Housing association Parkway Green’s involvement initiative illustrates the benefits of bringing tenants back into the decision-making process. Helen Clifton reports
When Eva Mulholland was asked to go on a business development course by her landlord Parkway Green, she jumped at the chance.
Ms Mulholland’s dyslexia meant she struggled to cope with the Institute of Leadership and Management course. But just as she was on the verge of walking out, her Parkway Green mentor persuaded her to stick with it. All residents who go on the course are assigned a member of the executive team as a mentor to help them through it.
The 65-year-old grandmother from Wythenshawe, south Manchester, is now one of four tenant members on the Parkway Green management board.
‘I would not have got through the course without their help. I am so proud that I stayed and I did it because I have got confidence now,’ Ms Mulholland says.
There is a danger that the abolition of the Tenant Services Authority in April 2012, coupled with the introduction of all-consuming welfare reforms, will push tenant involvement down the agenda for some landlords.
This is certainly something Dean Slavin, Parkway Green’s resident involvement manager and this year’s winner of Inside Housing and the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Rising Stars competition, feels has happened.
‘It is ludicrous the way [tenant involvement] has fallen off the agenda,’ he says. ‘When the politicians took the decision to get rid of the TSA, it would have been easy for us to say, “we’ve set up these mechanisms to hold us to account - now we don’t need them anymore.” But we’ve built on the legacy of the TSA.’
He says that Ms Mulholland’s story reflects the importance of investing in tenants and that his organisation continues to push forward with tenant scrutiny because ‘it’s the right thing to do’.
In the same month the TSA closed, Parkway Green created the PG Involve initiative, designed to boost tenant engagement. The number of tenants directly involved in scrutiny has more than doubled, from 30 to 70. In addition, there are also 600 ‘Parkway Voices’ who have participated in focus groups or consultations.
‘We can try and get people through the door, but we needed to do something to make it appealing,’ Mr Slavin says. ‘We have now been able to get a broader spread of people involved, rather than the same 10 or 12 people coming along.
‘The best way to work is to constantly involve our tenants. And just because regulation is now lighter from the Homes and Communities Agency, it doesn’t mean we are going to stop.’
Over the past two years, Parkway Green has trained around 200 tenants in the report-writing, minute-taking and presentation skills they need to get involved in scrutiny. In 2010 it created a youth panel, with around
12 members meeting every two weeks to represent younger tenants’ views.
Changes introduced through scrutiny include new rules for maintenance and cleaning teams. The youth panel has developed a scheme to encourage better behaviour among dog-owners.
This is the sixth year the landlord has held its annual tenants’ and residents’ conference and this year it’s packed, with more than 120 tenants filling the hall in the Wythenshawe Forum. Organised by the Parkway Green tenant scrutiny committee, the format is deliberately lively and fun. Residents, including Ms Mulholland, speak passionately about their experience of tenant involvement. Inside Housing joined them to see its Rising Star at work, and also to find out which issues are most important to those in the audience.
Open to discussion
A panel session with the executive team includes hard-hitting questions about the introduction of bedroom tax and universal credit in April 2013, which will result in a reduction in benefit for those with unoccupied bedrooms, and an upcoming joint group structure formation between Parkway Green and local landlord, Willow Park.
The two organisations will share functions as Wythenshawe Community Housing Group, in a bid to make annual savings of £2 million. A new resident involvement structure will scrutinise the new group, which will have an annual turnover of £55 million.
Chief executive Nigel Wilson estimates that Parkway Green is at risk of losing £800,000 a year in rent arrears because of benefit changes, with around one in five tenants subject to the bedroom tax. Worryingly, half of those tenants are already in arrears.
Ms Mulholland says the upheaval caused by welfare reform makes it even more important for tenants to get involved.
‘A lot of tenants won’t go and talk to a member of staff - but they will talk to another tenant,’ she says. ‘It is absolutely terrible that people will be paid their rent directly, rather than to the landlord; a lot of people will take that rent and just go and spend it. We have to be very careful that more people don’t go into arrears.’
Parkway Green tenant scrutiny committee chair, Bernard Caine, 70, agrees that tenant involvement is just as important at a grassroots level as it is at the board table. ‘People can talk to us directly without going through the official lines; so the standards on the estates are being improved, and those who aren’t helping are being reported. It’s as simple as that.’
Most tenants agree that Wythenshawe is a changed place. It was created in the 1920s as the garden city of Manchester but during the 1990s, the area became a byword for deprivation.
A £24 million investment in Wythenshawe Forum, the rebuilding of local schools and community centres and the refurbishment of all 5,725 Parkway Green properties has now helped to create a feeling of optimism.
‘The tenants’ involvement and engagement has helped contribute,’ says Mr Wilson. ‘They made sure that the stock transfer [from Manchester Council] in 2006 was done in a way that would protect their legacy. They have been at the heart of all the choices that have been made.’
For Mr Slavin, working in Wythenshawe is an immensely satisfying job; and despite his Liverpool roots, he laughs, he has been welcomed into the community.
‘Ultimately, consulting everybody who we work with has improved the service tenants get; scrutiny ensures that the services stay at that level.
‘I’m helping people like myself. I’m making a small difference to people’s lives every day. And that’s a good thing.’
What’s on my mind
Laura Gibson, 39, Parkway Green ‘Good Neighbour’ award winner
‘Anti-social behaviour and noise can be a real problem. You are privileged to get a home through a housing association, and I think you should respect it.
‘There is an out-of-hours team who come and take notes about noise. But they take an hour to arrive, and by that time the noise may have gone. People also feel reluctant to call them out at 2am. They should use more monitoring equipment.
‘They need to be on the side of the victim, not the perpetrator.’
Michael Nolan, 41, Manchester Airport shift worker
‘In my job it is very important I get a decent night’s sleep. We have had some issues with barking dogs and noise, but Parkway Green has dealt with that. It has been a positive experience being a tenant with them.’
Wyn Casey, 74, vice-chair of the Parkway Green management board
‘The only way we can have an impact as tenants is if we are strong and we work together. Now we won’t let Parkway Green introduce anything we are not happy with. Wythenshawe has improved enormously as a result.
‘Money from rents is now being used for tenant-led ideas, like [resident talent show] Wythenshawe’s Got Talent and [fitness programme] the Wythenshawe Games. These events involved us in each other’s’ lives - people now feel they are more part of a community.’
Luke Da Costa, 15, Manchester Health Academy pupil, chair of Parkway Green youth panel, and Parkway Green Young Person of the Year award winner
‘The youth panel gives us a voice and that is really important. I used to have a bad stutter; but being part of the forum has helped me improve my speaking and do presentations.
‘We are working with older residents to develop allotments and we spend time socialising with them. We are currently representing the views of young people in the development of a local skate park. There is a stereotype that young people just hang around the streets; but it’s not true.’
Chloe Owen, 14, Sale High School pupil, volunteer at Norbrook Youth Club
‘A lot of young people don’t know what to do because they don’t know about the activities going on in their area. If you want them to be interested, you need to tell them what’s going on.
‘Maybe Parkway Green could send letters out to tell them. Young people would then know there is something more than just hanging around on the streets. There are better things for others and for themselves.’
Tex Barlow, 43, musician and member of the Royal Oak community action group
‘The main problem for people at the moment is the introduction of the bedroom tax. I know a few people whose kids have left home or got married and they’ve got a spare bedroom, and they don’t want to leave. They’ve done lots of work to the house and it’s their home.
‘But it is not our fault. Many of these people were given these homes without being given a choice.’