The current cold snap has caught the UK out once again, as it seems to do every winter, with widespread travel disruption, increased pressure on health services, and so on. The situation has hardly been helped by the wave of strikes that has happened at the same time, as disgruntled workers across the board take action to increase their pay packets in response to the spiralling cost of living.
So yet again, surprise, surprise, the government is looking to turn to its favourite panacea for all ills when things get tough, the armed services. Never mind their plans for Christmas, our boys and girls in uniform will get us out of this hole and, whisper it softly, they’re much cheaper too. Trebles all round in Westminster.
At the time of writing, then, it looks like our armed personnel will be out working over Christmas, looking after you and me. But are we looking after them in the way that we should?
Not in terms of their service accommodation, that’s for sure. The cold weather has brought with it a spate of complaints on social media from military families over the state of their housing. Service personnel are always reluctant to voice their concerns publicly because of the very real negative career implications, but last week enough was obviously enough, and they took to the chat channels in droves.
Some of the complaints are, quite frankly, astonishing. There are multiple examples, supported by photographs, of burst pipes, mouldy cupboards, ceilings about to collapse, and more. To be quite honest, if we put asylum seekers in similar accommodation there would be an outcry, and rightly so.
But the biggest complaint of all is that the families so affected cannot seem to get the appropriate authorities to do anything about it, or in many cases even to respond.
By way of background, Service Family Accommodation (SFA) used to be administered in-house by the MoD. In 1996, however, the MoD sold the 57,400 properties used by soldiers to Annington Homes for £1.7bn and then leased them back at a discount over a 200-year lease. As ever in defence spending contexts, the idea was to save money in the short term by “massaging” the books and kicking expenses further down the line.
Wrong decision in retrospect. In 2018, the National Audit Office said the deal had cost the taxpayer up to £4.2 billion due to the huge increase in value of the properties it had sold. Unfortunately, the arrangement also left the government paying for the upkeep of MoD properties but unable to exploit the increase in their value.
The state of the accommodation for the armed services has long been an issue of concern, even when it was done in-house. The current arrangement with SFA seems mildly complex and completely counter-intuitive. Military accommodation is overseen by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation – the DIO – but no one company has been charged with overall responsibility for the service that is meant to be delivered.
Earlier this year, in April, the MoD placed a national contract to a property management provider – Pinnacle Group – worth £144m. Pinnacle describes itself on its website as “a community facing, people-first business that delivers, manages, and maintains communities and places”. The part that deals with SFA, Pinnacle Service Families, is only part of the large and wide portfolio of its interests.
Pinnacle is the main contact point for families living in military accommodation in the UK. However, in its wisdom, the MoD separately awarded contracts to two other companies – VIVO and Amey – to carry out the property maintenance. But it would appear that Pinnacle has no contractual relationship with VIVO or Amey.
So basically Pinnacle acts as a call centre which fields the calls from service personnel and schedules the work, which it then parcels out to other companies over which it has no control. And the MoD remains responsible for decisions around upgrade works to improve the conditions of the buildings. As of last month nearly 14,000 properties were awaiting work to be carried out.
If someone had asked to set up an organisation and structure that was almost bound to fail then this arrangement would not be far off the blueprint. Pinnacle has clearly been unable to deliver a level of service which is acceptable; it has no control over contractors and cannot advise its clients when repairs will be carried out.
The litany of complaints from military families is mind-boggling and many have lost patience, hence the explosion on social media. Senior politicians have now become involved, with Michael Gove receiving praise from his constituents for his energy and concern over the matter.
But it’s just not good enough, is it? Why should the government continue to rely on its armed services when they can’t rely on it? This is one for Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Tony Radakin to sort out, and quickly.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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