A new reality for tenants

16 Jan 09
PETER MARSH | Public participation should not be limited to TV talent shows.

Public participation should not be limited to TV talent shows. The Tenant Services Authority is launching its National Conversation next week with a promise to defend tenants from poorly performing landlords

Housing needs the ‘X factor’. As the popularity of reality TV demonstrates, people want to have their say. Gone are the days when an ‘expert’ jury could make the decision for them. Now they want — and expect — to be able to get involved in deciding who or what is best.

So why should it be any different in housing? After all, no one could be more expert than those on the receiving end of housing services.

That’s why the Tenant Services Authority is launching its National Conversation on January 19. The TSA is the new social housing regulator. We launched six weeks ago and have taken over the regulatory powers of the Housing Corporation.

The National Conversation will be the largest ever consultation with tenants of social housing in England. We’ll be finding out what tenants think of their landlords and their services, and what areas of service are the most important to get right.

This is particularly important — and timely — as the 2008 Housing and Regeneration Act that set up the TSA also sets out the government’s intention to extend our remit beyond housing associations.

Assuming we get the go-ahead from Parliament, we’ll also take over the regulation of council housing, including arm’s-length management organisations, in spring 2010. The Local Government Association has backed these plans, saying that it wants the TSA to act as a champion for tenants, regardless of who their landlord is.

As part of the National Conversation, we will be travelling round parts of England in a camper van, holding face-to-face meetings with tenants, providing materials that they can use to hold their own conversations and enabling them to post their views on a special YouTube channel. We’ll also be talking to people who might want to become tenants in the future and to landlords, to get their views.

We’re encouraging all housing associations and local authorities to hold events with their tenants as well, so that we can hear from as many people across the social housing domain as possible.

This is all part of a move to change how housing services are provided. We’ll use the feedback we receive to help us set standards, improve services and shape the future of the housing sector. The first phase will last until March, after which we will provide feedback. There will be a formal consultation later in the summer and early autumn. Tenants should begin to feel the benefits of the new standards as they kick in towards the end of the year.

That doesn’t mean that every social landlord should be losing sleep. Some provide excellent services. But, in truth, many are no better than mediocre — and that’s simply not good enough any more. The launch of the TSA gives us a chance to do things differently.

The extra powers in the Act that established the TSA provide us with a much better ‘toolkit’ to intervene to get things sorted for the benefit of tenants than our predecessor had. Unlike the Housing Corporation, we won’t be sending out mixed messages — we will be prepared to say to the new Homes and Communities Agency that a landlord isn’t doing a good enough job on communications with tenants, on service provision, on finance or on governance to be rewarded with investment funding to build new homes.

Some landlords wonder where this leaves them. Regulation shouldn’t be confused with red tape. Nobody wants that. Good landlords will be monitoring their performance routinely, and the very best will be setting targets in consultation with their tenants at a local level.

Sharing that information with us shouldn’t overburden landlords. And if we can then show how others in the same area compare, that has to improve accountability at a local level and, most importantly, to place the power of information in the hands of those who matter most — tenants.

Our approach is about being proportionate — so there should be very little for us to do where providers are strong and tenants are satisfied.

But where standards are slipping, governance is weak, finances are fragile or tenants are unhappy, we will intervene. From next year, this could allow the management of housing to change, without changing the ownership. So local authorities could take over the management services of housing associations, for example, or vice versa.

This might be a last resort, but the important thing is that tenants receive the best service possible, no matter who provides it. This is not Compulsory Competitive Tendering reinvented but a tool of last resort, to ensure the most important thing — that tenants get the best service possible, no matter who provides it.

All this adds up to one of the biggest shake-ups in affordable housing in decades, and one that will benefit the 10 million people who live in social housing. As X Factor winner and social housing tenant Alexandra Burke might say: ‘Hallelujah.’

Peter Marsh is chief executive of the Tenant Services Authority

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