Tenant Voices. Stranger things, too.

Now deeply embedded in the unfolding story of what’s going to happen to the raising of tenant voices, Rob Gershon has attended the second of a series of ten, or maybe twelve roadshow events in which the housing minister turns up to personally hear issues that tenants themselves want to talk about. This is Rob’s entirely personal take on how the second event went

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If you’ve not been following my nascent tale of how there are the beginnings of the possibility of a set of frameworks by which tenants can communicate more effectively with government and the machinery of government, the introductory part is here.

On Thursday the 26th of October I was at an event hosted by the Northern Housing Consortium, bringing together about eighty invited social housing tenants, a full complement of around a dozen staff from the Department for Communities and Local Government, including a deputy director and a number of other surprisingly senior staff. This included a good number of volunteers from the department who had put themselves forward to come and be note-takers at each of the tables of tenants.

There were four ‘volunteer’ table facilitators, tenants Ann Harris, Sally Trueman and myself, along with TPAS’ CEO Jenny Osbourne. Before the main event, we got a briefing outlining how the day would run. As only the second of the events the housing minister is attending, there was the suggestion that the format of the days is still being fine-tuned as the hosts and the DCLG figure out what works and what doesn’t in making the best use of time to hear what tenants want to say.

There was a bit of post-it note ice-breaking nonsense as each facilitator was introduced to a DCLG-provided note-taker. We each had to ‘draw where we live’. I rolled my eyes, not just because I have the drawn artistic skills of a three-year-old, but was pleased to have a brief chat with William, the excellent note-taker I was paired up with. He had lived in social housing himself at one point, and in his day-job at the DCLG deals with the private rented sector, deposit protection schemes and mobile and static homes stuff. I also learned that many of the staff had actually volunteered to help out at this event, and William had the good grace to laugh when I joked that it was the only way they were allowed out of the office.

The minister arrived just after we’d finished the business of the facilitator briefing, and started out by shaking everyone’s hand and saying hello. I don’t know if I can convey to you exactly how I felt, but I’m going to try. I am carefully cynical about everything in housing, especially those bits of it that are anchored in politics.

With that in mind, I wanted to try and filter out what is the day-to-day work of politicians from the things the minister said that I would consider to be substance, and I found it really difficult. That’s not a criticism. My sense of it was that the minister believes what he’s saying about the importance of running these events to hear what tenants wants to talk about. The current stated intent of these events is that they’ll feed directly into the Housing Green Paper, and it’s here that I think there’s still a bit of a disconnect between what needs to change in the longer term, and this short-term burst of activity.

The day before this event, I’d been at the Housing Studies Association Lecture, which was about how policy should be much better informed by research and evidence instead of things people design through political ideology. I think the Green Paper is a chance to start to set out some long-term housing goals that look beyond the views of whichever party or parties are in power.

The assertion that tenant feedback will shape the Green Paper concerns me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I feel sceptical that once all the events are complete and the views are all gathered together, distilled into Ideas and given a paragraph in the draft, that there will be a way of the people who voiced the ideas ensuring that the context is right. Secondly, the Green Paper shouldn’t just be about ideas, even if they are the excellent ones put forward by tenants at these events. Policy needs to be about research and evidence for the long term.

Each table was tasked with producing three ‘issues’ that the tenants felt are problems or concerns that need sorting out, and three solutions or ways that either communities, landlords or government could work to solving these issues, or other ones.

‘My’ table bonded quickly. I immediately knew that my facilitation would not be about me having to encourage anyone to say anything. They were all raring to go. I knew William was going to have his work cut out for him as he was responsible for trying to write everything down. Our table was mostly tenants from Your Homes Newcastle, along with a lady who was a tenant from Harrogate Borough Council and a gentleman called Richard whose landlord I am sorry to report I have forgotten.

There was immediate concern that the format of the day was not what many of the tenants were expecting. In the literature they’d received, it had made it seem like there was going to be a kind of one-on-one question and answer session with the housing minister. This was a bit of a comms issue, as the actual format involved the minister circulating around the room and listening at the tables rather than necessarily getting involved. I tried to reassure everyone that everything they said would be captured and analysed, but there’s no denying that getting me as a facilitator would not live up to their expectations of conversations with Alok Sharma.

