Hands up for housing
The government has scrapped housing’s inspector, and its regulator, so who will hold landlords to account? Simon Brandon speaks to four ALMO tenant chairs to find out whether residents themselves can fill the void
The 10-year story of arm’s-length management organisations has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of the tenant movement.
What began for many local authorities in England as a way to unlock decent homes cash has become, in the words of South Essex Homes’ tenant chair Phil Lyons, ‘a very different animal’.
‘The whole [tenant] empowerment and involvement agenda that ALMOs have championed for the past decade has become a beast unto itself,’ he adds.
Tenants must make up at least a third of an ALMO’s board. And more than than half of the 60 ALMOs that currently manage 900,000 homes on behalf of English councils are chaired by one of their residents.
Inside Housing spoke to four of these tenant chairs to find out why they became involved in the governance of their organisation and how tenants’ prospects have improved under their watch.
Now more change is on the way and our tenant chairs must meet it head on. Housing regulator the Tenant Services Authority is to be absorbed into the Homes and Communities Agency and although the standards it has set will remain, its inspector and enforcer - the Audit Commission - will next year become another casualty of the government’s decision to cut the number of quangos.
The big question, then, is whether ALMOs - more than a third of which were awarded a maximum three stars by the Audit Commission - can continue to grow as tenant-led and tenant-focused organisations in the new-look sector.
‘We are concerned that in the absence of the Audit Commission or any effective consumer regulation… there will be less of an impetus on landlords to deliver,’ says Gwyneth Taylor, policy director at the National Federation of ALMOs, who has her own questions about the government’s proposal to continue resident scrutiny through tenant panels.
Mr Lyons is confident his own organisation will remain on course, but he’s also concerned about what the end of inspection will mean for tenants. ‘Say what you like about the Audit Commission,’ he says. ‘Yes it was expensive, yes it was tick-boxy, but it did drive performance. There is a danger now that some organisations will take their foot off the pedal and that performance driver, that empowerment driver, just won’t be there anymore.’
Not all his colleagues within the sector agree, however. Rupert Tyson, tenant chair of Hackney Homes, believes that the ALMO movement has awakened tenants to their rights and responsibilities, and now there can be no return to the old days - even with a muzzled watchdog.
‘Tenants no longer take what is thrown at them and run away with their tail between their legs,’ Mr Tyson says. ‘They’re so much more aware of what they can demand now.
‘They [the government] have aborted the TSA and the Audit Commission, but tenants’ eyes have been opened. The standard has now been set. Tenants will want to maintain that standard irrespective of whether the Audit Commission is inspecting or not.’
Luckily for the majority of ALMO tenants, the people now overseeing their landlord have, by definition, their best interests at heart.
Hackney Homes (30,000 homes)
Rupert Tyson has what is perhaps a unique perspective. Not only is he a Hackney Council tenant and chair of Hackney Homes’ board, but between 1982 and 1994 he worked for the east London council’s housing department as an estate and neighbourhood manager.
‘I wanted to be the voice of tenants because I didn’t think they were getting a good deal,’ says Mr Tyson, who is a National Federation of ALMOs board member. ‘It was a case of, “You want a property, we have one, here you go.” No human feeling went into the provision of housing.
‘You couldn’t always see what you should be getting and how you should be treated, because you were so happy to get a council flat that you just took it and struggled through whatever was thrown at you, and without any thought to what you really should get or how the landlord should treat you.’
Mr Tyson - named inspirational board member of the 2011 Housing Heroes awards run by Inside Housing and the Chartered Institute of Housing - was elected chair in 2007, the year after Hackney Homes began operation. Since then, he says, things have changed considerably for the better ‘because the ALMO here is a tenant-led organisation’.
‘You come to the table, set vision and strategy… we bring that to the board and we have a greater say.’
And that, Mr Tyson says, has translated directly into better services and happier residents.
