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Teenage revolution

A Liverpool landlord is letting its young tenants take over the roles of key staff members for a day. Carl Brown finds out how they got on in the hot seat.

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SAM GORST
SAM GORST

‘I’m a tenant inspector so I’ll be one of the people who regulate. Now that the government is cutting the Audit Commission, we’ve got into a discussion about how we are going to do it ourselves,’ says 18-year-old Sam Gorst.

The active and involved teenage tenant speaks to Inside Housing about the future of inspection and regulation from the large, comfortable chief executive’s office of Liverpool landlord Plus Dane.

It’s the end of a long day during which he’s been shadowing Ken Perry, the chief executive of the 15,000-home landlord or ‘neighbourhood investor’ as it brands itself.

He is one of 10 people aged between 15 and 18-years-old who are taking part in Plus Dane’s ‘takeover day’, nominally performing the roles of key people within the organisation. Held last month, it’s one of a long line of initiatives the landlord is using to engage with tenants of all ages.

In the hot seat

Although Mr Perry has been right by his teenage protégé’s side throughout the day - tenant empowerment, after all, only goes so far - a besuited Mr Gorst spent the morning chairing a performance management meeting and conversing with tenants. He then had lunch with local politicians and went out with front line staff from Plus Dane’s environmental services team.

The socially aware teenager wants to be a political journalist - he’s been busy bagging relevant experience, having already volunteered for Refugee Action, a national charity working with refugees and asylum seekers, and the Tackling Racism Group, a project run by the Anthony Walker Foundation, a Liverpool-based educational charity.

He’s also working as a part-time youth worker for Liverpool Council, though his job will come to an end in March, due, he says, to the squeeze on council finances caused by the government’s cuts.

Although he’s not a Plus Dane customer - he’s a tenant of another local housing association - he’s been a member of the landlord’s youth forum since it was set up last October.

He wants to challenge popular perceptions about teenagers. ‘In Liverpool there’s always a stereotypical view about what young people are. This gives young people a chance to show they are not hoodie-wearing pests; not robbing, not stealing and not smoking weed all day, and that they’ve got a purpose and some do want to succeed.’

Political challenge

His mentor of the day, Mr Perry, says its up to individuals to put themselves forward. ‘[The reason you are doing well] is down to you,’ he says to
Mr Gorst. ‘At the end of the day all we can do is make things available for you but you’ve taken the initiative, you’ve got to take some credit yourself.’

So what has the pro-active teen taken from his day with Mr Perry? ‘It’s been a real eye-opener, I didn’t realise how much politics goes into [housing] and how much politics plays a big role in everyday life - that’s what other young people don’t get,’ answers Mr Gorst in a thick Scouse accent.

‘They don’t see it as crucial, but if there were no politics they wouldn’t be walking down nice, clean streets.’

As for Mr Perry himself, Mr Gorst admits he was surprised that the housing chief actually went out into the community. He was expecting an ‘old fat grey guy’ who sat in the office doing all the paperwork, delegating the more hands-on work to other people.

Overall, the teenager believes he’s got off lightly. ‘I’m suspecting it’s a lot more difficult when you’re doing it properly. I haven’t done a full day; his day must go into midnight.’

Getting involved

Plus Dane’s Takeover Day follows a series of activities in which the Liverpool landlord has encouraged tenants to have more say in the running of the organisation.

It was tenants who led the operation to bring the housing association’s £32 million maintenance contract in-house this summer - a move which Plus Dane says will save £500,000 a year in VAT, says its chief executive Ken Perry.

Residents are being trained as tenant inspectors to scrutinise the association’s books and help make key decisions.

Plus Dane calls itself a neighbourhood investor - an organisation committed to working with local partners to improve communities, including offering apprenticeships to young people - but is this, along with initiatives such as tenant panels, just a gimmick? Mr Perry says not. ‘You need tenants scrutinising your business plan,’ he argues.

But what happens if there is disagreement between board and tenants? ‘If that happens I’ve not done my job properly, is the simple answer,’ says the boss.

‘In traditional organisations, decisions would first be assessed by a management team, then go to the board for a decision and then we would tell the tenant, we are not doing it like that any more. Ideas will be scrutinised by the tenants early on.’

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