This didn’t stop us cracking on with the task at hand. It would take me too long to cover the detail of everything that was said, but everyone spoke passionately about the three issues that bubbled to the top. Firstly, that there is not enough investment in socially rented homes that people can afford. I didn’t even have to suggest this, and you can tell yourself all you like that it was my idea, but I just wrote it down. Ask anyone who was there.

Secondly, a lot of our discussion was about something not even under the remit of the DCLG and the housing minister – welfare reform. Universal Credit is having a devastating effect on tenants, both financial and in terms of stress and worry about losing homes and it’s causing a lot of extra work for landlords who, along with foodbanks, are the only reason that tenancies are sustainable. In addition to this, the bedroom tax remains a huge problem in places like Newcastle, where there are no smaller properties to downsize to, and the amount of money people must pay for their ‘spare’ rooms has a huge impact on their finances.

The third big issue we talked about was the negative stereotyping of tenants. My table recognised that a lot of this stuff is spread by ‘the schedules of crap’ on Channel 5 and various newspapers, but their real concern was about how narratives about unemployed scroungers and what they called a ‘lower class of citizen’ had found its way into policy about housing as well as that about welfare reforms. Their lived experience of the effects of this are that their communities, mostly of people who work, have jobs, do voluntary work or spend their time as involved residents, are being put under real strain by the cuts in support that are justified by all the inaccurate negative views that have become an accepted truth amongst a lot of the public.

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written before, you could be forgiven for thinking each of these were discussions that I had prompted, but none of them were. If anything, my own views, issues and solutions didn’t make it into the day as much as I’d planned them to. The stuff we talked about, mulled over and tried to think about improving took up all the time we had, and although with my tenant hat on I agreed with all of it, my facilitator role meant I was much more independent than I’d intended to be. I hope at the end of the day that I managed to help summarise what everyone at the table was saying, and I’m sure that William, who looked like he’d taken twenty A4 pages of notes, managed to get down all we discussed.

When it seemed like the minister wasn’t going to get to our table, there was some proper concern about that mismatch I mentioned between the way the day had been sold, and my poor table just getting me instead. It was at this point that William, who had also helped throughout our talks by clearing up the DCLG position on things, went over to the minister and asked if he’d come and speak to our table.

And he did. Alok Sharma is personable and human, and listened attentively to the things that my table of tenants wanted to talk about. They were clear and direct about the things they thought were failings of government, but they were also constructive about what they thought can be done to improve matters. Their earlier disappointment and annoyance ended up in having selfies taken with the minister, who was kind enough to answer the very last question from the tenant next to me, even as the summing up was beginning.

So, what’s next? I still feel like there’s the potential for this to be a PR exercise, to some extent. The minister recognised this in the speech he gave at the end of the day. He said that whether we believed what he says or not, we’ll be able to judge him based on what happens over the coming months and years. During the round-up of policies that are already in place or have already been announced, there was still a sense that the things tenants talked about about are not necessarily reflected in current policy, particularly around how sufficient the recently announced £2bn of investment in ‘affordable’ homes is. When the minister talked about the new Housing Courts, one tenant asked whether these would be funded by Legal Aid, highlighting how aware tenants are of the cross-departmental nature of the challenges that are still ahead, and not just between the DCLG and the DWP.

I’m signed up as a facilitator for three more events, which is partly why I was so relaxed about not getting my own questions in, because I’m hoping I’ll get a chance at one of the next ones. It’s also why I feel like I’m still reserving judgement on how all this is going to work out. Despite myself, despite the fact that there were tenants there who were, if you can believe it, more cynical than I usually am, I feel hopeful about some of it. I can’t tell if my wanting to believe it’s good news is clouding my judgement about it maybe being the deft work of a couple of politicians – the housing minister, who seems genuinely invested in it, and the prime minister, who has by all accounts made housing her number one domestic priority.

I’ll let you know how it pans out.