All-new tenant panel show
Last year the government said it wanted powerful new tenant panels to hold landlords to account. So how will they work? Martin Hilditch finds out
According to housing minister Grant Shapps, tenants are best placed to judge the quality of their landlord’s performance.
After the coalition government came to power in 2010, he ripped up the regulatory rulebook. In a carefully choreographed move he all but ended the role of the social housing regulator, the Tenant Services Authority, in looking after tenants’ interests.
In its place would be a more localised system in which panels of tenants would rate their landlords. There was just one problem - no one really knew what a tenant panel was or how it should operate.
Mr Shapps came up with the idea after being impressed by a panel set up by tenants in his own constituency. But this was no diktat - instead he asked tenants to come up with their own ideas for how panels would work in their own areas.
This week, the results of their work finally become clear. Following more than six months of research, the existing national tenant organisations published a report on Wednesday outlining some of the options available to tenants and how the panels could operate.
So what will tenant panels look like and will their judgements be powerful enough to persuade poor landlords to up their game? Because the report itself steers clear of telling tenants how to organise themselves, we’ve set out the main messages below.
How does the housing minister envisage the perfect tenant panel?
Mr Shapps has stated that tenant panels must be developed locally and meet the needs of individual groups of tenants.
In his foreword to the new report, Tenant panels: options for accountability, he explicitly says that the whole purpose is to enable tenants to ‘have a more powerful voice in their local community’.
However, he does make it clear that tenant panels should be able to ‘challenge the performance of their landlords and hold them to account’ and ‘resolve complaints at a local level’. In turn this should lead to more landlords ‘shaping services around the needs and expectations of tenants’.
So what do the NTOs recommend?
Again, the final report from the national tenant organisations - the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, National Federation of Tenant Management Organisations, Tenants; and Residents’ Organisations of England and Tenant Participation Advisory Service - is defiantly non-prescriptive, stating immediately that ‘there is no one definition of a tenant panel’.
Instead, it sets out a range of options for the ways in which panels could be involved in decision-making within the landlord, shaping services, scrutiny and monitoring complaints.
OK. But what do tenants want from a local representative body?
The report took more than six months to write because researchers concentrated on speaking to large numbers of different tenants’ groups. From this they concluded that most tenants want a ‘robust’ framework in which landlords are accountable for their actions and work in partnership with tenants.
Does a tenant panel have to be a new organisation?
No. Over the past year there has been background sniping from some tenants that in reality few tenant panels have been set up and most will in fact be existing groups that are in some way renosed or renamed. The report confirms that ‘the term tenant panel could also be used to refer to the many neighbourhood-based groups set up by tenants and communities, such as tenants’ and residents’ associations’.
If they don’t even have to be new organisations, what do the NTOs think tenant panels will achieve?
In many ways the new report can be used by existing tenants’ groups to judge how effective they are and whether there are other options open to them that could give them a stronger voice or influence over their landlord. For tenants looking to set up new groups it provides detailed examples of existing structures and ways of operating that they can pick from.
As Nic Bliss, chair of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, who co-authored the new report, states: ‘This is saying to people, “you should consider the whole range of different options and if you are not doing some of these things you may want to think about having them”.
‘We are not expecting groups to change their names to fit with what Mr Shapps has come up with. What we have tried to do is summarise what is going on at the minute with a few additional suggestions that people should compare themselves to.’
Are there any big ideas that might give an indication about possible new directions for the tenant movement?
The report is particularly enthusiastic about the idea of ‘multi-landlord’ or collaborative tenant panels. Put simply, peer pressure could well play a much bigger role in shaming poorly performing landlords in the future. At the moment, the NTOs are only aware of a few collaborative panels across England, including the Welwyn and Hatfield Tenant Scrutiny Panel in Mr Shapps’ constituency. But the report makes it clear that the NTOs ‘hope there will be more’ soon.
The idea would be to ‘develop peer pressure in an area to ensure all landlords improve their performance to the level of the best’ and provide a way for tenants from different landlords to meet and compare and contrast the services they receive.
So are landlords skating on thin ice? Will the panels lead to a new, more aggressive approach at a local level?
This is certainly not the intention. As Michelle Reid, chief executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, says the ideal future would see ‘tenants and landlords in the housing sector taking the responsibility to work together to develop the principles and standards we think should apply to tenant panel arrangements’. Mr Shapps emphasises that tenant panels should ‘bring landlords and tenants closer together’.
However, successful panels - that can prove tenants are able to be involved with and influence the decisions of landlords - will be able
to obtain NTO-approved status.
National scrutiny could then focus on landlords whose obstructive or disinterested behaviour mean their panels are not able to obtain this status.
The future, however, is firmly about collaboration. By working together with their tenants, landlords can guarantee themselves top marks from the panels, whatever they look like.