Cultures Wars

Rob Gershon has been so distracted by his other responsibilities that he has not stopped to jot down his thoughts about there being two separate, distinct and very different emerging narratives around “Culture Change” in and around housing…. until now. Apparently he was either going to write this or “Do we still need the NHF?” or “Do we still need Housing Associations?”, so there is still a place in the world for small mercies.

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Against a backdrop of the increasingly public highlighting of individual landlord failures and a growing dissatisfaction with apparently stalled progress on consultations, there are some obvious, already-trodden steps organisations could be taking to divest power. So what is the delay in a widespread transformation?

The Social Housing Green Paper, a consultation on, amongst other things, the future of the relationship between tenants and landlords set both parties a range of questions. Some of them were about communication and transparency. Some were about practical, day-to-day things and some were about power.

Power can be a divisive subject in conversations between tenants, landlords and other bodies involved in how they work together – governments and so on. Like “culture change” as a phrase, “power” is an easy thing to talk about, but a difficult thing to actually shift.

But power is at the heart of one of the two forms of culture change that is taking shape as a response to the issues raised in the Green Paper. Sadly this form of change is largely making no measurable progress in how landlords and tenants interact.

Instead, there is a troubling narrative taking hold from changes that were already getting embedded before the Green Paper, the consultation on the review of the Regulator of Social Housing, and Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into building regulations and fire safety. Aptly highlighted by two entirely separate “customer experience” conferences within a couple of days at the end of February this year, landlords risk reaching for comfortable solutions to things they should be doing as a matter of course.

Over the last couple of weeks, concerns have been raised by AV4T – the group of tenants and organisations trying to get government to scope an independent tenant representative body, and Grenfell United – trying to get a change in how regulatory structures would support this – about an apparent lack of activity on either. These crucial changes are naturally the focus of tenants, but there is nothing to stop landlords moving out of their well-established comfort zones to address some of the issues each necessary change highlights, and it is nothing to do with league tables.

The effectively unregulated consumer standards for landlords – in place for a long while now and accessible to everyone over on the gov.uk website – have made it clear that complaints handling, and basic functions like repairs and maintenance, are bread-and-butter landlord activities that are so obvious the regulator should not need to get involved. Individual stories of these things going wrong – and not being resolved – are starting to break through not just on social media, but in Panoramas, Dispatches and even a show hosted by Jeremy Kyle.

Witnessing Jeremy Kyle, whose adoption of unhelpful tropes about poverty have helped feed the stigmatisation of social housing tenants reflected on in the Green Paper, stood looking dumbfounded at the failure of bog-standard, ordinary repairs and maintenance tasks, might seem unremarkable in itself, but the publicising of the institutional indifference that underpins this imbalance in the relationship between tenants and landlords is, if not new, at risk of becoming the easiest way to understand that relationship. Ultimately, tenants are human beings, and having to restate this because so often organisations do not treat them as such highlights where some unresolved issues still lie.

This representation may feel unfair, but it isn’t. The existing imbalance – of power – cannot be addressed through the lens of customer experience. The shift to a more commercial facade for registered providers of social housing has certainly served to undermine a sense that landlords are transparent or accountable. Whether this is because it risks re-framing the rights and responsibilities of both groups established in legislation, or whether at a fundamental level calling people who are not, and do not want to be “customers”, customers is not the right starting point for a new relationship at all.

Changes in national policy about how various kinds of housing are funded, and the “one percent reduction” in rents over five years that are about to be reversed – very much taking into account landlord views in the rent consultation and ignoring those of tenants – have led to the reduction of resources landlords have made available to include tenants in decision-making.

There is an alternative for existing organisations. There is no perfect solution, and it will not, and not need to, mean landlords act as instigators of a national tenant body or be instrumental in mapping regulatory changes. There are a tiny number of housing associations who have adopted a mutual model – where the decisions organisations make have to be run past the communities they serve. This model will not magic away the big and sometimes complicated everyday workings of landlords but it is the only one currently redistributing power within commercial, regulatory and practical bounds.

Maybe there is a case for trying to distil what underpins the principles of going and asking what tenants want. Asking for input on whether landlords are spending money on useful initiatives or vainglorious egotistical initiatives whose majority output is little more than public relations announcements, awards or blog fodder.

The National Housing Federation’s Together With Tenants proposal – I promised not to abbreviate it to TwiT – may also have a place in the wider discussions about culture change. It certainly asks an interesting question of its members – that in order to stay in the Federation – one of the membership advantages of which is adopting its industry-standard, regulator-required Code Of Governance – more attention must be paid to what its member’ tenants think.

Of course, this cannot practically replace an independent national tenant body as it is an organisation solely for housing associations and their tenants, which is a long way from covering all tenants… but that these questions have space to be asked there is proof that maybe we do not need to get rid of the Fed just yet.

There remains a big shift in organisational culture required from landlords that has not even begun to start in most cases. There are some green shoots of individual organisations, and perhaps regional bodies, starting to have conversations that might be uncomfortable because, basically, landlords are still wrong about quite a lot of stuff. Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing, and this inaccurate appraisal is getting in the way of the necessary shift from talking about culture change to actually doing it.

image courtesy of freeimages contributor Nick Benjaminsz

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