The Chief Executive of the Tenant Services Authority, the new regulator for affordable housing, has called on social housing landlords to “focus more” on their tenants and better involve them in decisions about the services they use.
Speaking yesterday at the CIH South East Conference in Brighton, Peter Marsh said: “Professionals are often wary that the public won’t understand the resource constraints and will have expectations that are simply unaffordable. The reality here is often you find that the public are very careful about spending public money, and canny about getting a bigger bang for their buck.”
Marsh also told delegates that social housing landlords could benefit from tenant participation, saying: “Put simply, if social housing tenants are engaged and involved they are less likely to make complaints and there is less likely to be a need for the regulator or inspector to intervene.”
The Tenant Services Authority was set up in 2008 as a result of the Housing and Regeneration Act and is expected to be fully operational “in late 2009”. The TSA’s powers will allow it to set standards for social housing provision including in key areas such as tenancy terms, rents and tenant involvement.
Peter Marsh’s speech in full:
Tenant Involvement, Tenant Engagement, Tenant Empowerment, Consumerism, Choice, Tailored Services, Deliberative Budget Setting, Local Accountability. These are the words. Today I want to put the case for what they can mean and why we as the TSA see this debate as a fundamental part of the new settlement for tenants in housing.
Over the past decade, citizen empowerment has increasingly come to be seen as both an end in itself and an integral mechanism for delivering effective public services tailored to the needs of those who use them.
Central to all this is the belief that local communities are likely to be most effective at dealing with their own problems. They have the most intricate knowledge of their own neighbourhoods and are uniquely placed to understand both the problems and the potential solutions.
Giving people a real say helps improve public services. No-one knows better what the people want from their police, their NHS, or their schools than the people themselves. Professionals are often wary that the public won’t understand the resource constraints and will have expectations that are simply unaffordable. The reality here is often you find that the public are very careful about spending public money, and canny about getting a bigger bang for their buck.
So my task now is to explain how this shift in the public policy landscape can be reflected in the housing sector.
One of the Cave Review’s three over-arching objectives for the new regulatory system for social housing was ‘to empower and protect tenants’. This meant a move away from the ‘consumer protection’ model, which compensated when the system failed, to one of ‘empowerment’, where tenants would contribute to creating more effective services. Put simply, if tenants are engaged and involved they are less likely to seek redress through complaints and there is less likely to be a need for a regulator or inspector to make pronouncements or interventions.
One of the outcomes of the Cave Review, the consequent Housing and Regeneration Act, and the creations of TSA is that housing policy in the affordable housing sector in particular, has undergone a change of focus.
Tenant involvement in housing decision-making is now a central element of good service delivery. Indeed, a key objective for the TSA is ’to ensure that tenants of social housing have the opportunity to be involved in its management’. That’s not one I or the TSA Board have dreamt up to pursue an agenda – that is one of our statutory objectives – for which we are accountable to parliament for delivery. And let me be clear that we know it is possible to achieve good or excellent – even 3 star – service delivery ratings without really embracing the heart of what we mean by tenant involvement. The professionals in housing can do a great job on behalf of tenants. Even greater things happen when involvement is real.
So why is this particularly important for tenants. Firstly the simple fact is that most tenants cannot choose to go elsewhere. If someone is shopping at a supermarket and is not happy with the service provided, they can just choose a different supermarket. We use the illustration of the 37 varieties of milk in Sainsbury’s contrasted against the worst case situation in housing – a once in ten year choice of door colour.
But it is far more than that. A tenant cannot just get up and leave as they have a contractual relationship with a landlord. If they chose to do just that, with demand outstripping supply by 50%, the chance of being rehoused in a place people would choose to live is, well, remote.
Secondly there has, historically, been something of a benevolent or paternalistic approach to social housing – not just in the last ten years but since its conception. Wealthy Philanthropists and big Government helping those in housing need. It has never been a relationship of equals.
And thirdly – whether it is through constraints in supply, allocation policies based on need, or the poverty traps created by our benefits system we have over the last 30 years seen a concentration of deprivation or economic inactivity that was never intended when social housing was conceived.
These three factors – immobility, paternalism, and concentrations of deprivation taken together are not a healthy mix. Inter generational welfare dependency, low educational expectations and poor health are not the outcomes we want from affordable housing.
And this is why the TSA is placing tenants at the heart of all it does
To make my case, I will cover four main arguments in favour of more resident involvement.
