TAKING POSITIVES FROM THE PANDEMIC

I was recently asked to speak at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference in Manchester. The topic of the panel session that I was to be part of centred around finding silver linings with regards to the way we have had to adapt our ASB case management processes during lockdown.

My initial response was one of surprise; how could we possibly find any positives out of something that had been so life-changing and devastating for so many people? Yet, when giving it some thought, I realised that there are some ways in which we have changed our practices, that are for the better. Changes that will hopefully improve the way we do things into the future and lead to more positive outcomes for the residents and communities that we support. I detail some of the discussions we had below.

1) We are getting better at assessing and triaging reports of ASB

Reports of ASB have increased during lockdown. There have been several reasons for this, including Covid regulations being categorised as ASB. In addition, we have been living with our neighbours for prolonged periods of time, without the breaks that we might ordinarily get from going out to work, school or our other daily activities. We’ve also had conflicting priorities whilst at home for these long periods: some of us may have been working, others trying to home-school and/or occupy young children, others taking the opportunity to do that home renovation that has been forever on the to-do list. When you throw into the mix that most of us have seen our mental health affected to some degree, we have the perfect storm of factors contributing to a challenging situation. Quite simply, poor mental health can affect our ability to cope; behaviours, such as our neighbours doing a little drilling which may not have even registered with us before, suddenly become something that causes a great deal of concern and distress.

Does this mean that we should categorise the matter as ASB? Should we label someone as a perpetrator, and work desperately to identify and prove tenancy breaches against them? I would argue not. Where the behaviour causing nuisance is not targeted or unreasonable, a better approach is probably one that increases communication between neighbours, encourages compromise and empowers people to be part of the solution. In addition, we should look at the root cause of the issues and explore whether the answer is one of supporting the complainant through the trauma that may be affecting their resilience.

2) We are remembering why mediation is such a useful solution

Leading on from the above point, it has been great to see that organisations are reviewing their use of mediation. Most practitioners will know what mediation is and will recognise it as a frequently referred to non-legal tool to resolve ASB issues and neighbour disputes. However, regardless of this awareness, it has fallen out of favour over the last decade or so. When I explore this decrease of use with organisations the reasons for the reduction in use often include cost and inability to get residents to agree to be part of the process.

The benefits of mediation are clear; it is far more powerful for parties to be part of creating their own solutions (rather than something being forced upon them by authorities) and it helps to build empathy and understanding. It removes the formality from the situation, which can antagonise. Where it is not effective, it presents excellent evidence of proportionality, should legal action be required in the future.

Earlier this year, I co-hosted a webinar on mediation with Kim Logan, owner of ADR Mediation. The session was full of tips for using mediation most effectively but the one that has remained with me is this: the officer’s role is not to get parties to agree to mediation. It should be to get parties to agree to an independent 3rd party. The mediator, who is professionally trained, can then have a conversation with the parties about what mediation is and the benefits. This greatly increases the chance of engagement.

These services do have a cost element, of course. I would, however, always encourage organisations to consider the costs that can be saved from nipping a problem in the bud and strengthening relationships within our communities. Sometimes it is about looking beyond the pounds on the page to truly understand the value of something and the benefits that it can bring.

3) A better understanding of the ASB toolkit

One of the key statutory changes during the pandemic was the freeze on evictions. This meant that if you were a landlord, whether social or private, you were not able to rely on possession as a response to serious ASB.

The consequence of this, for social landlords, was the need to look at other options to deal with matters. The obvious was the ASB injunction, which was used far more frequently and by registered providers who may never have used it before.

The injunction is not the solution for all issues. It may not, for example, be the best fit for the scenario where there is a problematic house, attracting lots of visitors and causing serious nuisance for communities. The last 18 months have increased awareness within private registered providers of the wider ASB toolkit; the tools that the registered provider might have the ability to use but other partners do, such as the closure powers and the community protection notice.

For local authorities and police forces, we have also seen some really creative examples of how powers such as the community protection notice and the closure orders can be used. For example, closure powers were used to manage businesses that refused to close during lockdown, with the serious nuisance element being evidenced by the potential life-threatening impact that aiding the transmission of Covid-19 could bring.

So, what can we do now to ensure that we continue to realise and progress these benefits? I would suggest the following:

  • Ensure you have a clear policy line on how you diagnose and define ASB. This will give officers the confidence to act decisively and help them to manage expectations
  • Review your use of mediation and whether there is an opportunity to reintroduce or develop your mediation offer
  • Ensure that all officers are trained on the entire ASB toolkit, including the tools that your organisation may not be able to directly use. It is only by knowing these tools exist, and how they can be most effectively used, that we can recognise an appropriate situation to reach out to our partners and explore other options
  • Use the past 18 months as an opportunity to review partnership processes and ensure that all key community safety partners (council, police and social housing providers) are clear on how to call on partnership support and how clear and coherent action plans will be created
  • Keep an eye on social media (Twitter and LinkedIn are my go to) for examples of how the tools are being used. You can also sign up to sector newsletters, many of which draw together latest news and case examples. Many law firms offer these and you can also sign up to mine here.

This blog was originally produced for the RIAMS ASB community; a free online space to share best practices and ask questions. Further details can be found here

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