Wednesday, 05 August 2015

More than lip service

From 1 April landlords must put their words into action and place tenants at the heart of the Tenant Services Authority’s new self-regulatory regime. Here Abigail Davies, advises how to get it right

‘Putting tenants first’ is a mantra that has suffered such overuse and such cavalier regard, that what value it once had has plummeted faster than house builder shares in a recession. The only thing that can restore meaning to the phrase is if it is backed up with action. And that is what is about to happen.

Ensuring residents get a fair deal is a key part of the Tenant Services Authority new regulatory framework for all social housing providers which comes into effect on 1 April. And the watchdog has made it clear that landlords should look to resident-led self-regulation as one way of putting all that talk into action.

Don’t know where to start? Then read on…

What is resident-led self-regulation and why do this?

Resident-led self-regulation is an approach to the way an organisation directs, monitors, accounts for and refines its own behaviour and performance.

The approach gives new weight to tenants’ views, assessments and priorities. It brings together and co-ordinates tenant scrutiny activities (like mystery shopping and tenant inspection) with other staff-led scrutiny work.

RLSR builds this into internal processes for performance management, giving tenants power to challenge and drive change. At its heart is a tenant scrutiny panel which decides priorities; co-ordinates or carries out scrutiny work; challenges staff and governors; and works with them to respond positively to scrutiny findings.

There are a number of benefits for landlords, including:

  • enhancing the levels and impact of resident scrutiny
  • improving service performance, corporate governance, business decisions and tenant satisfaction.

Housing providers which use it will be in a good position to perform well against higher expectations of resident involvement and take responsibility for their own performance.

How can we make sure we get it right?

These five steps are a good start:

  • Build in self-determination. It might sound obvious, but RLSR must be led by residents, not staff. Tenants’ panels must be able to set their own priorities, look at areas they think are most important, ask for and receive information they want and speak for themselves. This will be a significant change from some existing tenants’ groups which are more passive. A resident-led panel can provide the independent scrutiny and challenge which is the real strength of RLSR.
  • Get ‘buy-in’ from governors, staff, and tenants. This approach will only work if, first, the people governing the organisation listen and respond to the scrutiny panel. Second, staff must be open with the panel and provide the information and answers they seek. Third, other tenants must be confident the group is acting in their interests to lead to improvements. So they will all need to value and trust the group, something which comes with understanding of the role and abilities of the tenants involved.
  • Make sure recruitment and composition of the scrutiny group suit your organisation. The aim is to have a tenant panel that works effectively and commands confidence. Recruitment processes, eligibility for involvement and composition of the group can make or break this aim, although there isn’t a standard approach that fits everyone.
    Diversity is important too. The group should understand the issues and experiences of different tenants so it can meet everyone’s needs and mirror local diversity if possible.
  • Identify what skills you need and support this with training. Effective scrutiny needs particular skills and knowledge, like the ability to phrase questions to get informed answers, knowledge of the work landlords do and their requirements and IT literacy. Tenants will bring different skills to the group. A skills audit and training for the group and individuals will ensure that group members can be effective.
  • Be clear on the structures and powers from the outset. Clarity on how things link together, who can and will talk to whom, and what can and cannot happen is important. Formality in operation and defined powers support a move from informal consultation to robust scrutiny and responsiveness.

Are there any examples of existing good practice?

Yes. Some housing organisations are already using this approach and seeing good results.

Lessons from these providers will help those interested in building on existing tenant panels and scrutiny activities to implement a resident-led self-regulation approach.

Salix Homes’ customer senate is the ‘conscience of the organisation’. It can scrutinise topics it thinks will be of greatest value to the organisation and it prepares reports and recommendations for the board, which then makes a formal response. The senate can identify failing performance indicators, concerns highlighted by the board, or areas of concern raised by service-specific panels, customer inspectors or the community.

Aldwyck’s customer scrutiny panel challenged the organisation’s void home performance. As a result, the whole process of managing voids was re-examined and improved. The time a property was left empty reduced to 18 days, which made a dramatic difference to income loss.

John Miles, chair of the customer scrutiny panel, says: ‘I can’t think of any other organisation where the board can be questioned by its customers for four hours.’ He also emphasises that the panel asks ‘serious questions’ and expects answers.

Could RLSR work better than it does at the moment?

There are a few ways in which it could support the way regulation develops:

  • The TSA should recognise its wider benefits. The approach can demonstrate compliance with aspects of the watchdog’s new involvement and empowerment standard, but it can do more than that. It can be used to demonstrate performance against all the national standards. It can show that self-assessment processes are rigorous, especially if it is aligned with preparation of the annual standards reports. It can be used to support development and monitoring of local standards, building in a higher level of accountability to tenants.
  • The TSA should be clear about how much weight it would give to assurances from resident-led self-regulation that different standards are being met. The regulator may place more or less reliance on the assurances given by resident-led self-regulation for different standards (for example, more for neighbourhood, less for governance). Understanding the TSA’s confidence in different mechanisms will help providers to develop appropriate approaches to their self-regulation.
  • Providers must prove to the TSA that resident-led self-regulation is delivering. The regulator could then reduce its own scrutiny and so reduce the burden of external regulation on providers. Assurances could be provided by peer review, inspection, or accreditation/validation.
  • The TSA should have confidence in complaints made by scrutiny groups. Complaints from tenants to the TSA may help it to identify where standards are not being met by providers. The robust structure of resident-led self-regulation means that any complaints coming to the regulator from scrutiny groups will be backed up by strong evidence and internal procedures, so TSA can feel sure that they are appropriate.
  • The TSA could incentivise use of resident-led self-regulation. If it is valued as a way of embedding the kind of co-regulatory approach and culture in the social housing sector which the regulator says it backs, then the latter could encourage providers to adopt it. Guarantees of less regulatory scrutiny or lower fees could be suitable incentives.

Abigail Davies is head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing.

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