Hearing Tenant Voices?

The noises coming out of government relating to social housing over the last few weeks have been a bit perplexing to people like me. I’m sure a few furrowed eyebrows haven’t been the preserve solely of social housing tenants, either. Perhaps we can be be forgiven for thinking that announcements about building council housing and homes for social rent should not lead to immediate joyous outpourings.

minister

The news there will be a far-reaching green paper on the importance and function of social housing, announced by Sajid Javid, should probably also be met with a degree of caution. It’s not that there’s not a good case for government investment in safe, decent, affordable homes that people can afford to live in, as my time with the SHOUT campaign for social housing has made clear. It’s more that, to date, there’s been a lot of confusion about how homes should be funded, what affordable means, and just who exactly ‘deserves’ to benefit from the taxpayer funding of homes.

Perhaps the most incredulous-seeming suggestion is that the government is seeking to hear and listen to the voices of tenants and residents of social housing. It’s not just that the existing ways for tenant voices to be heard are gradually dissipating or changing shape, but recent housing and social security policy has, by design or not, actively undermined the ability of tenants and communities to be heard.

As a result, when I heard that there might be the establishment of a national voice for tenants, my first reaction was one of cynicism, and not just because cynicism is often my first response to everything. In part my doubt was fed by the fate of the previous “National Voice for Tenants”. To cut quite a long story short, the government of 2007 decided to set up a national body to raise tenant issues to inform government policy, and it took three years to establish. In 2010, incoming housing minister Grant Shapps set a precedent for government interaction with tenant-led organisations by pulling funding for it, so that it couldn’t continue.

In the meantime, ‘national tenant organisations’ have persisted, but these have been more akin to membership organisations. Mainly following along the lines of the tenant involvement and empowerment standards, there has been an attempt to keep the importance of tenant-led activity alive, but with the best will in the world this has to some extent been done in cosy surroundings, on a voluntary basis as far as landlords are concerned.

So, what is happening now?

Last week I was at a meeting of a group of people who are pursuing two goals alongside each other. The first is to assist whoever is in government to open lines of communication with tenants. There is an obvious imbalance in numbers, with about 8 million tenants in the country an only one government, but The Prime Minister has tasked the Housing Minister, and some parts of the Department for Communities and Local Government, with engaging with tenants after the Grenfell Tower fire.

This work is now ongoing. The Housing Minister Alok Sharma, assisted by civil servants from the DLCG and this voluntary group of tenants and people from existing national tenant organisations, is due to attend ten ‘roadshow’ events hosted by various social landlords. Of the ten events, only two were previously going to take place, so this small group of volunteers are already doing something to make sure conversations are taking place. There might have been a slight issue raised last week as Center Parcs refused to host a meeting between the Minister and tenants, but this event will be booked somewhere else, and will not stop the meetings going ahead.

As it stands, the formation of a group that represents a ‘Voice For Tenants’ at a national level is still a long way away. This will probably be frustrating to people who want more immediate results, but the feeling at the moment is that it’s better to try and get this right rather than rush into something that won’t work.

For my part, I’ll be helping to work through these initial phases. Beyond just being a council house tenant and Lead Associate of HQN’s Residents’ Network, I’m no more qualified than the next tenant to do this. However, I’m hoping to use my grasp of issues that affect tenants, and of wider policy to try and make something that works, and I’m intending to share what’s happening as it goes along. To this end I’m attending four of the ten events to promote discussion between tenants and government, with various volunteers making sure that somebody from our small team is attending each of the events.

The Ministerial roadshow is an opportunity for some tenants to feed in their ideas and to be heard by government. To some extent it will be tenants, alongside a few national tenant organisation reps, who will be helping to facilitate discussions at the ten meetings hosted by social landlords. I’m not under any illusions that this isn’t the radical change that will eventually be needed around making sure regulations work to protect tenants from risks and to facilitate them having a say in how their communities are made and run, but it will be a start.

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