Whitefriars opted to enter PPC2000 strategic partnering contracts with both contractors to help it exploit the benefits of supply chain efficiency and continuous improvement over the course of the five years.

For Whitefriars and its contractors, the scale of the work has created significant logistical challenges, with some 560 operatives working on kitchens and bathrooms and each contractor handing over 30 homes every week. But what is it like for the tenants who have taken up the refit option? Homes asked residents Pauline Venables and Barbara Davies, whose homes were upgraded by Lovell Partnerships.

What the residents think
Pauline Venables has been living in her two-bedroom terraced house for 24 years, whereas next-door neighbour Barbara Davies has been in hers for just two. But both were equally in favour of the transfer to Whitefriars. "I have never had anything done to the house since I've lived here. I had the same old kitchen," says Venables. "When things broke, the council used to bodge them up. I had a kitchen drawer that fell to bits a dozen times and I kept asking for a new one, but the council just kept repairing it." Davies' kitchen lacked the basics; it had no skirting boards and only two cupboards.

For both, the bathroom and kitchen upgrades were therefore a big attraction of the transfer, and Venables remembers how hopes grew with the prospect of change. "We heard at the start that we might get our outside loos knocked down and the kitchens extended. I would have liked the extra space," she says. That was only hearsay and has not happened yet, but the housing association has stuck to the promise it made just before the ballot, as a final sweetener, to install showers as part of the bathroom refits. Like most of the tenants who have taken up the bathroom option, Davies and Venables both like their showers, and as an arthritis sufferer, Venables appreciates the new bath with handgrips.

Both also love the kitchen units with trendy steel handles, which Whitefriars introduced in the second year of the improvement programme. "My daughter's house was done early on and she hasn't got these. Ours are more up to date. We're dead lucky," says Venables.

Having both kitchen and bathroom refitted is a disruptive process, carried out, in Venables' and Davies' case, over a five-week period from the end of last July. "The first two weeks were the busiest. It was horrendous," says Davies. "We would just get the house tidy and they would do more work. But that was how it had to be done," says Venables. She says she was impressed by the behaviour of Lovell's staff. "They didn't smoke in the house and went back to their vans to eat their lunch, and some brought their own flasks of tea."

The work has added about £3 to the weekly rent, but both consider it good value. "It is not really such a big difference," says Davies.

For Venables, who has added a new dining table and chairs to her kitchen to complement the refit, the fact that her kitchen has at long last been given a makeover is what matters most. "We kept saying, we hope the money doesn't run out before they get to our house," she says.

Whitefriars and Lovell Partnerships respond
Venables' doubts about whether her home would really get its promised improvement works were commonplace, according to John Halton, project manager with Whitefriars. "In the first year, all the residents were saying: 'will it happen?'" he says. "The city council had budget constraints. Prior to Whitefriars' ownership, the kitchens would have been designed around maintenance demands rather than what the tenants wanted. We have got to make the homes attractive. For us, it is a matter of spending our money wisely. All too often people don't want a community centre, they want a kitchen or bathroom."

The showers may be a big bonus for tenants, but they initially posed Whitefriars a problem. "The showers were a late promise in the transfer, and so they weren't in our original budget," says Halton. "They put the budget over by 4%, but by value engineering and supply chain efficiency we've made savings to get that back."

Supply chain efficiency also allowed Whitefriars to give Venables, Davies and other second-year tenants the more modern kitchen units. "We went back to kitchen unit supplier Symphony and talked about what they could give us, and got the upgrade. That is the kind of continuous improvement we are looking for throughout the programme," says Halton.

Although Venables and Davies had workers in their homes over a period of five weeks, Whitefriars is upgrading kitchens and bathrooms in its sheltered housing for the elderly in just a fortnight, but that speed is being achieved using teams of multi-skilled operatives, which is more costly. "We are trying to do it faster. Multi-skilling is probably the only way to cut it down further," says Halton. "When we started we sold a dream. The work is disruptive and people find it doesn't look good till week four. Now we're better at letting people know what will happen, that we might start the work and have plaster fall off the walls," says Halton.

Communication with the tenants is the job of Lovell Partnerships' resident liaison team. "I'll see tenants practically every day for the first few weeks," says Margaret Down, resident liaison coordinator with the company. "It is rewarding when you get people who are thrilled like Barbara and Pauline."

After more than a year of working on the project, Lovell Partnerships is learning that rolling out kitchens and bathrooms at a constant rate does not get any easier. "It's hard work. You can have problems that set you back, like when a tenant is out," says Dennis Powell, general foreman with the contractor. Max Speke, project director with Lovell Partnerships, adds: "You have got to be thinking on your feet to keep the programme going. It's a very fast moving job. There's no respite."

Whitefriars' biggest lessons have come from working in partnership with the contractors, and making the essential culture changes a five-year relationship implies. "If something falls apart in the kitchen within 12 months, Lovell comes back and repairs it. There is no incentive for Lovell to get away with things, they are here for the full five-year contract," says Halton. "We've been talking to Walsall on their transfer improvement programme and explaining that surveyors don't need to check contractors' work."

The housing association has had no problem in getting tenants to take up the kitchen and bathroom option. "We were very worried at the start at what would happen if people didn't take up the work," says Halton. Whitefriars' business plan was based on 80% acceptance, and that is the current take-up rate. The programme has thrown up a few problems, however, one of which is tenants who change their mind, initially turning down the refit, but then wanting it once they see neighbours' refitted homes. The housing association will therefore be making the kitchen and bathroom refit available a second time, once it has gone through the initial programme.

Pauline Venables may yet get her wish to have her kitchen extended. "As we roll through the five-year programme we could look at doing more things, and we'll still be spending £20m a year after that," says Halton.

How the refit works

Five weeks before work starts, a resident liaison officer visits to talk through the project and which of the three kitchen/bathroom colour options tenants are choosing. Shortly afterwards, a technical team of plumber, electrician, kitchen designer and Whitefriars surveyor visit to check the extent of the works. The kitchen is redesigned around the tenant’s existing white goods on the spot. The tenant receives letters 21 days before and 7 days before telling them when work will start. Condition survey is carried out On site:
Day 1
Old units and tiles are stripped out of kitchen
Day 2
Existing wallpaper is stripped from kitchen and bathroom
Day 3/4
Day 5
Day 6
Boiler installed
Day 7 or 8
Kitchen and bathroom fitted in one day
2-3 days later
One week later
Decorating is done Finishing
It then only remains for the flooring to be laid and for the finishing operative to come in to put up curtain rails, and so on.

Project team

Key subcontractors CHN (plumbing and heating), DBS (electrical), Image Styles (decorating), K&M (flooring) Key suppliers Symphony Kitchens, Jewsons, Armitage Shanks, Ideal Standard