First – it’s like that – it’s just the way it is. As I mentioned earlier, citizen involvement is a key plank of government thinking. The Local Democracy Bill is currently wending its way through Parliament, and it creates among other things the National Tenant Voice. From April this year, the Comprehensive Area Assessment will include evaluation of the quality of public engagement with regard to local services. Participatory budgeting – where citizens help to set local priorities for spending – is already operating in 22 local authorities, and the Government wants every local authority to use such schemes in some form by 2012.
Moreover, the desirability of citizen empowerment is a rare example of political consensus. Today, all the major political parties strongly support the ideal of a stronger more organic form of local governance based on the shared responsibility and engagement of local people. Therefore, even with the possibility of a change of government which occurs at every general election, whatever the outcome in a year or two’s time, this will still be high on the agenda.
This is an opportunity therefore for social housing providers to be in on the ground floor, more than that, to be trailblazers – as indeed many of you already are – acting as a beacon of best practice.
But of course, social housing providers are not in existence to follow the status quo, or promote government policy, and this brings me to my second point.
It is good for social housing providers to build the voices and views of residents into the services that they provide. Good for business, good for services, and good for reputation.
Recent research shows that, when residents are involved in decision-making, it can improve the way they perceive their landlord and be a solid basis for developing more positive, durable relationships between tenants and landlords. The research also showed that tenants who were engaged felt that being involved in housing management has a positive impact on the overall standard of the housing and services delivered by their landlord. Where this is the case, tenant satisfaction with their landlord is improved as a result.
We can learn here from local government where in recent years people believed that local services are improving, whilst at the same time have felt increasingly dissatisfied with their local council. People do not equate the improvements with the ‘brand’, if you will, of the council. This is something that the LGA has been trying to alleviate through its ‘Reputation’ project; and is something that proper engagement can help avoid.
Third is what you might call the moral, or ethical argument – it is the right thing to do.
It is wrong to treat people as passive consumers; to in a paternalistic way believe that those at the top know what is best for the masses – that they are not clever enough to understand good value and good services. They are indeed often the best placed to understand exactly what is needed, if they were only given the chance to.
And Fourth – I want to make the point that empowerment isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do – for the long-term benefit of society. And it makes financial sense. Let’s take the building of communities. If you design something that ends up being totally inappropriate, it is of course massively expensive to tear it up and start again.
Studies of the development of social housing have shown that, although there was merit in much of what was attempted, many mistakes were made. Indeed, one of the underlying problems which led to some of the mistakes, especially after the Second World War, was the failure to ask tenants themselves about fundamental issues such as the design and location of new homes. Choice was never on the agenda. As the shifting social and political climate increasingly emphasized welfare and consumer rights, and as the new tower blocks and maisonettes built in the 1960s proved unpopular, tenant dissatisfaction began to increase.
Peter Shapely’s study of the redevelopment of Hulme in Manchester however offers a brighter note, and important lessons.
Fundamental to the regeneration of Hulme was the idea of creating partnerships. Central to the idea of forging partnerships was a commitment to extensive tenant consultation and participation, and it became a hugely successful part of the project.
Whereas the redevelopment of Hulme in the 1960s had been planned in offices by professionals and politicians removed from the district, the new Hulme was designed in a far more public and local arena. Residents had a say in the design process, in choosing facilities and in managing properties. Follow-up surveys showed a high level of tenant satisfaction and a generally strong level of future commitment to stay in the area.
The lessons from the City Challenge in Hulme underline that, although it is a difficult process, it is also one which carries its own long-term rewards. There is no short-cut around the need for patient, genuinely local consultation and participation where housing is concerned.
Naysayers may stress that it is only the usual suspects who get involved, and that ‘normal’ tenants are only interested in the basics, having somewhere decent to live. But that misses the point. Involvement should operate at many levels. The ‘usual suspects’ give up weeks of their time – like the tenants I shared an evening with on Tuesday from the Newcastle Federation. They do it because they want to make a difference. Your challenge as housing providers is to ensure involvement can happen at the other levels – more choice and input in how local estate budgets are prioritised, more say in how decent homes money is prioritised, even more choice about what services to pay for through rent or service charge – taken together these should create a golden thread of engagement from the doorstep to the boardroom.
If we want to counter immobility, paternalism and deprivation we have to put the tenant at the heart of everything we do. This is a choice we should not have!