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One of the most impactful parts of the sector

I’ve been with Foundations for close to 10 years now. When I first entered the Home Improvement Agency sector, it was a very different world. We had Private Sector Renewal and Supporting People funding, and there was even dedicated funding to support and develop handyperson services. I remember handypersons being described as the “poster boys” of the sector, and I myself often thought it to be one of the most impactful parts of the sector. Low-level interventions that prevent a crisis occurring. The foot-in-the-door which allowed vulnerable clients to engage with trusted support from their local HIA.

So much has changed over those ten years. DFG funding has rocketed, whilst Private Sector Renewal and Supporting People funding has all but gone, along with ringfenced funding for handypersons. Indeed, in many local authority areas, handyperson services are a shadow of their former selves, and many have been decommissioned. How could such a low-cost but extremely valuable service fall out of favour, and what does the future hold?

Important role

I personally still think there’s an important role for handyperson services, and I think commissioners often miss a trick in taking advantage of the benefits they can bring. But we live in a different world. In 2011 when CLG (as MHCLG were known back then) undertook a national review of handyperson services, we found a buoyant and vibrant sector, but we now live in a world where communications technology has facilitated a revolution in the way we live and work. Indeed, the growth of the so-called “Gig Economy” has posed a direct challenge to the viability of handyperson services, and in times of austerity may have indirectly influenced the way commissioners of such services are perceived in their mind?

A true handyperson service

Providers such as Amazon and Task Rabbit, enable a means by which customers can directly commission “tasks” from a willing provider for a fee. I have no idea of how much these gig economy providers have encroached into the market of the traditional handyperson service (results of a Foundations FOI request will be published shortly), but it is clear that a HIA’s handyperson service can’t compete with them in terms of costs, market reach and availability. Maybe there’s an argument for letting people use such providers to fill the gap where once there was a subsidised handyperson service?

But, I think there’s a difference. A true handyperson service should not be confused with a small repairs service. A small repairs provider devotes maybe 90% of it’s energy into fulfilling the task requested of it, whilst a true handyperson service divides its energy fairly equally between getting the task completed, but also pro-actively seeking out and addressing other issues that the customer may not have realised were impacting on their lives; not in the hope of generating a further sale, but as a way of keeping the customer safe. Not only that, the true handyperson service has much more in the way of customer protection, either via the HIA or through a safe trader scheme such as Trustmark. Not only is the true handyperson service more impactful, I suspect they are also much more cost-effective.

Unique offer

So, should handyperson services market themselves as being distinctly different to the gig-economy providers? Well, I think they should, as they have a unique offer, but I also think they need to operate in the same arena, utilising the latest in communications technology and offering full commercial rates to those customers willing to pay, whilst using subsidy for those who can’t but are in need. Plus why can’t HIA handyperson services work hand-in hand with neighbouring providers, working to common TrustMark standards, thereby greatly improving regional / sub-regional coverage.

I would love to see local authorities take a fresh look at their handyperson providers, and consider the opportunities the new environment presents, as I think there’s a real opportunity to see handypersons return to being the poster-boys (and girls) of the sector.