‘Tenant satisfaction has increased considerably [since 2006]. It’s around 80 per cent now, which we are so pleased about - it used to be in the low 50s,’ he says proudly.
Biggest challenge ahead?
‘The challenge we face is to make the case for our existence, as councils are deciding whether they should bring us back in-house. We have already proved we are doing well, in terms of tenant satisfaction and value for money - but sometimes you can eat the best meal in the world, and
still want fish and chips.’
Wolverhampton City Homes (26,367 homes)
Sue Roberts went to Buckingham Palace in early July to receive an MBE for services to social housing.
‘It was a fantastic day,’ she says. Her award crowns an impressive career within the tenant movement. Ms Roberts became chair of her board in 2005, and last year she was elected vice-chair of the National Federation of Arm’s-Length Management Organisations.
It was a journey that began, she explains, while she was a member of a local residents’ group. ‘I became involved [with the landlord] because of an elderly lady who had gone without heating all weekend. When I found out about it, she said, “I didn’t want to bother anyone about it”,’ recalls Ms Roberts. ‘I thought - something’s not right if people are thinking they shouldn’t disturb anyone.’
Wolverhampton Council’s tenants elected Ms Roberts to a shadow board in preparation for the new ALMO taking over in 2005, and she has been involved ever since, becoming the organisation’s chair in 2008.
‘When the ALMO was set up a lot of people thought it was just set up to get decent homes,’ she says. ‘We’re not. It’s about delivering value for money - and the way you get best value is by tenants being involved.
‘To be chair you need the skills - you can learn them quite easily - but being a tenant yourself, you can look at policies that come to the board and ask, “Is this in tenants’ best interests?”.’
Biggest challenge ahead?
‘We’ve got challenging times ahead with the changes to regulation - but I feel that as long as I can make a difference, as long as I can put my point across, I will. These are people’s lives.’
Nottingham City Homes (29,828 homes)
In 2004, Janet Storar retired early from her job at a major insurance company. ‘I thought I’d be happy doing nothing,’ she says. ‘That lasted about two years.’
Ms Storar put herself up for election to the board of newly formed ALMO Nottingham City Homes in 2006, shortly after a stock condition survey found the ALMO needed £73 million more than was originally thought to make its homes decent. ‘It was a baptism of fire in many ways,’ recalls Ms Storar. Nevertheless she quickly became ‘passionate about housing’. ‘I didn’t realise that social housing was this interesting. It grabs you,’ she says.
Three years later Ms Storar was elected chair of the board. ‘It was the proudest moment of my life,’ she recalls.
‘That, and gaining my level 4 in governance from the Chartered Institute of Housing. The two go hand-in-hand.’
Since becoming involved with the ALMO, she has seen a huge change in the relationship between tenants and landlord. ‘I’ve been a tenant for 35 years,’ Ms Storar explains. ‘It has changed dramatically for the better. Tenants are now listened to at all levels and they are encouraged to get involved.’
The Tenant Services Authority gave the tenant movement the support and training it needed, Ms Storar adds, and she is sorry to see it go. But she believes her organisation is now strong enough in its dedication to tenant accountability to survive the demise of the TSA and the Audit Commission.
‘The only caveat is that we have to set up support mechanisms, so tenants who want to sit on the scrutiny panels have the confidence and the knowledge to do it properly,’ Ms Storar says. ‘We will have to keep focused on our customers - but the momentum is definitely with us.’
Biggest challenge ahead?
‘We [ALMO chairs] need to put across how much good ALMOs have done, given what some councils have done and are planning to do [to take housing management back in-house]. It’s up to ALMOs to show they are still needed in these times of austerity.’
South Essex Homes (6,721 homes)
Phil Lyons has all the zeal of the recent convert. In 2005 he had been a Southend Council tenant for four years and had never been involved in tenant activism.
That changed while he was looking for work in the local paper. The council was setting up an ALMO, South Essex Homes, and was advertising for prospective tenant representatives.
