Landlords have become increasingly savvy at getting their tenants involved, writes Neil Merrick
Every summer, hundreds of council tenants from Kensington & Chelsea gather in a park in west London for games and other entertainment. Among the attractions last July were a circus and an opportunity to train with players from Chelsea Football Club.
But the annual fun day, organised by the council’s tenant management organisation, is about more than just having a good time. As part of the event, a marquee is erected in Holland Park for a conference, where residents discuss the running of the TMO.
Eight of its 15 board members are tenant leaseholders. But Kensington & Chelsea TMO, which became an arm’s-length management organisation four years ago, tries to ensure that tenant involvement runs far deeper than board meetings. Real tenant engagement, beyond box-ticking, is something that all social landlords need to focus on under the new regulatory regime.
Although a few residents question the £15,000 cost of holding the conference and fun day each year, resident involvement manager Jill Brown sees it as an opportunity to reach further into the community.
Training sessions with Chelsea’s footballers is especially appealing to young people - potential tenants of the future. ‘By coming along to something like that, people hear about the other things we do,’ she adds.
Kensington & Chelsea TMO, which manages around 10,000 homes, is more geared up than most social landlords when it comes to tenant participation. But across the country, other local authorities and housing associations are becoming increasingly savvy at making sure that the voice of tenants is not only heard, but acted upon.
In addition to traditional residents’ associations, estate compacts allow tenants in Kensington & Chelsea to raise concerns. It also operates a residents’ panel, which scrutinises the TMO through activities such as mystery shopping.
Residents taking a National Certificate in tenant participation and housing regeneration at Lewisham College can apply to have their fees paid by the TMO. At least one tenant who gained the certificate opted to join an estate management board, while others use it as a route to jobs in housing. ‘It depends on what interests people,’ says Ms Brown.
Orbit Heart of England Housing Association also sees family events as an opportunity to win over residents and get them to play a more active role. Twelve months ago, neighbourhood forum meetings in Leamington Spa and Warwick were attended by a hardcore of about 20 older residents.
At the start of 2008, the association began to run pop art, crazy golf and other events. As well as acting as an icebreaker for neighbourhood managers when they visited families on estates, the events led to young residents attending forum meetings, occasionally with children.
‘It has helped to bring in some new blood,’ says district housing services manager Lucy Lilburn. ‘We still only get 20 to 30 people [at each meeting], but they are more representative of the community.’ Tenants are more likely to complain about the condition of communal areas or attend estate inspections. ‘They say how much more approachable we’ve become.’
It is four years since Cross Keys Homes set up four residents’ panels to help decide how its money should be spent in different parts of Peterborough. Prior to recruiting tenants, the association drew up neighbourhood plans and ran a series of roadshows and exhibitions.
Claire Higgins, director of operations at Cross Keys, says the earlier consultations showed people that the association was serious about involving them in decisions and wanted further guidance over where to invest. ‘We were not going to inject money into their areas without finding out what they wanted,’ she says.
About 45 per cent of panel members have not previously taken an active role in the running of the association, created in 2003 following a stock transfer. By 2010, the panels should help to allocate £4.9 million. ‘We told them that they could make a difference,’ says Ms Higgins.
Tenants are also becoming better qualified to participate in management and other activities. Active learning for residents, a training programme set up by the Chartered Institute of Housing, allows them to gain qualifications based on the skills they use through taking part in bodies such as tenant panels.
Charter Housing, based in Newport, has seen one tenant become the first in the UK to qualify through the programme and has four more training alongside mentors from the association. Kay Howells, neighbourhood team manager at Charter, says the programme gives tenants a framework for understanding the association better. ‘We are working more closely with them on a one-to-one basis,’ she says. ‘It enables us to develop a partnership approach.’
Phil Morgan, executive director of tenant services at the Tenant Services Authority, says the culture of involving tenants in scrutiny panels, inspections and other activities has evolved steadily over the past seven to eight years. ‘It helps landlords to understand what tenants want and their perception of the service they receive,’ he says.
Mr Morgan, former chief executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service England, says tenant involvement is critical to accountability under the new regulator. ‘We want to increase tenant scrutiny so there is a virtuous loop that leads back to the setting of standards,’ he adds.
