The housing minister is listening to social housing tenants, but what is he hearing?

Thursday 7th of December 2017

In her article commissioned by Inside Housing, Tpas Chief Executive Jenny Osbourne discusses some of the topics coming out of the Housing Minister roadshows.

The Housing Minister, Alok Sharma,  is currently half way through a tour of the country to meet with social housing tenants face to face to discuss their issues and concerns. Twelve events, meeting over 1000 tenants. It’s quite a conversation.

But let’s be clear. These meetings would have been unthinkable a year ago when it seemed no one in government wanted to discuss social housing ever again. In fact let’s be even more honest, they would have been unthinkable before the 14th June and the tragic events that unfolded at Grenfell. To his credit Alok Sharma has been totally honest and upfront about that and acknowledged the shift in Government position. He has been clear at every meeting that housing is now the Prime Minister’s number one domestic issue and that the conversations with tenants are all driven from what happened and was exposed at Grenfell.

The announcement of the Social Housing Green Paper is now the imperative to these events. What the Minister hears, and crucially what his civil servants hear, at these sessions, we are promised, will form a significant part of what eventually goes in the Green Paper to be published in Spring next year.

I, and Tpas staff, have been at three of the events so far, along with colleagues from TAROE, CCH and NFTMO plus members of the steering group for a new national voice for tenants. All of us were there to help facilitate the discussions and ensure tenants ideas, good practice and frustrations are heard.

What's being raised

And in terms of what he is hearing, very quickly we have seen some common themes and issues emerging. But rest assured he is hearing about a whole range of experiences, good and bad, and is forming a much clearer, sharper and comprehensive picture of the concerns of social housing tenants.

Without a doubt the biggest issue has been Universal Credit – not fire safety as some may have thought given these are post Grenfell discussions. I don’t think the fact Universal credit is the main issue for tenants will be a shock for those of us working in housing but my sense is it may have surprised the minister and his team somewhat for it to be so high on the agenda. Of course, the problem will be what they can do about given it’s a DWP remit.....

Access to social housing and the issue of affordability. There’s no doubt that Alok and his team have got the message that no one sees affordable rent as affordable and that everyone is calling for a return to social rents that people can genuinely afford.

A huge theme has been around isolation, vulnerability and the sense of community. Too much to detail in this article but the stories and experiences from tenants have been deeply personal, moving and have hit home. People want their local communities resourced and invested in and they don’t want to be left isolated either digitally or physically.

Tenant examples

And there’s been much positivity too. Really pleasing for me obviously with my Tpas hat on, was the amount of examples given of where tenants have made a tangible positive difference to services through their scrutiny or wider engagement. The link between tenant involvement and value for money was made many times and showcased just what a partnership approach can achieve.

And finally the stigma of social housing came up time and time again. It totally underlines why the work of Benefit to Society is so crucial right now. Tenants have made   a challenge directly to the Minister, that they want to be proud to live in social housing and that the Government and the media have a massive part to play to ensuring that can happen. It was a powerful plea. And I think it was heard.

It would be easy to be cynical of the exercise being undertaken. To dismiss this all as only talking to involved tenants, not being representative enough or that nothing will happen as a result. But I think to be so cynical at this time would be a misreading of the situation. Alok comes across as genuine. That’s not just me saying that, but the overwhelming majority of tenants at the events. He has taken questions from the floor - quite rightly very challenging questions - he has answered them all and he has been honest of past failings.

He’s listening. It’s a good start.

The challenge now is to make sure he continues and that the listening translates in action.