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Don Pedro’s Arrival and The Housing Green Paper. 

So, there’s still plenty of time to comment on the government’s Green Paper on Housing, with the consultation deadline pointing at 6th November. The five principles that hold it up provide ample food for thought:

   Ensuring homes are safe and decent;
   Swift resolution of disputes and complaints;
   Empowering residents and making sure their voices are heard;Needing to address stigma; and
   Boosting the supply of social housing and supporting home ownership.

Triggered by the tragedy that befell Grenfell Tower, the Green Paper’s anticipated arrival was greeted with the same excited fervour that met Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, arriving home victorious from battle.

Sajid Javid, who at the time was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced it as:

A wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector, the green paper will be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation. It will kick off a nationwide conversation on social housing. What works and what doesn’t work. What has gone right and what has gone wrong. Why things have gone wrong and – most importantly – how to fix them.”

The anticipation it triggered sent ripples across the sector, signalling optimism for those who reside in social housing. At the same time, the potential for change was met with trepidation by some social landlords who, over the past few years, had become used to a light-touch regulatory framework. What would the implications be for them?

When it finally landed in August, like all Green Papers, it posed a number of questions designed to open up debate. While there were some solutions peppered between the glossy covers – the answers to the problems are left for the readers and others to feedback on, which I guess isn’t a bad thing – but is that really enough? Is the approach that’s been adopted really what engagement is about? Green Papers always remind me of the old adage ‘no one buying a drill wants a drill solution, they want to drill a hole!’, and wait, ….didn’t Sajid say the paper would explain;

Why things have gone wrong and – most importantly – how to fix them?

Did his statement imply that we would be getting some answers? Well, that’s not entirely what we got. Instead we received a report that identified a shed load of problems (many of which we were already aware). The government ran a number of roadshows across the country, ministers consulted with 1,000 individuals and reviewed 7,000 online submissions – great! But surely it would have been better if they had taken a little longer, widened their scope to include more residents, and followed through using the roadshows to actually engage with tenants and professionals as opposed to simply consulting with them – and thereby encouraging them to come up with their own answers to the problems identified. Doing it in two phases, seeking solutions at arms-length via the internet, or expecting others like the good old Nat Fed to take the reins, while commendable, doesn’t feel as encouraging as it should.

There is a difference between consultation and engagement. Consultation might be appropriate for challenges that result in minimal or low impact, whereas engagement is better for issues that are particularly charged with values and emotions, and where a shift in cultural behaviour is more likely to be achieved.

Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation has eight rungs. At the lowest level, rungs 1-2, is where the real objective is not to enable
people to participate in housing, but to enable the ‘educators’ to ‘educate’ the participants. Rungs 3-5 represent greater or lesser degrees of tokenism, and would encompass differing forms of consultation. The upper levels, rungs 6-8
reflect increasing degrees of decision making responsibilities. Rung 6 relates to the enabling of citizens to negotiate with the power holders; while 7 moves into notions of delegated power. The ladder
stops at rung 8, at this level citizens obtain the majority of decision making seats, or full managerial power1. What I consider as full and meaningful engagement.

If we are serious about making real changes across the sector, then cultural change is exactly what’s required. Beefing up regulatory powers, as is implied in the Green Paper, will only go so far. It would be fair to say in the current climate, where grant income has shrunk and financial pressures have become a reality, social landlords have been focused on running the business, steering it through the stormy seas of fluctuating finance. This has meant that, in some quarters, the relationship between customer and landlord had become broken. Where this has happened, it is now time for repair.

This starts with relationships, which is why, for me, the Green Paper’s ambition around empowering residents is probably the most important. Because if the relationship between the landlord and the customer becomes trusted, then you can start to be proactive when it comes to problem solving. So handling complaints, issues regarding stigma and achieving a decent home standard (three of the governments desired ambitions) will more likely be attained. It does mean reaching deep into the community and seeking out those voices that are never heard. This is not without its challenges. Raising expectations that can’t be met, poor feedback and fear of conflict are just a few. But if the right approach is used and the focus is on what works well, then these fears can be managed.

This is a serious commitment, which takes time, planning and effort – but once achieved, residents feel listened to and appreciated. Because they have helped to build the policy, they have ownership, residents are empowered and become more inclined to participate in ways that add real value to an organisation. Amicus Horizon – a large housing association operating in London and the south east – shaped their governance structure around the needs of their customers. This meant engaging with residents regularly, in a strategic but informal way.

The approach was greeted with cynicism by senior management, but engaging well with customers and letting them take the lead resulted in just over £2m savings annually – with a hike in satisfaction rates just shy of 97% and formal complaints reduced by a whopping 82%. All of this was achieved in 2014, without the Green Paper.

I often ask myself whether the cost of living in a liberal society has fractured the cohesiveness of the community as we knew it. But it seems to me that everybody needs a flag to fly and somewhere to belong – if you want everyone to pull together, this can be done. To make real changes, we have to do things very differently. This means thinking about how we engage with tenants, and, scary as it is, letting them take the lead when it comes to policy and giving them some say about spending and budgets.

I don’t say the Green Paper is a bad thing – I would rather be with it than without. But there is something about the approach taken which feels overly familiar – and perhaps it’s this that needs to change. My fear is that if you use the same approaches, you’re likely to get the same results. Until we regard tenants as assets and really start engage with them, the expectations, like those outlined in the Green Paper, will always fall slightly short of the ambition.

And oh, for those of you who don’t know who the hell Don Pedro is Google ‘Much Ado About Nothing’… alternatively you could check out his arrival here:

Written by Ernie Hendricks


1 Scottish Government (2017). Barriers to community engagement in planning: a research study. Crown Copyright 2017.