‘I thought, “well I’m a tenant, let’s see what happens”,’ recalls Mr Lyons. ‘Since then I have become a passionate supporter of social housing in general. Housing is a funny field - it reels you in and you can’t let go. You get hooked.’
It was a very steep learning curve at first, he says, but the challenge now as chair is keeping up with the pace of change in the sector. Responding to these developments is an area in which he believes ALMOs excel. ‘ALMOs are in the best position to cope with the sea change [in regulation],’ Mr Lyons says. ‘We’ve already got a level of accountability to tenants, and also to the local authority, so we are used to being judged regardless of the Audit Commission and the Tenant Services Authority.’
When Inside Housing spoke to Mr Lyons, he had that afternoon been elected to the board of the National Federation of ALMOs by board members within its London and southern region.
That recognition by his regional peers, he says, makes him very proud, as did South Essex Homes winning an excellent rating for equality and diversity from Local Government Improvement and Development (formerly IdEA) in December 2010. It was the first housing organisation to do so, according to its chair. And he’s not done.
‘ I would love to see housing associations and councils come to the ALMO sector and say. “How can we get better at what we do?” That would be a crowning achievement,’ he states.
Biggest challenge ahead?
‘We’ve all got to tighten our belts, haven’t we? It’s my job as ambassador of this organisation to get that message out, and to make sure residents understand what is going on and why.’
Tenant panels: the ALMO perspective
The Tenant Services Authority may be finished but never fear, says the government: tenant scrutiny lives on.
Last month, housing minister Grant Shapps announced funding to train 1,500 tenants to sit on local tenant panels (Inside Housing, 17 June). The panels will bring together residents representing each social landlord in an area to monitor services, compare notes and resolve local issues.
As well as scrutinising their own landlords, panel members will have a chance to look at how tenants of other local landlords are treated, too.
The panels stem from the government’s Localism Bill. Although it doesn’t contain specific instructions on how to create and run the panels, the bill is ‘heavily weighted in terms of giving tenants more say and a greater opportunity to monitor services,’ says Simone Russell, director of operations at one-year-old arm’s-length management organisation Welwyn Hatfield Community Housing Trust, which was set up to give tenants a greater say over housing services, which include anti-social behaviour and homelessness.
With that in mind, WHCHT - the largest landlord in Mr Shapps’ own Welwyn Hatfield constituency - launched its own prototype tenant panel last October.
The first step was to approach the area’s other landlords. WHCHT manages 9,300 homes in the borough; the other social landlords, made up of large national and small local organisations, manage 2,000 between them. ‘They all bought into the idea,’ states Ms Russell.
Two tenants from each of the 16 landlords involved sit on the panel, the idea being that they will first share a common understanding of issues in the area, and second that this body will ‘encourage landlords to improve more, because they will be held more accountable’, says Ms Russell.
The panel will also act as what Ms Russell calls a ‘democratic filter’. Under the Localism Bill, tenants will no longer be able to go straight to the housing ombudsman; their complaints will be brought before the panel, which will then decide which deserve to be kicked upstairs.
But here’s the rub. This aspect of the panel’s business cuts across individual landlords’ complaints management procedures.
A local housing provider might be able to change its policy, but are national organisations expected to alter their group-wide complaints handling systems to accommodate the whims of local tenant panels?
There is also scepticism from the sector about the panels themselves.
Phil Lyons, tenant chair of ALMO South Essex Homes, is not convinced there is a need for them at all. ‘We need more information about how they will work… but it seems a backward step,’ he says. ‘Most of us scrutinise our performance pretty well as it is.’
According to Gwyneth Taylor, director of policy at the National Federation of ALMOs, there is ‘a lot of potential mileage’ here in terms of holding landlords to account, but ‘frankly without an external regulator to push those organisations that haven’t previously shown an interest [in tenant scrutiny], why are you going to do it?’.