Since the Grenfell tragedy on 14 June 2017 there has been much debate about social housing tenants and the stigma surrounding the sector, particularly in England. The housing supply crisis and the impact of welfare reform leads many to assume that the social housing sector is there to house the poorest in our communities.
The role of social housing is being questioned from within and outside of the sector with several pieces of work underway to try to establish who social housing is for and what purpose it serves. Alongside this, the English Housing Minister Alok Sharma has been touring the country speaking to tenants. The Scottish Government did this several years ago now when the Scottish Social Housing Charter and the new regulatory framework were being constructed from a ‘blank sheet of paper’. Civil servants consulted tenants, homeless people, housing applicants, young people and others as well as housing staff with no preconceived ideas. The message at the time was clear – we will build a new system of regulation with tenants and other stakeholders at the heart of regulatory requirements.
Ironically at the time in Scotland, we appeared to be following the TSA model in England. Then the Conservatives came to power in England and the TSA was closed. The Conservatives remain in power but suddenly we are back to the days of the TSA, recognising that tenants should have a voice and that that voice should be listened to. We appear to have come full circle in England which on the one hand is positive but tragically most of us who have spent our careers in the sector know that it wouldn’t be happening if Grenfell hadn’t occurred.
So, going forward, how do we maintain a balance between what tenants and other customers need and want while ensuring we are achieving value for money within the sector? Clearly, gold plated taps are not always an option no matter how aesthetically pleasing they might be.
In 2015, along with Wheatley Group and the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, HouseMark produced the first value for money (VFM) research for the social housing sector “How do you know if you are providing value for money?”
As part of this publication, Betty Stevenson, Convenor of Edinburgh Tenants’ Federation gave her perspective on VFM as:
“Value for money means getting things right first time. It means tenants having a say on what they want to pay for, and an honest discussion between tenants and landlords to set the boundaries for this. It doesn’t always mean going for the cheapest option, but looking for the best options that will serve tenants over time”.
During rent setting consultation processes, we know tenants don’t always choose the option which means the lowest personal increase if they think that paying more will contribute to improvements in their existing homes, better services and new homes for future generations within their communities.
The proposed changes to the VFM Standard in England require housing associations to explain how they are investing in existing homes and customer services, as well as new supply. The emphasis on VFM becoming a strategic issue for governing bodies to get to grips with is crucial for individual board members to understand how they can deliver positive outcomes for tenants by operating with a ‘social heart and a business head’. There may be some capacity building required for some providers in this area to ensure the right culture and attitude is being embraced by board members.
As a housing professional, I passionately believe we have a duty to deliver better outcomes for tenants across the UK, Grenfell tragically demonstrated that. We need to hear the tenant voice and we need to listen to it. We need to do it with a ‘business head’ but absolutely with our ‘social hearts.’ But how?
Tenants must be empowered to express their views about what they need from landlord services regularly. Services can be redesigned with input from tenants and others, if staff are prepared to listen and accept they can do better, after all every day is a school day. Tenant scrutiny activities across the UK have demonstrated that when there is a willingness to engage in two way communication, share decision making and transfer power between professionals and tenants that performance improvement, service redesign and value for money can be achieved.
As one of the UK housing sector’s largest membership organisations, we see so much good work and best practice – from neighbourhood planning to co-operatives, from innovative engagement techniques to positive digital inclusion initiatives. We see partnerships forming across our network to create communities as well homes. We know people who are using our data analysis to help them save money, generate efficiencies, prioritise areas for investment and they are seeing results.
River Clyde Homes, based in Greenock near Glasgow, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in December 2017. It has a long history of tenant participation since council tenants got involved in the stock transfer process which created RCH. The Customer Senate is supported by customer involvement and governance staff to undertake scrutiny activities designed to improve services within RCH.
As part of the Scottish Government’s ‘Stepping Up to Scrutiny’ programme the customer senate scrutinised the performance of void turnaround times. The Senate made thirteen recommendations for improvement to the Governing Board, all of which were accepted. An action plan was created to monitor implementation of the recommendations. As a result performance improved between March 2015 and March 2016 with the re-let time being reduced from 85 to 48 days.
As a result there are tangible benefits for River Clyde Homes in reducing rent loss, therefore minimising the financial impact of empty homes on their income stream and for tenants and communities their housing needs are being met more quickly, resulting in more attractive communities and greater tenancy sustainment. All of this means that greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy is being achieved – the 3 Es of VFM. There needs to be more positive practice like this highlighted in the media to dispel the myth that our sector is the sector of last resort. We need tenants and housing professionals to be loud and proud about what they are achieving together.
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The Sector Scorecard is an initiative which allows housing associations to benchmark performance and check they are providing value for money