I joined DIO in November 2020, having spent the previous six years as Head of Infrastructure first for Joint Forces Command and latterly for Air Command. My wife and I have also lived in Service Families Accommodation for more than a decade, all of which clearly meant I had run out of excuses for not moving into DIO and taking first-hand responsibility for delivering services to our families accommodation in the UK and across much of Europe! Nearly six months in, I welcome this opportunity to reflect on what we have delivered for Service personnel and their families during the unprecedented events of the past year; and to look forward to what will shape our approach in the coming 12 months.
My first observation is that I think very, very few people inside or outside DIO would have thought at the start of 2020 what we could achieve in the face of a global pandemic and all the restrictions it triggered. I am hugely proud of the efforts of all DIO, Amey and Mears staff in adapting to a fast-moving and dynamic situation and overcoming the many complex challenges posed by Covid-19, both here in the UK and within Europe.
Covid-19 impacted the way we normally do our business and we had to make adjustments to ensure the safety of Service families as well as our staff. This included changing processes to minimise face-to-face interactions where possible, for example by introducing virtual SFA move-ins/-outs; and developing COVID-secure working practices when home visits were necessary. This quickly became business as usual and we worked with Amey to produce a video on how operatives would work safely in homes in line with Public Health England guidance to allay any SFA occupant concerns.
Early in the pandemic, the team also rose magnificently to the challenge of supporting 150 families repatriated at very short notice from Kenya and Nepal. The team prepared homes for them in record time, with each family being provided with furniture, white goods, ‘get you in packs’, including items such as bedding and cutlery, and broadband connections to assist with home schooling and working from home. In Europe, the team responded to a growth in UK personnel assigned to NATO, often having to find accommodation at short notice and in new countries such as Latvia, in the face of a complex set of national and international restrictions.
On top of all of this, we delivered a step change in investment in our housing stock with £160M spent on major improvement and modernisation projects in financial year (FY) 2020/21 and plans developed for another £179M in the FY 21/22. This has included mobilising £122M of additional funding at short notice as a result of the government’s Fiscal Stimulus programme. This overall level of investment is up more than a third on the previous two years and is approximately double that in 2016 when the Combined Accommodation Assessment Scheme was introduced. Most importantly, however, this investment has allowed more than 10,000 Service families to benefit from improvements to their homes - 20% of our portfolio.
Improvements are focused on modernising homes with new kitchens and bathrooms, and improving their energy efficiency through new doors and windows, heating systems, and insulation. We are also enhancing the lived environment for Service families by replacing 50 playparks, improving roads and providing parking spaces. This is a real testament to the hard work and resilience of the team and our industry partners to achieve this despite the many barriers imposed by Covid-19 restrictions.
We also invested in new properties in several areas previously heavily dependent on expensive substitute accommodation. This will increase domestic stability for families in those locations and provide a “patch” feel for families in areas convenient to the Service person’s place of work.
As much as it is great to reflect on the achievements of the last 12 months, we have an important year ahead as we will transition from the current National Housing Prime contract with Amey to a suite of new contracts. In order to fully understand the needs and concerns of SFA occupants, DIO has consulted widely with the single Services, Families Federations and Service families to develop the new contracts with Service families firmly in mind. These will set more demanding targets and be supported by more robust performance measures and financial incentives. Comprehensive information will be issued to every family in SFA much closer to their in-service date. For updates on this and on our improvement work across the SFA estate, please do refer to our Gov.uk page for updates.
My other key priorities will be to reduce the number of empty properties we hold so that we can spend less on rent to Annington Homes and even more on improving our stock and services; and to improve our customer insight and satisfaction. Particular areas of focus for the latter will be working with Amey to improve performance in preparing properties for Move In and in fixing-first-time; improving customer engagement at local level to help shape our plans and priorities to local needs; and using customer feedback to help shape and improve the target standard for the homes we provide. I know from my time living in SFA that if we are to do our job well, our focus must be on the families we serve, the homes we provide and the community spaces we maintain. The next year gives us a great opportunity to make a real difference in all these respects.