Making their comeback
After being dealt a major blow when the National Tenant Voice was shut down, tenants are now preparing to make more noise than ever before. Martin Hilditch finds out why this is a new dawn for them.
Eighteen months ago the tenants’ movement in England suffered a hammer blow.
After almost two years of hard work, largely led by volunteers, an organisation - to be known as the National Tenant Voice - was set up to give tenants a much greater input on the national stage.
But months after the NTV had hired its first chief executive and created a 50-strong council of tenants from across the country, the government cut all of its £1 million funding - effectively shutting it down.
Speaking to tenants and tenants’ groups today it is quickly apparent that their sense of disappointment remains as strong as ever. Much like reviewers leaving Madonna’s latest film, tenants have been left ‘disillusioned’, ‘despondent’, ‘struggling’ or simply ‘hacked off’, depending on who you ask.
The result, according to all the groups Inside Housing contacted for this article, is that major government housing decisions - and there have been a plethora of them over the past eighteen months - have had limited scrutiny from the people they are likely to affect the most.
This is not a sob story, however. Far from sitting back and licking their wounds, the main players involved in setting up the National Tenant Voice have been active in plotting a new future for the tenant movement in England. Handed a limited amount of funding [£50,000] by central government in late 2010, they have used it to consult on how to give tenants much more influence in the corridors of power. Now, more than a year on, they are ready to unveil their new plans. Whisper it, but in 2012 the tenants’ movement is coming back.
So what have tenants got planned for 2012 and what are the implications for them, their landlords and the government?
The answers will start to emerge in a document sent to government at the end of last week by the four main national tenants’ bodies in England. Project New Dawn - the name the four main tenants’ groups in England have given to the work - reveals not just what tenants want but how they will set about achieving it.
The project started by asking tenants on the national tenant voice council and from the main membership or-ganisations, about their national goals and how they wanted to achieve them.
The report reveals that the number one priority is ‘influencing national policy and practice by commenting on policies and lobbying decision makers’. Most tenants also thought that as well as responding to policy decisions any national organisation should be helping to develop policy ideas as well.
Richard Crossley, briefly the chief executive of the National Tenant Voice and now a housing consultant, drafted the report with the tenants’ groups. ‘That is probably the most valuable thing that has come out of New Dawn - a very clear sight of what tenants want from a national organisation,’ he says.
The research with tenants led to the decision that the national tenant movement should aim to achieve a number of central goals, including maximising tenant influence nationally, providing support to tenants locally and promoting best practice from a tenant perspective.
To achieve this, a national tenant forum has been set up. At the outset this will comprise largely of members of the now defunct national tenant council but it is hoped that more tenants from around the country, not currently involved in the tenant movement nationally, will sign up.
In practice, the forum will operate as a network that can be tapped by all the existing national tenant organisations, the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, the Confederation of Co-operative Housing and the National Federation of Tenant Management Organisations. So if government launches a new policy that will affect tenants, the members of the forum will be contacted - by email or phone given the absence of any funding - to state their views on it.
Their opinions will be fed back to the existing tenant organisations. In an ideal world, they would then use them to pull together a joint consultation response to government - but because the organisations are separate they could still respond individually if they wished.
Richard Mandunya is one of the tenants who will be part of the new forum. He was previously on the national tenant council and got involved through his role as a tenant inspector in south Oxfordshire for Soha housing association.
He says the need for tenant scrutiny is greater than ever before - and not just of national government policy. Directions from government to the housing regulator to concentrate almost solely on the economic regulation of housing associations could lead to numerous problems, he states.
‘The only landlords the authorities will look at are the ones that are struggling because they are ready to fall over,’ says Mr Mandunya. ‘The coasting ones will feel that they are OK.’
Learning from each other
The forum members will be able to pass on best practice to other tenants and expose landlords’ flaws, he feels.
Despite this feeling of optimism it is clear that the forum is, to an extent, a compromise. Tenants told the New Dawn team that ideally they would want ‘a single united voice’ at a national level and that a ‘single, over-arching organisation would best deliver what is required’. Some surveyed said they found the current number of tenant organisations confusing. Inside Housing understands that at one point the idea of merging TPAS and TAROE was discussed by the New Dawn team. But this was dismissed largely because, as the final report hints ‘TPAS is proud of being a tenant and landlord organisation [both can be members]: TAROE is proud of being a tenant organisation’.
Michael Gelling, chair of TAROE, says he is clear that a single body is ultimately something he wants to see. ‘I think if you are talking seven to eight years in the future and we have not got a [single] national organisation then I have failed,’ he says.
There is one key suggestion in the New Dawn report that every tenant and tenant representative that Inside Housing spoke to agrees with, however - and this is something that could affect every social landlord in England.
