In 2001, Blackburn Council transferred its entire stock of 10,000 residential properties to a new housing association, Twin Valley Homes.
The outlook wasn't great: the former Lancashire cotton town had been in a long spiral of decline, people were moving out of the area, and council tenancy was seen as a last resort. The service provided by the council housing department offered few choices to tenants, while its employees were under-resourced and poorly motivated.
But the team chosen to run the new housing association knew that there was a better way. 'There was a strong, dynamic group of people there, and we'd already won a Charter Mark,' says Gwyneth Sarkar, director of housing. 'Our planning processes were very precise and we were able to hit the ground running.'
Two years later, 60% of Twin Valley's people are still ex-council employees, but a miraculous transformation seems to have come about. The place is bursting with ideas; the number of empty properties has fallen sharply and 37% of residents said that services have improved since the transfer.
So successful has Twin Valley been in meeting its business plan that its funding syndicate has agreed to release extra funds, reducing its borrowing.
Much of this has come about through listening to customers. Tenants are now involved at every level of the organisation, from the board downwards; they can send a phone or text message direct to chief executive Phil Richards, or post a Bright Idea for something that could be improved.
The provision of greater choice is at the heart of Twin Valley's strategy. Tenants said: 'You can tell a council house because they all have the same front door.' Now there is a choice of five, in a range of colours, all with 10-year guarantees. More choice and better-quality fittings are also offered in kitchens and elsewhere.
Tenants' representatives help decide the programme for improvements every year, and before the work commences, each household receives a visit from customer advisers to talk through the options and to make special arrangements where necessary.
Another area of innovation involves making empty properties more attractive.
A 'superclean' team restores vacant homes to pristine condition, repainting the walls, replacing the loo seat, clearing the garden and removing anything left behind by the previous occupants.
And tenants looking to move no longer have to join a queue and wait.
Twin Valley has developed an estate agent-style service - called 'B-with-us' - which advertises all vacant properties each week. Anybody who has signed up can bid for an empty property, either via phone or using the internet kiosks located in Twin Valley's district offices and other strategic sites.
Special efforts have been made to ensure that the needs of ethnic customers are met. Twenty-two per cent of Blackburn's population is of Asian origin; Twin Valley carried out research into the housing needs of this community and there are now speaking screens in its offices where advice can be chosen in Urdu and Punjabi as well as English.
The organisation also introduced cultural awareness training for all its employees. It is typical that a number of tenants also participated in this initiative: they have a hand in everything at Twin Valley, from choosing the two main contractors carrying out home improvements to editing its newsletter to make sure it is customer-friendly.
Twin Valley (www.twinvalleyhomes.com) acknowledges that a few pockets of 'council attitudes' persist among staff, but a programme of customer-focused training, regular surveys and appraisals, skills audits, job swaps and improvement initiatives such as the Eyes to the Future forum have sharply changed attitudes and resulted in higher levels of job satisfaction.
A touchscreen in the reception area of its district office asks customers: 'How were you treated by us today?' Visitors can press one of three faces, from smiling to glum. Two years on, there are a lot more smiley faces at Twin Valley.