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UK Service Accommodation: Why are Soldiers Paying the Cost of Poor Procurement?

The quality of the UK's service accommodation has long been recognised as a factor that affects job satisfaction and the retention of staff. Now is the time to put accommodation management back on the agenda as an operational priority.

As the government department that is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, it is high time that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) recognises the potential for housing improvements as a strategic priority, in order to ensure that UK forces are resilient to the future of war in a world affected by climate change. Housing is the only area that has the potential to offer immediate results which reduce general expenditure and carbon output, while also improving resilience and reputation. It is time to ensure that outsourcing bolsters capabilities, improving efficiency rather than diminishing it.

The improvement of housing provided for soldiers across the forces using energy efficiency measures represents an opportunity to reduce carbon outputs significantly, while reducing overall expenditure on utilities. Older houses can be retrofitted by implementing measures such as wall insulation or underfloor heating to reduce the amount of carbon required to heat accommodation across the MoD estate. Technologies such as district heat networks and ground source heat pumps provide further opportunities to decrease utilities costs while improving the consistency of heat within housing. These options present a single investment with benefits that will be felt for decades to come, as demonstrated by the EU- and UK-funded Energy Accelerator Programmes delivered by local governments. Such plans will complement existing initiatives such as Project Prometheus, which aims to deliver solar farms to improve energy efficiency.

These measures would also help to respond to a lack of investment in the essential maintenance of service accommodation, which has long been a topic of public discussion. The impact of ‘disgraceful’ accommodation was discussed in the House of Commons in 2007 as a factor that affected both recruitment and retention, yet neither the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nor a succession of governments have been able to improve the situation. Despite this, the need for maintenance and upgrades has been neglected, with third-party organisations sub-contracted to manage repairs as and when issues are reported, without a requirement to actively maintain the properties.

Only 49% of soldiers report being satisfied with their standard of accommodation

This year alone, one contractor, Amey, has been awarded two MoD contracts worth £550 million to provide facilities management services. Undoubtedly, the intention of this outsourcing is to ensure that the housing estate is managed by people who have the skills and networks required to respond to issues such as specialist cleaning, gas and electrical maintenance, and water management. Yet those who reside within managed properties speak of leaksmouldrat infestations and more, with long waits for repairs. While Amey claim to ‘sit at the heart of the armed forces community’, in reality, the ‘fix on fail’ contractual approach to military housing disrupts the notion that ‘home is where the heart is’.

The disruption of the maintenance cycle has resulted in the possession of a large stock which may not meet current housing regulations, particularly where there are concerns over the location of outdated plug sockets and gas or electric mains. This factor is important, as these conditions are also endured by the families of soldiers across the forces, leaving wives and children residing within dwellings which would be considered unsafe within civilian society. Such poor conditions likely explain why only 49% of soldiers report being satisfied with their standard of accommodation.

Rather than renting through a tenancy agreement, service personnel receive a license to occupy – something which results in a need for bespoke housing insurance, increasing costs and limiting the ability to claim for damage caused by an unmaintained property. Additionally, soldiers report being billed for a range of costs, such as the replacement of lightbulbs. This shifts the financial burden of maintaining a property from the landlord (the MoD) onto the tenant (often the lowest paid soldiers) via a third party.

The Public Accounts Committee recently reported that the poor quality of service accommodation ‘directly undermines operational capability’ because of the impact on personnel retention. Therefore, the need to improve accommodation has become a matter of resilience for future wars in order to maintain an adaptable force. Consequently, the MoD is forced to budget not only for the cost of repairs, but for the cost of replacing personnel lost due to these factors. This prompts the question of whether contracts issued to sub-contractors are strong enough to ensure the Armed Forces can meet their needs. Do contracts include sufficient clauses to hold poor performance to account? Is there an organisational will to terminate contracts blighted by poor performance?

Addressing Poor Performance

The MoD may need to consider the option of redeveloping inhouse services, recruiting experts who can be held accountable in the event that performance does not meet expectations. Keeping the skills and knowledge of staff within the organisation would result in the ability to develop a long-term strategy, facilitating close engagement between those responsible for planning budgets and those tasked with delivering within the budgets assigned. Improved provision may also reduce the potential for reputational damage and the cost of contract variations, factors which further exacerbate budgetary constraints.

While these are important considerations, they are organisational questions which have little meaning to enlisted personnel in their day-to-day lives. UK personnel are more likely to feel the results of changes that facilitate rapid responses to reported damage and proactive maintenance, while offering similar protections to the Deposit Protection Scheme.

Free or low-cost housing is presented as a perk of military life, but there is little benefit to feeling trapped within conditions that would not be accepted within the civilian world. If the UK’s personnel truly are its greatest asset, it is vital to tackle poor performance resulting from privatisation as a means of improving the resilience of UK forces through improved staff retention. Viewing energy efficiency as essential staff and stock maintenance is just one way in which the MoD can reduce departures, expenditure and – crucially for the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) – carbon output.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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