The report suggests landlords should make a contribution to the running of the tenant forum to enable its members to meet and campaign more effectively. It suggests that this should be based on a contribution of 1p per tenancy per week - equivalent to around £2 million a year.
Mr Gelling states: ‘I think, on the whole, tenants would like to see a well-funded, well-resourced, national body for tenants, like landlords have. Out of tenants’ rents there is some £7 to £8 million paid to the National Housing Federation to be their lobby group. If they can do that and justify it then they can justify paying the same amount into a national tenant body.’
The new national tenant forum is not the only game in town, though. Two other new reports are set to change the balance of power between social landlords and their tenants forever. Nic Bliss, chair of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, has been working on both of them - alongside contributing to the New Dawn project.
The first report, due out late this month or in early March, will examine the progress of local tenant panels - which housing minister Grant Shapps wants to see set up across England to hold landlords to account locally. There are mixed reports about how quickly these are springing up. Several tenants suggested there were very few new panels being set up and most that had come into existence were little more than rebadged tenants’ associations. The Communities and Local Government department was unable to give the location of a single new tenant panel in England, when approached by Inside Housing, suggesting Mr Shapps has not taken much interest yet in the development of one of his supposed pet projects.
All this could be about to change with the publication of the new report.
While Mr Bliss is not giving much away it is clear that the report will set out how well-performing panels are operating - creating templates that landlords and tenants everywhere can adopt.
It is set to conclude that good tenant panels will contain several key features, such as involving tenants in decision making, shaping services, monitoring and scrutiny and landlords’ complaints processes.
Despite the CLG’s ignorance, Mr Bliss says a number of tenant panels have been set up and ‘we have got a lot of different stories going on out there,’ including a tenant panel that is seeking to examine the impact of welfare reform. The report will pick up on learning from the new panels, along with existing good practice and seek to promote the findings to ‘landlords who aren’t doing things well in these areas’.
The national tenant organisations are also planning to step into the regulatory void created when the existing watchdog, the Tenant Services Authority, was instructed to concentrate almost entirely on financial regulation and governance.
Within the next month or two they will launch a product called ‘NTO approved’. Landlords which meet a checklist of tenant demands - such as whether tenants are effectively able to influence landlord decisions - will be granted NTO approved status. The tenants’ movement hopes that this will create peer pressure on landlords to sign up - raising standards as NTO approved becomes an accepted hallmark of a landlord that works well with tenants.
‘Because they are good landlords they will want to be NTO approved,’ Nigel Long, head of policy at TPAS states. ‘The NTO approved status would be landlords showing that they have achieved something.’
So after 18 months of turmoil the tenant movement is back on track and bursting with ideas. Landlords and the government are about to be subjected to greater scrutiny than ever before from the people they house and who are affected most by the policies they draw up.
They might be under-resourced but, for now at least, tenants in England are getting their voice back.
Speaking out: what the future holds for tenants
The former chief executive of the National Tenant Voice gives his view on the future for tenants
It’s 18 months since the government decided it didn’t want to resource tenants having a voice at national level, and ceased the funding of the National Tenant Voice. But the need for tenants having their voices heard is as great, if not greater, than it has ever been. The process of developing the NTV showed the potential and the appetite among tenants for involvement in national policy development.
Together with the NTV chair and representation from the NTV Council, the national tenant organisations launched the New Dawn project to look at how to maximise involvement in these austere times. The project members have just reported back, and from it the NTOs will establish a tenant forum, initially involving members from the NTV Council with intention of expanding it once it established. The NTOs currently are doing valuable work on tenant panels, following their review of the first round of annual reports to tenants. But without specific resources for organisation and communication, it’s going to continue to depend on the commitment and hard work of a small number of people.
The NTV gave the briefest glimpse of how the sector would benefit from a modestly resourced national structure. The NTOs are showing how tenants can have a real impact in developing ideas. And many in the sector told the New Dawn project how social housing will benefit from a strong national voice for tenants. In the absence of government funding, the challenge is for the sector itself to provide funding to make this happen. Tenants’ rents go towards funding a voice for landlords nationally and a voice for housing professionals. Just 50p per year per tenancy would enable tenants not only to have a seat at the table - but one informed and influenced by the voices of tenants throughout the country.
Timeline: history of the tenant movement and the National Tenant Voice
Professor Martin Cave’s social housing regulation review recommends creating a national tenants’ voice to give tenants more of an input on the national stage
After years of detailed consultation with existing tenant groups the National Tenant Voice is created
The new coalition government axes the National Tenant Voice
The existing national tenant organisations receive £50,000 funding to look at ways of continuing the work of the NTV in some form
The national tenant organisations reveal that a National Tenant Forum has been created