In the volatile space of social media, social landlords are challenged on their commercial business models. The case for size and sustainability often conflicts with being person-centred, having authentic relationships and ensuring all voices are heard – or good ‘engagement’.
It is these voices going unheard that has led to The Charter for Social Housing Residents. It highlights how residents feel patronised, ignored or treated with disrespect. And in the Queen’s Speech on 10th May (read for the first time by HRH The Prince of Wales), we heard about the much heralded Social Housing Regulation Bill. The Bill aims to hold landlords to account, and to improve accountability to tenants. The clear ambition of the reforms is to deliver the change that tenants have been calling for. So-called tenant ‘engagement’ goes to the heart of achieving what it sets out to do.
The aim is to develop a culture of respect, accountability and listening…but as at least one commentator remarked on the day ‘the devil is in the detail’.
It’s hard to argue with the intentions of the Bill when the Grenfell enquiry revealed years of complaints falling on deaf ears. ‘Respect, accountability and listening’ ought to be a minimum. But housing, just like the government, appears a bit late to the party on good culture, values and authenticity. Even the Social Housing Quality Resident Panel, with its representation of just 250 residents, is no better than a landlord undertaking a quick fix tokenistic participation exercise. There is also little sign that it will be long-lived. One housing director talked of her bitter disappointment at the absence from the Bill of a commitment to a national tenant voice.
Saying you’re committed to listening doesn’t make it so
The word ‘engagement’ is the short-hand, overused term that won’t achieve the desired change. Flurries of activity, social media images and pride, long before the Bill was even announced, emit regularly from social landlords around their resident panels, tenant forums, community events and more. ‘Engagement’ is the thread throughout. In fact, it’s been the thread throughout my career, most recently and starkly apparent (perhaps because it was the first face to face event in two years) at a Homeless Link conference where I was struck by the casual acceptance that we all knew what we meant by it.
Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the 1999 Macpherson report into institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police, the term ‘hard to reach’ was finally called out for what it was – a way of blaming communities that services had done little to reach.
Using the word ‘engagement’ as the shorthand for achieving the aims of the Bill smacks a bit of ‘hard to reach’. In the same way it feels as if we can blame tenants when they don’t engage. None of the Bill’s other ambitious challenges, such as tackling social housing stigma or isolation, can be successfully resolved for as long as we blame ‘hard to reach’ or ‘disengaged’ tenants for our own failures to reach them.
After the horrors of Grenfell, in the midst of a cost of living crisis and at a time when we are not building enough affordable homes, legislation is overdue. Everyone deserves a safe and secure home, including security of tenure, the feeling of safety when you close the front door and a life rather than an existence. For too many, this is not the case. Scarcely a week passed when a landlord isn’t shamed for the condition of their stock or the treatment of their tenants. We cannot take for granted a home, let alone one which is safe, secure and in which all voices are heard.
We need either further clarity around the word engagement or to scrap it all together. Call it relationship building – call it anything – but if there is one thing that is ‘othering’ and will thwart engagement, it’s calling it engagement.
The opportunity here is not to tinker with a few more resident panels and a ‘you said and we did’ poster. This is an opportunity to build empathic and meaningful relationships and to reverse the power dynamic. One former director of social housing said: ‘we have to understand that people are not defined by their housing tenure and be prepared to give up power’.
We have the will and the chance to create services that people want to be a part of, to remove the stigma and have effective and equitable relationships. The opportunity is to turn the Bill into something that effects change and delivers life-changing outcomes. Only then can we hope to avoid the tragedies experienced as a result of poor quality housing and a repeat of Grenfell.
CEO and Founder
Your Own Place CIC