Power to the people
A series of training programmes held across the country have been teaching tenants how to scrutinise their landlords. Helen Clifton finds out if it is working
A meeting room overlooking the historic pitches of Lancashire Cricket Club is an apt location for a training course on how to get landlords to play by the rules.
More than 100 tenants from 15 housing associations have gathered in Manchester to learn how new co-regulation legislation could mean they have more powers than ever to scrutinise housing providers.
The course is just one of 102 growing together events that have taken place across England over the past seven months as part of a national tenant training programme.
Run by the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, together with the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England and benchmarking organisation Housemark, the programme was set up to help tenants learn how to create their own tenant panels to take on the day-to-day regulation of their landlords.
Introduced as part of the government’s localism agenda, co-regulation will come into force in April, when the Housing and Communities Agency takes over as housing regulator from the soon-to-be abolished Tenant Services Authority.
But - in line with the Localism Act - each landlord has complete freedom to decide how these panels will work.
Funded by the Communities and Local Government department’s £170,000 tenant empowerment grant, growing together has provided 1,400 tenants from 250 landlords with the knowledge to take control.
The programme gives tenants three different course options: an overview of co-regulation and the role tenants can play; an introduction to what scrutiny means in practice and how to develop it; and an advanced course in scrutiny, using real-life examples to help develop new panels.
All the growing together courses use examples of where tenant scrutiny is working, explains Debbie Lucas, head of training at TPAS. ‘People have said they have a better understanding of exactly what is involved in co-regulation - and how many opportunities there are out there,’ she says.
Although the tenant empowerment grant was originally intended to train 1,000 tenants, an extra few hundred applied, as well as dozens of housing staff members. Tenants of local authorities, housing associations and arm’s-length management organisations, co-ops and tenant management organisations were invited.
All courses were free for tenants, but staff places cost £102, which funded an accredited ‘introduction to scrutiny’ e-learning course, in which tenants took part. Six courses have been open to the public, while 89 have been organised in partnership with individual landlords, and normally held on their own premises.
In addition, seven larger ‘hothouse’ courses took place in December and January to give both staff and tenants the chance to meet and question existing scrutiny panels, and hear from guest experts on scrutiny.
At the Manchester growing together event, members of Guinness Northern Counties’ scrutiny council, created in March 2010 with help from TPAS, told the audience how they have already inspired improvements in the way their landlord works.
In early 2010, Guinness Northern Counties sent out letters to its 22,000 properties across the north of England asking tenants if they wanted to be members of the scrutiny council, recalls 68-year-old Rochdale resident Morris Pilling.
Of the 80 application requests, around 40 were interviewed. Based on their level of commitment, 10 were eventually chosen.
The scrutiny council soon identified the 26,000-home housing association’s ringback repair service as a weak area of service, and focused on creating an action plan for changes. Just a year after the group first met, satisfaction with the ringback service has increased by 6 per cent.
‘We can see the results coming through now,’ says Mr Pilling. ‘If it wasn’t making a difference, I wouldn’t be involved. It is not an “us and them” situation. It is about us working for the best of the company and the tenants.’
End of the line?
The Manchester event is the final one in the growing together programme, and though everyone involved agrees it’s been a huge success, they don’t know if this group of tenants and staff members assembled at Lancashire Cricket Club will be the last to benefit from it.
The tenant empowerment grant was always an interim solution, yet the CLG has yet to announce details of any further co-regulation training.
A spokesperson for the CLG says: ‘The government remains committed to empowering tenants. We have already announced grant funding of up to £535,000 for the National Communities Resource Centre to develop the skills and confidence of tenants.’
This training is residential, points out TPAS’s Ms Lucas. ‘To take part you have to go to Trafford Hall in Chester and places are limited,’ she explains. Without more money to deliver training to people in their own areas she fears many tenants may not be able to fully take advantage of new co-regulatory powers. But Ms Lucas remains optimistic. ‘We’re hopeful that more funding will come through,’ she says.
In September 2011, north east housing association Livin hosted a growing together course designed to give 11 of its own tenants, as well as 10 from neighbouring Cestria Community Housing Association, an overview of co-regulation and how it works.
Since then, 8,500-home Livin’s panel of tenant volunteers have scrutinised the organisation’s annual report, had meetings with the senior management team, and are ready to start their co-regulation work.
Livin resident involvement team leader Sylvia Dodsworth, who attended the course, says: ‘There has been some really useful stuff to come out of it. The tenants are really keen to maintain their independence and decide for themselves which areas to focus on.
‘The course was also really useful for me to have the information so I can answer their questions.’