Underwood: Axis exit is a big chance to boost small business

The Green Party’s Mayoral candidate says that council tenants could get far better housing repairs service if the Town Hall ignored the big multi-national outsourcers and used Croydon SMEs

Big bother: major outsourcers like Axis pitch uneconomic bids to secure contracts

The council should replace its housing repairs and maintenance contractor not with a single humungous contract with a major company, but bring the service back in-house with deals involving smaller, locally-based firms who would be more inclined to deliver a better service for tenants and the borough.

That’s the view of Peter Underwood, the Green Party’s candidate for elected Mayor in the Town Hall elections in May.

Inside Croydon broke the news this week that Axis, the repairs contractors who drew much criticism for the “appalling” state of council homes in Regina Road, as featured on national television last year, were pulling out of their £21million-a-year deal with Croydon two years early.

Axis are quitting before they get axed, leaving a major headache for the cash-strapped council in finding someone – anyone – to replace them in just 12 months.

Axis reported profits of more than £8million in the year to the end of March 2021. Their report and financial statements claimed, “the improvement this year is 200per cent better than last year on a like for like basis”.

The residents of flats on Regina Road, where their electricity supply had to be switched off because of dangers caused by running water, with damp and mould throughout their homes, will no doubt be delighted at such news.

Axis’s company website states that their values include honesty and respect.

Peter Underwood: offer the work to specialist local small businesses

They included a directors’ report with their annual accounts that said that, “strategic delivery requires strong mutually beneficial relationships with suppliers, customers, governments, councils, housing associations and others which all needs to be maintained and understood.

“Axis promotes and applies general principles in such relationships.”

Croydon Council has yet to make any announcement about how they intend to replace Axis, who were first appointed to a borough-wide repairs contract by the then Conservative administration at the Town Hall in 2014.

Nor has the council revealed whether they will be seeking compensation from Axis for their failure to see out their contracted term.

But based on the experience of Green-run Brighton and Hove council, Underwood says that Axis’s departure is an important chance to source better service for the borough’s residents.

“This is an opportunity to bring the management of the work back in-house and offer the delivery of the work to specialist local small businesses,” Underwood told Inside Croydon.

“Residents deserve a better service, and they need to be able to hold those managing it to account to ensure that service is good enough. Residents’ and tenants’ associations should be able to call in their local councillors and feed in directly to senior managers at the council to report on performance.

“Delivery shouldn’t be farmed out to another multi-national firm who only specialise in cutting costs, not upping service. We need to support local businesses and break up the type of work needed to allow them to bid for it.

Bright and breezy: Brighton brought their repairs service in-house in 2020

“This will not only bring opportunities for jobs and skills to grow in Croydon, but also keeps a stronger link between those delivering the repairs and their neighbours who need them.

“If the council just pushes this work out to another large contractor, then this will be a missed opportunity and it’s Croydon residents who will suffer the consequences.”

The downsizing of council service contracts has been tried elsewhere, and with some success.

Some social-housing providers, in charge of hundreds of homes, having been turned over for years with high contract charges and low service standards, decided that outsourcing repairs is a mug’s game.

They have instead brought the repairs operation in-house – giving themselves a core of directly employed staff plus some call-off contracts with local SMEs. “It has done wonders for a sense of one-team between the customer relations side and the trades, and with a bit of training, we have even got the trades doing useful things like keeping an eye out for safeguarding concerns,” a housing specialist told Inside Croydon.

They did, though, add an air of caution. “This was not an easy thing to plan and manage, and the transition was a bit of bumpy ride.”

Can he fix it?: Axis have decided that they no longer want the Croydon contract

Other councils have down-sized their maintenance contracts by splitting up their borough’s area on a geographical basis, on a scale accessible to mid-sized local firms, rather than the big players.

“Obviously,” said our housing expert, “this introduces some complexity in terms of contract management, but it also makes the market more competitive and de-risks in the sense that, if one supplier turns out to be useless, it is more manageable than one firm being useless across the whole of the borough’s housing stock.”

