Pat Turnbull makes the case for tenants to be given a greater say in running their own housing – and how to do it.
In the two years since the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people, there have been many discussions about how to ensure the voices of social housing tenants are heard. On this occasion, I’d like to flip that question and ask: how do we get landlords and our government (at all levels – local to national) to better listen to tenants?
That’s a question that should be on the minds not just of tenants but of housing managers, community engagement workers, councillors, MPs, local journalists and others who could make a difference.
It’s worth first reminding ourselves why it is important to seek out and listen to the views of tenants. In the wake of Grenfell, this might feel obvious – but with 14 families still living in temporary accommodation two years on, it’s clear that at least some in social housing could do with a recap.
First, tenants and leaseholders know what is happening in our homes and neighbourhoods better than anyone else. This is all the more so in London, a city of increasing transience, in which social housing tenants and residents still form the most stable of communities.
Second, and too often forgotten: we pay the wages. Our landlords exist to serve their tenants and should therefore be keen to know what we think of their service. Working against this is a persistent myth that social housing tenants are getting something for nothing, and should be grateful for whatever we get regardless of quality.
Third, there is little choice for those living in social housing, particularly in London where some 78 per cent of the housing need backlog is for social rented homes. If we have fire safety concerns, our choice is between staying put and campaigning or moving into poorquality private lets, risking homelessness if we can’t keep up the rent. This means that social housing tenants rarely “vote with their feet” and leave if there is a problem with their landlord or the building, even a serious one.
Consumer-style approaches to hearing from tenants (think “focus groups” and “mystery shoppers”) are increasingly popular among housing associations and councils alike, but are of limited use when it comes to curbing institutional complacency where it exists. Participants in these initiatives are often self-selecting or selected by the landlord. If they raise unwelcome concerns, their views can be easily dismissed as those of just one tenant.
The best landlords have an active ear close to the ground, taking complaints seriously and prioritising putting things right. How can we make sure that all landlords follow their example? And how do we ensure that tenants are listened to by local, regional and national government as well?
As we see it, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Here are five mechanisms that already exist which landlords and government workers could make better use of to ensure they are listening to tenants:
1. Tenants and Residents Associations (TRAs)
When it comes to dealing with their landlords, social housing tenants amplify their
voices by forming local TRAs: it is harder to dismiss what’s said by a committee elected by their neighbours at an open annual meeting. For housing managers, this can be a mutually beneficial relationship: TRA committees are an accountable ear on the ground and worth their weight in gold, especially for those having to split their time across various estates. Some councils and housing associations provide resources and grants to support their TRAs. This should become standard practice: councils and housing associations should be required to set aside a proportion of tenants’ rents to provide TRAs with grants to help cover running costs.
2. The Right to Manage and the Right to Transfer
These are two little-known rights that give council tenants the ability to take matters into their own hands when things are going awry with their landlord. Subject to various safeguards and a ballot, the former allows tenants to jointly take on the management of their estates by forming a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO); the latter pushes this further by allowing tenants to form a community-led housing association or Community Land Trust (CLT) to take full ownership of their homes. TMOs, CLTs and housing co-ops are all resident-run membership organisations, democratically accountable through annual elections.
Unlike KCTMO (the management organisation responsible for Grenfell Tower), most TMOs are small-scale, managing several hundred properties or less, with an estate-based housing office. Godwin and Crowndale Tenant Management Co-operative in Camden manages just 173 flats across two neighbouring blocks. It was formed in 1992 by residents who were at their wits’ end about entrenched antisocial behaviour problems. Now – 27 years on – the TMC and the community are thriving, with the resident-run board able to respond quickly and effectively when problems do arise. In Bermondsey, tenants on the board of Leathermarket Joint Management Board (JMB) led the development of 27 new council homes on a former garage site on the Kipling Estate.
When in charge of the budget and other decisions, tenants can ensure that their needs are put first. Taking ownership can also help protect residents from imprudent demolition, or loss of community areas and green spaces to profit-making ventures (West Kensington & Gibbs Green Community Homes are a great example of tenants campaigning for this). We’d like to see both rights extended to housing associations to ensure all social housing tenants have this option. Of course, social landlords can prevent matters getting to that stage by working in a serious and collaborative manner with their TRAs.
3. Ballots and full community involvement in regeneration and largescale development areas
Living on public land, social housing tenants and leaseholders are disproportionately vulnerable to losing their homes and green spaces in regeneration schemes, as councils and housing associations seek to plug holes in their budgets or meet housing delivery targets. Yet lower-income households are typically the least likely to be involved in the decision-making process.
At London Tenants Federation (LTF), we believe that estate regeneration should be resident-led and demolition should be a last resort. We’ve had some success in calling for the introduction of ballots to protect tenants from the worst demolition schemes, though we believe the Mayor of London could still do more to protect the unnecessary demolition of valuable, existing social rented homes.
Furthermore, tenant representatives could be involved a lot more in the development of borough-wide planning and housing policy, and in scrutinising planning applications. LTF has recently done grant-funded work creating networks of tenants and other community groups to influence large-scale developments in London, including the Grand Union Alliance in the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation area. However, we feel this could become more standard practice if the boroughs supported it and the Mayor drew up a Statement of Community Involvement for his Opportunity Areas.
4. The Local Authority Committee System
While abolished under Labour, the Localism Act gave councils the freedom to revive the system in 2012. This could bring more people (including tenants) into debates around and scrutiny of decision making. The Committee System allows councils to delegate decision making on certain areas (e.g. housing or planning) to committees or subcommittees comprised of elected councillors. Rather than decisions being made behind closed doors by a cabinet or an elected Mayor, this opens the process up to greater accountability and scrutiny. We challenge more councils to take up this opportunity and – as often occurred in the past – to extend invitations to local elected tenant representatives who could speak up for social housing in their borough.
5. Tenants’ Federations
These are forums that bring together elected tenant reps of individual social landlords to share information and collectively hold their landlord to account. Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations, one of few federations in London to be funded by their council, runs successful tenant-led campaigns whilst also providing training, legal advice and other resources to TRAs in Southwark. Tenant federations and organisations make up the membership of London Tenants Federation. Together we ensure that tenants’ local and grassroots perspectives are taken into account in London-wide planning policy and decision making, most recently feeding into the draft new London Plan.
As with TRAs, we’d like to see more landlords set aside funds to support the running of tenants’ federations. Bodies such as these and our own London-wide federation are more able to actively engage with the wider voluntary and community sector. Recently, this has enabled us to successfully campaign for the GLA to set up a Housing Panel that brings together voluntary and community sector organisations (including ours) to feed into the Mayor’s housing policy.
More could be done. There has been much discussion of a national body to represent tenants. Tenants’ federations, fed by a thriving network of local TRAs, TMOs and co-ops, could provide the strong foundations and grassroots accountability that would give such a body the legitimacy it needs to succeed.