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The sound of silence

New research suggests some social landlords are perceived to be silencing tenants’ groups they disagree with, leaving residents feeling marginalised and disempowered. Martin Hilditch investigates

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It’s a knotty problem for any social landlord. You think you’ve come up with an amazing plan to regenerate an area, renovate people’s homes or perhaps you just think you’re providing a darn good service. All in all you count yourself as a jolly good egg. There’s just one niggle. Not everyone who lives on your estates agrees with your views.

If this is just one or two tenants then you’re probably OK but if local tenants’ and residents’ groups turn against you then it’s a bigger deal. Organised opposition could take a wrecking ball to demolition plans or scupper a stock transfer.

Faced with such opposition - if they haven’t already - most landlords knuckle down and try to listen to people’s concerns. If they are lucky they can arrive at a solution that keeps most people reasonably happy.

According to new research published last week, however, in some cases landlords have chosen another route. When it comes to stock transfer, the Building and Social Housing Foundation research states many tenants believe their local authority landlords are ‘silencing or marginalising dissenting voices’ and abusing their position of power.

And it’s not just stock transfer that has proved divisive. Inside Housing has also spoken to several local tenants’ and residents’ associations which feel they have been similarly marginalised if they have proven to be a thorn in their landlords’ sides about a variety of issues.

So are these simply the protests of a vocal minority, or have some landlords really been attempting to silence tenants who disagree with them? And have such attempts been helpful or counter-productive to their plans?

Cut off

There’s certainly little doubt that some tenants groups feel they have been marginalised.

One tenants’ federation in the north of England had its funding cut after a fractious relationship with a housing association, which it says now regards it as having officially ‘ceased to exist’. Another London-based federation says that, after a long-running wrangle with its parent authority, when the council consults on policy ‘it leaves the tenants’ federation off the list’ of groups it will speak to. Most famously, Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s ongoing plans to demolish some of its housing estates resulted in a fall out with some existing residents’ associations. It then decided they were unrepresentative and set up a separate - and, by happy coincidence for the council, more agreeable - residents’ steering group to consult about the plans. Many tenants were left feeling ‘disempowered’ by the decision, according to local campaigner Jonathan Rosenberg.

The BSHF research paper, Tenant involvement in stock transfer, is clear that tenants have been left disillusioned and disempowered in a number of cases when their questions might have been awkward or their views problematic for their landlord.

Researchers spoke to tenants who have been involved in stock transfers and the report states that ‘tenants often found that opportunities for effective discussion were limited and that the agenda for debate was inflexible’.

Housing providers, the research report adds, were ‘often perceived to act in ways that gave reasons for mistrust’.

Tenants provided ‘numerous examples’ of incidents that had reduced their trust in councils and housing associations that were seeking transfer, it claims. These included not responding to questions, ‘actual or suspected’ data manipulation and misrepresentation, and the ‘perceived abuse of power and privilege by major project stakeholders by silencing or marginalising dissenting voices’ by, for example, removing anti-transfer posters.

The report concludes that tenant involvement in stock transfer has ‘failed to effectively empower tenants’ and that housing providers need to ‘engage in a more complete and open dialogue’ and ‘learn to listen’ properly to them.

Risky strategy

Dr John McCormack, the report’s author, says that several years ago he worked on a potential stock transfer as an independent tenant advisor. The local authority was struggling to agree with local tenants’ groups over which landlord would manage the stock in the event of a transfer. Eventually, the council told the residents’ association ‘we will disband you’.

‘The council wanted to convince the tenants they were wrong to have the views they had,’ Dr McCormack states. ‘[The council] tried to set up another [more agreeable tenants’] group.’

The end of this story, however, contains a sting for landlords that might be tempted to try to silence inconvenient views.

‘They couldn’t get anybody to come forward and the stock transfer failed,’ he adds. ‘I’m convinced that the transfer would have gone ahead if the tenants’ choice of preferred bidder had been accepted [but] the council wanted more money. They ended up with a massive no vote.’

This story, and the research, raises a wider question about ‘who has the power to decree a representative voice unrepresentative’, Dr McCormack adds.

This is certainly an issue exercising some tenants in Carlisle. The city’s long-standing federation of tenants and residents has been locked in dispute with Riverside Housing Group - and before that, its subsidiary Carlisle Housing Association - for a number of years. Until a few years ago it received grant of £1,200 a year from Riverside but this was axed in 2009 when CHA created a new 250-strong tenant panel.

If the relationship with the federation had been fractious up to this point it has since been openly hostile.

‘We have ceased to exist as far as Riverside is concerned,’ states a spokesperson for the federation.

‘From that point on they have pursued a policy of hostility towards us. They won’t speak to us at meetings. They just don’t want to talk to us.’

