Do we really need a National Tenant Voice?

We called it ‘changing the narrative’. We talked about amplifying the tenant voice.

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It was May 2017 and, with the help of Resource and Tpas, we were staging an inaugural communications event – #CommsHero – aimed directly at social housing tenants.

In the end we filled the venue, but it was hard work at times. I really don’t think it would be such hard work now.

The CommsHero event might have succeeded in moving the narrative along. In the end it took the most awful tragedy one month later to transform it. Post-Grenfell, mention of the tenant voice is suddenly everywhere. There are 13 references alone in the Green Paper.

The paper of course includes a question whether there’s a need for stronger representation for social housing residents at a national level – the ‘national tenant voice’. From what I can gather scanning through Twitter, it’s an idea that’s been warmly received so far.

I’m delighted the mood music from government on resident involvement and engagement has fundamentally changed.

But for me the idea of a national tenant voice rests on a false and dangerous assumption. It implies that the ‘voice’ of housing associations and other landlords must, by some unwritten law, be different from the voice of the people who live in their homes. That the two are mutually exclusive. That they would naturally represent two distinct views on the national stage.

It’s an area we’ve been working on at Phoenix for years. How we can build an organisation and a culture where when a tenant or a housing officer says ‘we’, it’s second nature that they mean both residents and staff together?

There’s substantial deprivation here in south Lewisham, and things will really not get better – or reflect what people living here actually want – without the collective will of both residents and staff, along with a whole range of partners. It’s about establishing mutual relationships of trust and collaboration to drive grassroots regeneration.

So how does this work? Firstly the pioneering tenants who founded Phoenix in 2007 established an important rule right at the outset – that our Chair and Vice Chair must always be tenants. Our current Chair is Anne McGurk. She’s my boss’s boss. That raises the bar of accountability for me and my colleagues, and our staff are very clear who they are primarily working for.

Residents are the largest group on our Board. They’re in turn supported by what we call the Phoenix Gateway Committee, made up of residents and a couple of members of staff.

Under that, we’ve a whole range of resident groups. Our Scrutiny Panel, a Residents Communications Group, a Policy Working Group, mystery shoppers. More than 3,600 shareholding residents have the right to vote at our AGM and stand for election.

When I came in for interview at Phoenix in 2013 there was a tenant on the panel – our then Vice Chair David Cummins. Around 80 staff have joined us since, with a resident involved in the appointment of each and every one of them.

And then we’re developing resident Board Members of the future through our Phoenix Academy, a 9-week ‘school of social housing’ aimed at residents, delivered by our staff and now accredited by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Since that started in 2014, two of the resident graduates have since made the journey to our Board.

After joining Phoenix five years ago (I got the job!) I started to look at our brand and our positioning. What’s our unique selling point? That’s very simple. We’re London’s only resident-led housing association.

So we decide to use a #residentled hashtag all over our Tweets, try and showcase our approach to involvement, bring it to life by telling the stories of our residents or – much better – work with them to tell it themselves

So we show the positive outcomes from the approach. Overall performance is good. We’re G1 V1. We’ve gained Investors in People Gold accreditation. We won £4million Heritage Lottery Funding to restore a semi-derelict pub to a new community venue. We’ve secured £60million investment for 200 new homes with opportunities for a much larger programme of development. All through our resident-led approach.

There are of course challenges, as everywhere. There are areas where we could do much better. But if things are going well for us at Phoenix in the main, then why on earth should our model be in any way unique? Why should #residentled be in any way distinctive? Why can’t more housing associations take a brave leap and commit to involving their residents at the highest levels of governance?

And if more landlords represented the views of their residents and not just their staff, why would you need a national tenant voice at all? And how can you make a national group representative? How can it have teeth?

You could view the idea of a national tenant voice as a welcome shift in government attitudes. But you could also see it as the outcome of a failure in resident involvement and engagement up and down the country.

I’m taking a guess here, but if I were a tenant wanting a louder voice and a more active say, then I think I’d be wanting to pose my first questions to my own landlord, not government.

You can have a national group, but a potentially more effective platform already exists. It’s exists in the hundreds of social landlords across the UK, of every shape and size, who could be actively representing – and speaking for – the people they serve.

To use another hashtag, the national tenant voice should be #ukhousing.

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