Oxford Citizens and Westlea housing associations, part of Green Square Group, hope to have a joint scrutiny panel up and running by April. The panel will be responsible for resident inspections and mystery shopping exercises, with tenants holding portfolios paid up to £1,000 per year plus expenses.
Oxford Citizens currently has five resident inspectors and eight mystery shoppers, who are trained to call the association with problems and assess the way it responds. ‘We have so many different ways that people can get involved,’ says managing director Andrew Smith. ‘Some people don’t want to come to meetings but are happy to work from home.’
Other residents have different talents to offer. Poplar HARCA, which manages 8,500 former council homes in Tower Hamlets, east London, partly relies on tenant volunteers to run youth projects and after-school clubs. Tenants are also becoming increasingly involved in training and employment schemes - including helping women with young children overcome barriers in returning to work.
Mat Seldon, a project manager at Poplar HARCA, says the association has a ‘steady stream’ of volunteers who are keen to get involved in wider programmes, which include estate services and social enterprises. ‘It’s often done by word of mouth,’ he says. ‘We use a very inclusive and engaging approach that allows them to build up their skills.’
All social landlords claim to listen to their tenants’ views, but in future it will not be enough for them to only take notice when people have something to complain about.
On the ground
When residents at Whitefriars Housing Group are asked if they would like to become customer auditors, their first reaction is normally to say no.
But if they are the type of people the landlord is looking for to monitor whether it offers a good service, it uses its powers of persuasion and asks them to think again.
Six years ago, when the scheme began, it recruited a team of 15 auditors. Today, there are 10. ‘We’re always looking out for more,’ says Lynn Hanson, customer involvement manager at Whitefriars, which was established in 2000 following a stock transfer from Coventry Council.
Auditors are responsible for surveys of tenants and contractors as well as mystery shopping exercises. ‘There is a particular skills set needed,’ she adds. ‘They need to be fairly confident individuals if they’re going to pose as a mystery shopper or go out with a clipboard.’
The auditors’ work is treated with the highest respect by Whitefriars. Following surveys of its 17,000 tenants and leaseholders, managers are quizzed over how the housing group intends to respond. ‘The lead manager is answerable to the team,’ she explains.
Five years ago, the landlord’s gas maintenance contractor agreed to make changes, including the introduction of customer care training for staff, after a survey showed that tenants were not satisfied with its performance.
All auditors are trained by Whitefriars, which outsources the team’s services to a neighbouring authority. While their work is unpaid, the landlord makes an annual donation to a charity of each auditor’s choice.
‘Tenants showed impressive knowledge to get exactly what they wanted’
Over the past seven months, tenants from Leicester Housing Association have been helping to choose the best contractors to do ongoing repairs on their homes, and 8,000 other properties, in the east midlands. It is not the first time that LHA residents have been given a say over how lucrative contracts of this sort should be awarded. Earlier last year, tenants worked closely with managers over awarding a short-term repairs contract for void homes.
But the new contracts, worth £15 million and covering responsive repairs and voids, involved far lengthier discussions. Twelve residents drawn from the association’s three customer advisory panels joined a steering group that evaluated expressions of interest, assessed the quality of bids and interviewed would-be contractors.
Finally, after the 20 bids had been whittled down, a team made up of four residents and three officers made ‘reality visits’ to each shortlisted firm where they inspected IT systems, spoke to employees and examined the firm’s operations elsewhere.
Sally-Anne Underhill, empty homes manager at LHA, says she was very impressed with the knowledge displayed by the tenants and the quality of questions they raised. In addition to asking about value for money and health and safety, they looked at wider issues - including the impact on local jobs. ‘They wanted to know if people in their area were going to be employed by these contractors,’ she says.
Kiumars Kiani, head of property services, says the process led to ‘enhanced contracts’ that include tenants being allocated two hourly appointment slots and - where requested - out of hours visits. Eighty-five per cent of repairs must be carried out during the first visit.
As tenants make up a narrow majority of the team that will ultimately awarded the contracts, their opinions will be crucial.
‘It means that tenants [can] choose exactly the service they need,’ he adds.