Tuesday, 28 March 2017

We love wardens

Louis Loizou’s tenant action group has persuaded Brighton & Hove Council to retain onsite wardens - here’s how

In recent weeks junior housing minister Baroness Andrews has been bombarded with more than 500 letters from sheltered housing residents protesting the gradual withdrawal of their resident wardens (Inside Housing, 6 March).

Three-quarters of councils have reduced warden services or are considering them, research by Inside Housing has revealed.

Not so in Brighton & Hove. Here at Brighton & Hove Sheltered Housing Action Group we persuaded the council last month to agree to retain onsite scheme managers. The two bodies are now working together on a sheltered housing policy and other aspects of sheltered housing management.

With wardens all over the country being shown the door, how did we do it? Here’s our nine-point plan.

Step 1: Democracy in action

Assert your rights as a tenant and your landlord’s duties and obligations. The Housing Act invites tenant consultation so don’t assume that you won’t get anywhere with the council.

Officers may have ‘institutional behaviour patterns’, but you can encourage partnership by insisting on your right to information and consultation.

Step 2: Power play

We caught the council’s attention with tactics available to all tenants: we presented its housing committee with a petition showing 92 per cent of its sheltered tenants backed ‘the traditional model of full-time, onsite scheme managers’. It explicitly rejected both floating support and so-called team-based or hub and spoke-working, which can be floating support in disguise. A petition is not strictly necessary, but it adds the power of percentages to your right to consultation.

Step 3: It’s all about the money

Next we pressed council officers to break down how Supporting People funding for sheltered schemes is spent - then figured out where it was being wasted. We have helped the council shave £80,000 in out-of-hours bills from its sheltered housing costs. You may find inappropriate costs charged, such as for pull-chord or out-of-hours cover. Examine operational details - employing agency scheme managers can double staff costs.

Thanks to our financial scrutiny we have secured two extra scheme managers, bringing the total to 21. This is despite initial plans to cut numbers to 17 and bring in floating support.

Step 4: Make friends & influence people

Request support from council officers and the authority’s democratic services team. We enjoy an excellent working relationship with council staff and applaud Brighton & Hove for recognising our entitlement to exercise tenant responsibilities and assert our right to consultation.

Step 5: Town hall tactics

Include local councillors - they can empower consultation. They may not be aware of all operational details and may learn from your enquiries. Involve all political parties, regardless of who has a majority. You may find friends in unexpected places.

Step 6: Keep control

Assume a tenant-led stance to retain control of the process. It can be difficult for public bodies to make the cultural shift from ‘being in charge’ to consultation, but by demonstrating your firm intent officers will eventually understand the benefits of working in genuine partnership.

Step 7: Number crunching

You may find it hard to obtain financial or other information. Keep pressing for accurate data and if it is not forthcoming then make assumptions.

For example, if you multiply the number of flats in sheltered schemes by the weekly support charge that residents pay, you can approximate how much Supporting People funding the council gets for the scheme.

Consider how many scheme managers are employed and work out what savings can be made by reducing expenditures to ensure value for money. You may be surprised at the increases in frontline staff such savings could provide.

Step 8: For the record

Ensure all exchanges are documented, preferably by email rather than telephone, and copy everybody in. When working on a document that needs council ratification be clear on language and detail. Always copy in your solicitor to make clear you are engaged in an accountable process which could potentially result in a judicial review. It is then in officers’ interests to supply you with information in good time for meetings.

Step 9: Don’t stop until you get enough

Don’t give up at the first - or the 20th - hurdle. Keep working, keep officers on their toes and build your own team and its confidence. Remember your belief that sheltered housing is the most cost-effective way to house older people.

It may sound like a lot of work - and it is - but it’s worth the effort. Sheltered tenants have helped Brighton & Hove Council to achieve a unique partnership victory for all so far.

Louis Loizou is vice chair of Brighton & Hove Sheltered Housing Action Group

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