The problem for Croydon is that it has neither the time, nor the budgets, to reframe the way it maintains its housing. The race to the bottom in procurement where the lowest price always wins – which many suspect was a major factor in Axis getting the gig –  means that inevitably subeconomic bids are submitted.

Underwood maintains, however, that that ought not be a good enough reason not to try to improve the service offered through some decent planning and negotiation.

“Croydon has suffered for decades because the council has chosen the easy option. There comes a point when we have to say enough is enough, we deserve better.

“I know that Brighton and Hove council are already doing this, so we do need to learn from them about the difficulties and challenges they have faced, as well as possible solutions.

“We also need to open up the conversation with local businesses about what they might be capable of delivering and what support they might need. It is worth the council investing in support for local businesses to enable them to take on this work as this will lead to a better quality of service and provide skills and jobs for Croydon residents.”

Read more: Under-fire repairs contractors Axis quit before they can be axed
R
ead more: Investigation finds systemic failure and incompetence in council
Read more: ‘Shoddy’ botched repairs as council housing scandal deepens

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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5 Responses to Underwood: Axis exit is a big chance to boost small business

  1. Ian Ross says:

    I saw Sadiq “never miss an opportunity to look serious and angry” Khan last night talking about rogue landlords and getting tough etc etc. Perhaps he should start with councils such as Croydon Council as one such rogue landlord to set an example.

  2. Ian Kierans says:

    It can be hard to turn around a triple whammy of disasters (the local Labour leadership, local Conservative leadership and Government cuts to councils) with all limbs amputated.

    It is even more difficult when the head also no longer functions for either physical or psychological reasons, or because of its complete absence. Realistically all you have left is a bloated torso sucking up resources, making digestive noise, passing malodorous wind, and expelling waste over all and sundry it has contact with.

    I apologise for the description but for all intents and purposes that is the situation with Croydon and has been for some time.

    Realistically what Peter is stating is logical and can bring performance, quality and cost benefits.

    To achieve what Peter is stating relies on an efficient, competent, honest, skilled senior team of management in a can-do culture not afraid to admit mistakes and rectify them, not disseminate and cover-up then blame others or wring hands saying not my area mate.

    It also requires a willing and competent team-driven approach who feel supported by their management and are motivated.

    Finally it requires Councillors that are honest open, admit mistakes again move to rectify them and can communicate or at least answer emails and are respected by residents without taint of wrongdoing.

    Seriously, has anyone seen those attributes in Croydon over the last dcade?

    I personally have met a few people working for Croydon Council who did fit that bill and not just some of the time. Most of those have left, and others are leaving.

    I even feel a few of the elected representatives, from all parties, meet those requirements. Sadly not many are in any position to impact or make changes and those few are also being alienated and or ignored if not also being de-selected for spurious rationales.

    I would struggle to get many other residents to stop laughing or crying in despair long enough who could say (or find) anything positive about the current situation.

    One thing that can be said is that within the Borough are the skills and people who as Peter said can make a difference from Builders to Projects Management and business. The problem is few would want to work for those in the town hall or with the unfit for purpose processes this current regime have. Except those with vested and mutual interest.

    So until all those with the vested interests are gone and people are put first and as the priority all you will just have more of the same.

  3. Getting local businesses to carry out work is a worthy idea but didn’t take off the last time this was tried in Croydon. That was under the Local Enterprise Grant Initiative and there was resistance from the Council’s procurement people who foresaw a whole load of extra work awarding and managing contracts. This would mean hiring extra staff. Then there was the extra grief for small businesses who don’t have all the procurement systems, equal opps and heaven knows what else that is needed to bid for work from public bodies. SME’s can be businesses up to 250 people but these bigger enterprises weren’t bidding. The micro businesses run by local people just didn’t have the capacity to jump through the procurement hoops. Back then EU businesses had to be offered the chance to bid …

  4. Lancaster says:

    Small local businesses will struggle with the 210 pages of tender / procurement paperwork required to get on the books as an approved supplier. It can take over nine months to be added as such a supplier under pre covid working practices. I dread to think how long it takes now.

    Nice idea which would bring benefits; but it will get crushed by bureaucracy, red tape and little empire builders.

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