Please extend the end date of the Social Housing Green Paper

Rob Gershon may not have written his own green paper response yet, but that isn’t why he thinks the closing date should be extended from the 6th of November to some time nearer Christmas – to ensure that the government, the housing sector and residents don’t end up squandering this opportunity to do it right.

The wait for the Social Housing Green Paper after it was announced became a little chaotic. In part a response to the fire at Grenfell Tower and the lives it cost, a “wide-ranging” green paper was promised to prompt what Sajid Javid called a “fundamental rethink of social housing in this country”.

To be fair to the three housing ministers and two Secretaries of State who have worked in those posts since the announcement, the Green Paper does contain some wide-ranging questions.

The Paper seems to have taken on board the concerns of tenants which were raised at ministerial roadshow events, organised and facilitated with the help of tenants and of national tenant organisations. For the first time in a long time, the possibility tenants could be brought into the political process – as the Prime Minister Theresa May promised after the Grenfell Tower fire – seems achievable if only because there is a public conversation going on about it.

This tantalising possibility has been in no small part due to the dedication of staff from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, who have been the workers engaged in collecting and sorting through feedback tenants gave at roadshow events and through the departments’ online survey. Ministers may come and go, but the principles that are supposed to underpin the tenant involvement and empowerment standards, overseen by the Regulator of Social Housing, should remain.

The consultation recognises and details this. Four of its five chapters ask important questions about what the values of landlords and of tenants should be. At a time when one of the most resonant phrases to describe the relationship between tenants and landlords is Baroness Doreen Lawrence’s description of “institutional indifference”, the need to put the people who live in communities and neighbourhoods at the heart of decisions made about them has never been so great.

But although the questions and their answers are crucial, something is wrong at the core of the consultation, and it needs more time to address it. The people who made up the structures that led to the need for the Green Paper to ask such searching questions should not be the predominant voices in its answers.

This is not to say that some landlords have not consulted their tenants. There have been landlord-specific events, some regional events, events organised through Tpas and HQN and the Northern Housing Consortium, with all the people who have always been involved, engaged, empowered, consulted, scrutinising or insightful to landlords. There have even been some more recent ministerial roadshows but none of these initiatives have reached far enough.

We should absolutely draw on the experience of people who have been doing this stuff for a long time, but recognise that this is no longer enough.

Long before the Grenfell Tower fire, there has been an ongoing debate about housing organisations and about power. We might shy away from discussions about what power means and whether it makes the debate confrontational, but we do not have time as people, tenants or staff to get hung up on semantics.

My own council landlord has consulted narrowly on the Green Paper. There has been a lot of depth in the discussions they’ve had with their Involved Tenants, but these are about twelve people from a total of about 5,200 tenants. Maybe in the normal course of things they are tenant “representatives” who have done this stuff for ages, but for the purposes of the Green Paper that is potentially part of the problem.

I tried to get my landlord to write a letter to every tenant to prompt them to respond to the Green Paper. I even helped draft what it should say, that everyone should have a chance to tell their landlord what to do. The letter was ready to go but pulled at the last minute for some reason the legal department specified that I haven’t really figured out.

Maybe it’s something to do with paying for stamps when the information is already in the public domain. Maybe it’s GDPR. Whatever it is, it feels really wrong. Their Green Paper response is 57 pages long and hardly anyone is going to have read it before the consultation closes.

The Green Paper consultation is supposed to close in four days’ time, but the way it has been publicised has not been wide-ranging enough. It is an unprecedented opportunity for tenants to have their say, but it relies on the same networks and the same people that got us here. Every landlord should be compelled – not by rules but by a sense of neighbourhood and community, to ensure every tenant knows about it and is given an opportunity to respond to it. But sure, if that doesn’t work, with rules.

We cannot let this opportunity pass by through quiet institutional indifference, or the potentially more dangerous assumption that not doing active harm is a good enough foundation for future relationships between tenants and landlords.

There is no time to organise a petition to extend the closing date, or to bring together any sense of who has already been reached or responded.

A short extension of four to six weeks should give either the Ministry, or each landlord –whether they are considered good at, bad at or indifferent to their tenanting – an opportunity to write to every tenant and explain to them that the consumer standards are supposed to give them a say in how their landlords run their business and their homes.

It does not feel unreasonable given how long it took the Green Paper to arrive to also give it a bit of extra time to make sure we get it right – not necessarily get it done fast.

There’s a pretty good case to start the entirely separate consultation on the future regulation of social housing, and the other on rent-setting, all over again because nobody is talking about those at all.