At the time, CHA said it acted because the management of the federation were not Riverside tenants and that the new panel would be more representative. But the spokesperson for the federation insists that because it is a federation of tenants’ organisations from across the Carlisle region, ‘we do represent their tenants but we also represent other housing associations as well’.

A spokesperson for Riverside says that ‘the Carlisle and Rural District Tenants’ Federation doesn’t have any Riverside tenants on its committee or who attend its meetings. We believe that it is more beneficial for Riverside and our tenants and residents that we focus our engagement with these local groups rather than an umbrella group that does not represent our tenants’.

She adds that the federation had been the only tenants’ and residents’ group in Carlisle when the council’s stock transferred to Riverside in 2001. Since 2009, after feedback from other tenants, the landlord engages ‘directly with three tenant groups in Morton, Longton and Brampton’ with tenants from Cumbria taking part in a ‘count me in’ panel, completing surveys and contributing to focus groups on service issues.

This year Riverside set up a scrutiny committee from Cumbria and tenants are represented on the (all-encompassing) Riverside Tenants’ Federation.

No recognition

A more recent dispute is one that has developed between Camden Council and the London borough’s tenants’ federation. It effectively de-recognised the federation earlier this year, stating it had concerns about its governance - concerns the federation is working to address.

It is in the process of tendering for an organisation to produce the Independent Voice - a newspaper for tenant organisations in Camden - and it is not certain at this stage whether the federation will be involved in this process.

At the moment, however, according to a spokesperson for the federation, when the council produces reports ‘they list the people they are consulting and leave the tenants’ federation off that list’.

‘We have a democratic mandate,’ the spokesperson states. ‘But it is potentially hard to get people to respond to concerns you are raising about [for example] a new stock condition survey and so on, when they are being told by someone else that they don’t have to listen to you.’

The spokesperson acknowledges that tenants’ sometimes awkward views can create a temptation for councils’ to seek an easier structure to engage with - especially if they provide the funding.

‘It seems unlikely that any director of housing who feels under pressure from an active, organised tenants’ body wouldn’t be asking “why do I have to put up with this and why are we funding them to put out a newspaper?”,’ she adds.

A spokesperson for the council says it had received complaints about the running of the federation and was carrying out a process of due diligence with it. He admits there has been tension between the council and federation as a result and says that while the federation is not on consultation lists, its member tenant and resident organisations are.

Inconvenient truth

Over in Hammersmith & Fulham, Mr Rosenberg says the council set up a steering group of tenants to consult on its plans to demolish several estates ‘when it became apparent the [existing] associations were against demolition’.

‘It is obviously disempowering for the local authority to refuse to listen to properly organised, democratically elected tenants’ and residents’ associations. We have 630 members,’ he adds.

In Hammersmith & Fulham’s case, however, the isolation of some tenants’ groups - which is how its approach has been interpreted by them - has done little to silence the tenants’ voice and they are currently pursuing legal action to attempt to prevent the demolition.

A spokesperson for Hammersmith & Fulham Council says it has ‘provided funding to the steering group to enable them to represent and negotiate on behalf of other residents’. He adds that the council had ‘made a similar offer of financial support to the TRA in March 2010’.

While these examples might be among the most public fallings out, Michael Gelling, chair of the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, says the marginalisation of tenants’ views is often ‘more subtle’.

‘It is often the people who are marginalised rather than the structure,’ he states. ‘We find that a great deal. Landlords say things like “we are talking to people within our recognised structure”, but they are not talking to the wider tenant population.

‘They are saying “we have 20 tenants we regularly talk to. They are on board and they are on side and we don’t need to talk to anyone else”.’

As Dr McCormack’s story about the failed stock transfer reveals, however, there are risks if landlords allow tenants to feel marginalised. It may lead them to make bad decisions or - in some cases - prevent potentially decent policies or programmes from being implemented.

If nothing else, for good or bad, as Dr McCormack warns ‘if you don’t address the issue there is always the risk that what passes for the voice of tenants is actually the voice of someone else’.

The right stuff

Recommendations on how to improve tenant involvement in stock transfer:

  • Housing providers need to engage in a more complete and open dialogue with tenants, including acknowledging the range of competing interests involved
  • Social landlords need to learn to listen to tenants and value what they bring to the table
  • The government should produce a new good practice guide about how to involve tenants effectively in stock transfer
  • The role of independent tenant advisors should change. They should focus more on enabling tenants to understand the big picture and help them engage with other stakeholders outside of the council
  • Housing providers (and the government) should recognise that tenants want to engage in the stock transfer process for the benefit of their communities rather than simply as individual consumers who want to maximise their personal advantage
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