In search of balance and equanimity

The Social Housing White Paper has introduced new requirements around resident engagement strategies


Image: Istock

Darren Hartley


“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity” - Carl Jung

The delays in publishing the Social Housing White Paper (SHWP) caused much frustration from the housing sector in England, and its release in November was greeted with “hurrahs” and “hallelujahs”. Without doubt, from a resident perspective there is much to be celebrated.

Many of the changes TAROE Trust called for in its Green Paper response have been taken on board. For instance:

  • The removal of the ‘serious detriment’ test relating to regulator intervention.
  • Proactive regulation of consumer standards.
  • A strengthening of the role of the Housing Ombudsman.
  • Improved tenants’ rights of access to information.
  • A review of the Decent Homes Standard.
  • New consumer metrics.

It is far from perfect – there are some fundamental gaps. And this explains my quote from Carl Jung. The SHWP represents a swinging back of the pendulum towards the co-regulatory settlement put forward in the Cave Review of Social Housing Regulation in 2007 and which remains the bedrock of regulation.

Further steps

To calmly move forward, what are some of the things we need to be considering?

  1. If economic and consumer matters are like two sides of the same coin, then good governance is the edge that binds the two together. Ensuring the resident voice is heard requires an organisational culture that embraces and values what residents express. This requires housing provider boards to adopt an inclusive approach and send a clear message about the importance of listening to residents, acting on that feedback and being open and honest. Boards should already be thinking about what assurance they have that residents have meaningful influence at every level of the organisation.
  2. Flowing from culture, it is honesty rather than hype that is needed. Mistakes are made. Don’t gloss over them, but instead talk about them and importantly learn from them.
  3. Resident scrutiny has performed a really important role in recent years across the housing sector. There are many examples of terrific work in this area. However, it is not enough. If engagement with a small scrutiny group equals a box-tick for engaging tenants, then it drowns out the diversity of views and experiences. Of course, many landlords know this already, but for others, harvesting a greater diversity of data and opinions will be vital. COVID-19 has demonstrated the adaptability of the sector, so this can be done. The work of the community gateway models in particular seem to offer hope.
  4. COVID-19 has massively remodelled what ‘work’ looks like. As a result, the range and number of people willing and able to get involved in resident engagement will increase.
  5. Don’t shy away from complaints. The idea that complaints are a failure is unhelpful. The failure is not learning and improving from them.
  6. Let’s think differently about ‘representativeness’. As a profession, we sometimes get hung up on the preoccupation of the social sciences with representative samples. There’s a place for this. Seeking out a diversity of views should be applauded, as it can provide more balanced feedback. But, anthropological approaches highlight that the views of even a single person are no less valid – regardless of their ‘representativeness’ – and should be treated as such.
  7. Not all residents wish to be activists or are waiting around to get involved in focus groups or respond to surveys. They lead busy lives like everyone else. Opportunities to give feedback and influence decisions that are important to them individually should be available, but we also need to respect that many people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Offer more small opportunities. Grab more resident views in bite-size chunks.

Darren Hartley recently spoke at our webinar: Engaging with customers - new approaches, in November 2020. Watch a recording of the event here.

Social housing stigma

Back to equanimity. The SHWP did little to address the stigma of social housing. The fixation on homeownership does little to help. Homeownership is not for everyone, and the supply of truly affordable rented housing needs to dramatically increase – individual landlords should be looking at how their programmes can maximise this. The expected ‘Decent Homes 2’ programme offers opportunities to not only improve the quality of dwellings, but also their cost in use for residents, their carbon impact and the look and feel of public spaces.

The new regime outlined in the SHWP will undoubtedly create new challenges for local authorities. It will be interesting to see how the new inspection regime will operate alongside democracy in action.

Diversity of opinions

There are also major questions as to how residents may collectively and independently influence policy at a national level. This is not a call for the creation of a National Tenant Voice (Mark 2). However, diversity of views and experiences leads to more informed and balanced decision making, and ultimately, this would benefit everyone. The government may not have included this within the SHWP, but this doesn’t prevent the sector itself ensuring these channels are in place.

Many landlords will already do much of this. The SHWP proposals will take several years to implement, but nobody needs to wait to take further action today.

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