“You could say they are doomed to fail”

A journey into unknown territory … an impossible target … and an estates department determined to go down fighting … Alright, so it’s not exactly Andy McNab, but the challenge facing the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is still pretty dramatic. Over the next four years, the MoD’s new estates division must save £1.2bn from property disposals, direct estate costs, energy and water bills and staff numbers. This means it must cut an organisation with a headcount of more than 7,000 down to just 2,000 people, rationalise a property portfolio worth about £20bn, and reinvent itself from the ground up, with new business processes, IT infrastructure and operating procedures. I spoke to the heads of the DIO to find out how they’re going to do it – and the rest of the construction industry to assess their chances of success.

The Grand Designs paradox

Admit it: you would secretly love to build your own home. But even though many people will have probably considered it at some time or another, very few of us will ever take the plunge. This is the Grand Designs paradox: the ubiquity of property programmes on TV encourages us all to dream of designing the perfect home, while simultaneously presenting a hellish vision of construction nightmares and financial ruin that ensures only the bravest will ever attempt it. But that could all change if housing minister Grant Shapps achieves his ambition to make self-build a more realistic option. In this article for Construction Manager magazine, I assessed his chances of transforming the UK into a nation of housebuilders.

The £36bn question

My article for Building magazine on the many flaws in the government’s healthcare reforms turned out to be very timely – by the time it appeared, they’d had a major rethink. Indeed, there was so much to say on the unanswered questions in the Health and Social Care Bill that the article ended up expanding over five pages, and that was only looking at a relatively non-emotive aspect of the plans: what exactly is going to happen to the £36bn-worth of property owned by the Primary Care Trusts once they’re gone?

How the world might not end

If you think green building is a niche topic, head down to Ecobuild. It’s not only one of the largest events in the UK, but the largest in the world focusing on sustainable construction and architecture. More than 50,000 people came to ExCeL in east London for Ecobuild 2011 – and when I was there, most of them were trying to fit into the conference hall where Brian Cox was speaking. But there were a great many other contributors over the three day programme, with a very diverse range of views and interests. I edited a blog on the Ecobuild site in the months leading up to the event, which meant I got to talk to them about all sorts of things including why climate talks fail, the truth about eco-cities in the desert and why Christmas houses might not be a total sustainability nightmare…

A dignified end

“Would I be surprised if this person were to die at some stage in the near future?” That’s probably not a question many of those working with homeless people will feel comfortable asking themselves. But according to a new NHS guide to end-of-life care in hostels, it’s something they should bear in mind if they’re going to fulfil their clients’ last wishes and offer them a dignified death. It may be the only certainty, but death remains a difficult subject for both hostel residents and workers. In this article for Inside Housing, I spoke to the guide’s authors about starting difficult conversations, coping with serial bereavement and resisting the urge to force a “Cilla” moment.

A new pair of glasses and an Oyster card

Imagine you’d been sleeping on the streets for more than 40 years, and someone gave you £3000 to spend on anything you liked – what would you buy? That’s exactly what happened in a groundbreaking pilot project in London, when homeless charity Broadway gave 15 long-term rough sleepers personalised budgets and support to spend them however they chose. The results have far surpassed their cautious expectations. Eighteen months on, nine of the men are now in accommodation, some after decades on the streets, and both they and the professionals involved in the project believe the same approach could work to tackle homelessness elsewhere, as I found out in this piece for Inside Housing. The men’s requests were humbling – a new pair of glasses, a hearing aid, an Oyster card – and the average spend was just £794 over the first year. Broadway’s project will continue, but the Department for Communities and Local Government was reticent as to whether it would become official government policy – even though it not only appears to work, doesn’t cost very much and aligns perfectly with the ideals of choice and personalisation in public services.

“He sullied his mother’s name for a flat in Didsbury”

With nearly 1.8 million people on the UK’s housing registers, tenants who sub-let or unlawfully occupy social properties are definitely on landlords’ radars. But tenancy fraud is no bright target bleeping clearly across the screens – it’s a murky, ill-defined blob that is difficult to detect, can surface anywhere and may disappear on closer inspection. The only certainties are that there’s a lot more of it than social landlords may realise, and that their legal bills will be massive. For Inside Housing’s legal supplement, I investigated their options.