Public Scrutiny

Council house tenant Rob Gershon reflects on a rising tide of interest in tenant voices. He ponders whether nothing has really changed in the way anything is being done in the housing sector despite an apparent shift in the language about, and number and breadth of people now prepared to start listening to tenants.

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During the first week of December I had a week off from my proper job as a full-time carer to spend some time kicking back and relaxing by… well, doing some proper holiday things. On the Tuesday I went to a meeting of the unnamed group of tenants and national tenant organisation people who are trying to help set up something that will facilitate a better way of tenant voices being heard by policy-makers. On Wednesday 6th I attended the excellent Centre for Public Scrutiny conference titled “The Governance of Complexity” where I also spoke on a panel about the future of resident engagement. On Thursday 7th, as part of my not-full-time-carer job, I chaired HQN’s Residents’ Network’s annual conference.

I’m not writing in any kind of capacity beyond my own, personal thoughts about any of these things. I’ve tried to sit down and write about the two conferences over the last couple of weeks but I haven’t managed it. I think there’s likely a good piece, connecting together the broader issues of public scrutiny at the Centre for Public Scrutiny conference held up against the specific focus of what’s happening to tenant-led scrutiny in housing right now, but I have struggled to write it, and this isn’t it.

Still, as a council house tenant I wanted to touch base on some of the thoughts all this stuff left me with, and some of the other stuff I think it ties in to. I realise I can’t do this without dipping into the high level of privilege I have from being invited to or involved with a bunch of housing stuff. I know a lot of people struggle with notions of ‘imposter syndrome’, and I do, a lot, around all of this. I still don’t understand why anybody invites me to go to anything but this is the year in which I finally realised what people mean when they say it’s important people get their voices heard… that it’s important to listen to what we think of as ‘tenant voices’ even though, or especially because there isn’t one voice.

On the day I broke my ankle, back in July, I’d helped put together a panel or two at HQN’s main annual conference. One panel was about what has to change after the Grenfell Tower fire, and the other was broadly whether housing organisations listen to their residents. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the conference. It’s a difficult format to make interesting. I’m not going to dwell on what we mean in our use of language about involvement, engagement or empowerment, either, though these will surely be discussions we’ll need more of next year.

Two of the other panellists were important in the narrative of my thinking, though. One was Optivo Homes resident Matt Bromley, who spoke eloquently about his experiences of becoming and being a social housing tenant, then becoming an involved, engaged, empowered resident through the housing association formerly known as Amicus Horizon.

At another event I didn’t write about, The Chartered Institute of Housing’s 2017 South Eastern conference, a well-spoken man from London sought me out afterwards and tried to explain to me that it was important tenants turn up at these things and say their piece. I didn’t understand what he meant until I heard Matt doing just that, months later. Matt made listening to tenants sound easy. Go and ask them what they want and what they don’t want, and you’ll end up delivering what they need and not spending money on wonderful new ideas no residents care about, and save a load of money.

Another speaker at the HQN annual conference panels was the Centre for Public Scutiny’s CEO Jacqui McKinlay, who spoke specifically about empowerment. There might be years of work to do disentangling what we mean by empowering residents from what regulations are supposed to support. For some this is achieved by giving people a chance to comment on plans to build houses locally. For daring, mature landlords, empowerment is about changing who holds the power. It is giving power to the people who live in and fund social housing, its tenants. There is a finite amount of power in this balance and empowering one group means the other has to give some of it up.

2018 is likely to bring us a lot more discussions about what that means. Everybody suddenly seems to want to listen to tenant voices, while I feel I’m becoming more and more uneasy about what people are actually hearing, and what they’re going to do with their interpretations of them.

The Housing Minister is infamously touring the country talking to social housing tenants and landlords in preparation for the Communities Secretary’s Housing Green Paper next year. Nobody really seems to know what this means yet. It feels difficult to put this in the context of the making of housing policy for two reasons. The first is that it’s back to front, following the Housing White Paper in February of 2017 and the previous Housing and Planning Act of 2016. I don’t know whether it was written on velum or not, but the 2016 Act lies in figurative tatters now.

Other people want to listen to tenants, too. The Chartered Institute of Housing, which from my point of view has for a couple of years been gently bending in the winds of evidence to take a pragmatic, critical approach to government housing and welfare policy, has announced a project to shape the future of social housing that will include tenant voices. The National Housing Federation, which let’s be nice here, it’s Christmas, tends to have more of a focus on the interests of its landlord members than their tenants, has announced a ‘sector wide conversation’ with tenants. I feel like I should make a joke abut welcoming these two initiatives, given how the W word is what everyone does any time there’s the tiniest bit of hope to cling to in Housing World, but we need to see more concrete ideas of what shape the outcomes of these reviews will take.

There’s other stuff, too, happening as we head towards next year. The Labour Party’s shadow housing team are conducting their own consultation on what listening to tenants means. There’s other stuff I know about and probably a load of stuff I don’t know about yet. It’s a crucial, critical time for the voices of tenants to be heard but it isn’t happening in some kind of political vacuum. As the year comes to a close the Prime Minister, who has apparently taken personal charge of the housing agenda as the only domestic policy issue cutting through the clown show of Brexit, has conspicuously announced that she will not listen to the voices of Grenfell residents about the way they want their inquiry to be conducted.

Other, important, urgent voices, people who are homeless, also appear to still be facing barriers to getting their voices heard. Amidst a maelstrom of evidence and stories about the causes of and fixes for homelessness, the Prime Minister seems inexplicably to be unclear about what is, and is not homelessness as her unhelpful comments about children not being rough sleepers have illustrated. Everyone else agrees that the totemic homelessness reduction Bill won’t make any difference if the rest of the housing and welfare landscape doesn’t change, but it feels like it might be the only instrument the government might be prepared to support.

I know I’ll come back to the Centre for Public Scrutiny conference stuff. Although it was an oddly party political experience for me to compare to the kind of scrutiny I deal with in resident engagement, there were some key themes about accountability and purpose. One of the things that stuck with me was a simple statement from Cllr Chris Read, Leader of Rotherham Council. Rotherham redesigned the way they do everything after the child sexual exploitation scandal was made public and meant that everything had to change. The new executive and council went out to communities and residents so that the new things they made were co-designed by the people who are using them. The phrase that has stuck with me, and that I can’t help will inform whatever happens to all the listening to tenants that is apparently going to happen, goes by the ethos that “Behaviours determine Outcomes”. It doesn’t really matter what any of us say, it’s about what we’re going to do, individually or collectively.

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