In the wake of Grenfell, there is a renewed focus on tenant involvement in the workings of the social housing sector. But the industry must stay on the front foot in this area and make resident input the norm, argues Anne McGurk
The May issue of the ‘Phoenix Flyer – A newsletter by residents for residents’, with its headline article ‘A community in Fellowship’, landed in timely fashion on my doormat just as I turned my thoughts to this article.
The ‘Fellowship’ in that headline is a pub that Phoenix Community Housing is restoring with approval from residents and the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Its planned cafe, bar, cinema, music hub, performance space and more already brings the local community together to take part in projects shaping its future use.
More on that another time, but here I want to focus on the terms ‘community’ and ‘by residents for residents’ because they are a good basic description of Phoenix, of which I am chair.
Around 13 years ago a group of active tenants from our community had the opportunity to attend a housing conference. They heard about the gateway model of resident-led housing associations that had been adopted in Preston and brought the idea back to share. In 2007, following a stock transfer of 6,300 properties by Lewisham Council, and with a majority resident vote, Phoenix was born as a variant of that gateway model.
Those active residents took ‘resident led’ to mean what it said. The Phoenix board of 12 has six residents, including the chair and vice-chair, written into its rules. This resident-led board sets the strategic vision of the organisation and determines how resources are allocated, as well as holding the executive team to account. It also ensures that residents are consulted on all major decisions.
Our model promotes active resident participation at all levels. We have focus and consultative groups as well as a scrutiny panel that reports directly to the board. Residents can be shareholders and vote at the annual AGM, and they produce the newsletters, flyers and the annual report alongside monitoring general mailouts.
None of this would have been possible without the support of like-minded housing professionals, working together with those ‘founding’ tenants to realise a vision they all shared – one of respect for the uniqueness of each individual and each individual’s value in adding to the vibrancy of a thriving, diverse community.
So, what about community for residents?
Residents are the lifeblood of Phoenix. They are not scroungers, misfits or other epithets often hurled in the direction of social housing tenants. They/we work in partnership with the housing professionals who work for us, alongside the council and businesses, to make our community an exciting, peaceful and prosperous place to live and grow.
We support our residents in their ambitions and hopes; we offer job clubs, energy management and financial advice, citizen’s advice services, digital support, language skills, the Phoenix Academy and Phoenix Futures. These last two are key to our succession planning as a resident-led housing association and I will no doubt return to them.
“Residents are the lifeblood of Phoenix. They are not scroungers, misfits or other epithets often hurled in the direction of social housing tenants”
It is a sad fact that it took the tragedy of Grenfell to place the national focus on residents’ voices, residents’ knowledge, residents’ safety, residents’ dignity. But while the focus is there, let’s ensure it doesn’t lose impetus. We need to work together to put residents at the heart of all we do in the whole social housing sector and make resident input and leadership the norm.
Out of that tragedy, with national initiatives like Together with Tenants and the safety Best Practice Group, there is an opportunity to take a fresh critical look at how social housing tenants are included (or not) in decisions impacting on their daily lives. These initiatives are to be praised and supported, but they must be inclusive and rigorous in their search for best practice. There are skilled practitioners in the social housing sector and the building and fire safety sector who should be included in the initiatives.
“The knowledge and voice of residents must be at the heart of any new initiatives”
There are also four million-plus people living in social housing, of which I am one. We too have skilled and knowledgeable people in our ranks.
Knowledge about the buildings some of us have lived in for 30 or 40 years, knowledge of neighbourhoods, skills from our life experiences, memories of areas that flood or where subsidence occurs and major repairs that have taken place, the nature of the land and its wildlife inhabitants, the needs of the local community. The knowledge and voice of residents must be at the heart of any new initiatives.
Now is the time to come together. Tenants, social housing landlords, housing professionals, and building and fire safety experts must help bring about a sea change in the concept, design and provision of social housing ‘by residents for residents’.
Anne McGurk, chair, Phoenix Community Housing