Social housing providers are facing reductions in their budgets while demand for accommodation rises, but changes to the benefits system threaten to undermine their flow of rental income. When Universal Credit is fully rolled-out by 2017, all benefits claimants will get a lump sum of all their entitlements directly into their bank account, rather than a proportion (formerly called housing benefit) being paid directly to the landlord - increasing the likelihood of arrears building up.
Further pressure is mounting up. An aging population means an immediate and growing demand for sheltered housing and the provision of care for the elderly; for which the funds must be raised. The rising cost of energy is also taking its toll, meaning tenants are finding it increasingly difficult to keep on top of all of their outgoings, including rent payments.
Against this adverse backdrop, with only traditional processes and disparate legacy systems at their disposal, can social housing providers rise to this complex set of challenges?
The future for social housing?
To investigate innovative solutions to these problems, a team of students from University College London produced the UK Future Living Project document earlier this year, as part of their studies in Software Systems Engineering, Financial Systems Engineering and Computer Science. The multi-stakeholder project, encompassing Microsoft, HACT (Housing Association’s Charitable Trust) and TBS Enterprise Mobility (among others), looked at how technology could be cost-effectively adopted in order to address key issues for social housing providers.
Overcoming the many complex challenges facing the social housing sector presented a scope too wide to address properly in one project, so the students focused in on two key aims. The first was to improve energy efficiency within homes, thereby minimising tenants’ bills and decreasing losses in rent payments for the housing provider. The second was to look at the range of incompatible legacy systems, disparate databases and differing working practices, as these were identified as having a stifling effect on the growth of the social housing sector.
UK Housing Associations already utilise advice-led marketing campaigns to help tenants better manage their energy consumption, to varying levels of success. But the fact remains that energy price rises are far outpacing increases in wages and benefits. According to the latest government statistics published in June 2014, 2.28m English households are living in fuel poverty, which is 1 in 10 properties. This figure is expected to rise to 2.33m by the end of the year. These struggling households are on average £443 short of meeting their annual gas and electricity bills, leaving the elderly and young children at particular risk.
New homes now need to meet high energy efficiency standards, but bringing old social housing stock in line with this would be expensive and involve significant disruption to tenants, making it unviable. The challenge for the UCL team was to come up with a new, low cost approach, that could be fitted to properties quickly without the need for wires and cables, thus having minimal impact on residents.
The proposed solution
By harnessing enabling technologies; the cloud, business intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), the students were able to devise such a solution, with minimal expenditure. Using a series of, battery-powered sensors and switches connected via low-power Zigby wireless technology to a central control box, the solution would monitor temperature and movement in each room, while sensors attached externally would detect outside temperature. Together, these sensors would allow the heating to be set automatically by the central control box based on pre-determined temperatures depending on whether the room was occupied and empty.
According to the World Health Organisation 18°c is a suitable indoor living temperature for healthy individuals, (appropriately dressed) a minimum of 16°c for those with respiratory problems or allergies, and a minimum of 20°c for the sick, disabled, very old or very young.
With this in mind, tenants are able to set the appropriate temperature for ‘occupied’ rooms or zones. When not occupied rooms are set to ambient, a lower temperature, in order to minimise unnecessary energy consumption. The motion sensors would detect movement in the ‘ambient’ zone, and adjust the temperature to ‘occupied’, and vice-versa. By monitoring the temperature outside, the system further adjusts accordingly to allow for hot weather, to optimise the energy used by the heating system
The students calculated that a substantial 30 per cent saving on energy bills could be made by minimising unnecessary energy use, without jeopardising the warmth, and health, of tenants. Part of the solution provided a web portal for tenants to check and monitor their energy consumption, informing them of their usage patterns to get a better understanding of how any further savings could be made.
The control box itself is fitted near the boiler for convenience, so it can be checked on the same annual basis with no additional cost. Running on a battery which lasts up to 14 months, it requires little upkeep. Any faults in the system are automatically reported via the cloud, so that a job can be raised for the area engineer.
The bigger picture
The solution stores all this data in the Cloud, giving social housing providers an incredible opportunity to gain insights from across their housing stock using data analytics tools. One use would be to provide proactive, targeted information about energy usage to individual tenants. It could also be used to analyse patterns in the ways in which we live and use our homes. This information would enable better housing, optimally designed with energy efficiency in mind. Aside from energy efficiency, the data could be used to identify unusual behaviour which may signify a vulnerable resident having difficulties, or anti-social behaviour, or even subletting, with a trigger to instigate an appropriate response from the landlord.
Armed with this centralised mass of information, the housing providers would also be in a strong position to negotiate a better deal on the cost of energy to the whole of their housing stock, savings which could then be passed onto tenants. They would also be able to categorise the energy efficiency of different groups of housing stock, which types of properties would benefit most from better insulation, for example, and those which are performing well.
The UCL Future Living Project suggested a comprehensive solution, which incorporated the mobile workforce management platform, TaskMaster. Planned and reactive maintenance to heating systems and the UCL’s solution, would be integrated with the data captured by the control boxes in tenants’ homes, creating a more streamlined and intelligent system. Using the TaskMaster mobile app on a smartphone, engineers would be able to view their day’s jobs, with no need to collect and drop off paperwork at the office. The engineer inputs job completion information and captures the tenant’s signature on the app, data which is wirelessly fed back into the central office system.
By supporting the engineer to work more efficiently, not only does TaskMaster reduce labour and travel costs, but can increase the lifespan of heating systems by ensuring annual maintenance and safety checks aren’t missed, and that any system faults are responded to quickly and effectively. The scope for harnessing the TaskMaster platform within this project goes far beyond the maintenance of heating systems though. For example, it could be used in a social care scenario, whereby vulnerable residents can be monitored; a reduction in the normal frequency of movement around their property could trigger an alert, informing a carer or doctor for example.
From concept to reality
This project has demonstrated the very real possibilities for housing providers to adopt low cost, enabling technology to tackle some of the major crises that we face. Looking at the detail of the UCL Future Living Project leaves no doubt that the business case and practicalities of deploying a similar solution is strong, and one which we cannot afford to ignore. What’s at stake here is quality of life for thousands of social housing tenants.
This new approach - driven by innovation and drawing on the UK’s great talent pool - to overcome the deeply engrained challenges facing housing providers in the public sector, turns on a bright light in a dark tunnel. Innovation is not only central to success, it is now crucial to survive in a time when budgets are tightening and every penny spent is under scrutiny.
The next stage for the project is to run a pilot over several months on a range of housing from new build to old 1930s properties. This pilot will provide a whole wealth of data to fine tune the solution and provide a production system fit to roll out to the UK’s social housing stock.