Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Musings from a faraway place

As I write I am enjoying a short break between sessions at the 2008 CIH Housing Conference in Harrogate.

Until very recently I was only half a Lead Member for Housing, sharing the portfolio with Councillor Mark Bowen. My responsibility involved liaising with Hounslow Homes, the Council's ALMO (Arm's Length Management Organisation), whilst Councillor Bowen dealt with the client side of the operation. Following the slight reshuffle which took place following the election of the new Executive by Borough Council in May, it was agreed that I would take on the whole Housing portfolio from the end of this month.

Against all odds I arrived in Harrogate yesterday morning in time for the opening speech from the Rt. Hon. Caroline Flint MP, the Minister for Housing and Planning. This was immediately followed by a familar political double-act from the Rt. Hon. Michael Portillo (I hadn't previously realised that Right Honourability remained after one ceased to be a political bigwig) and Diane Abbott MP, giving slightly different but equally helpful perspectives on the main challenges facing local and national politicians in trying to deliver what people want whilst helping to build diverse but cohesive communities.

But it was a session involving such B-list celebrities as the Deputy Leader of Islington Council and the Deputy Chief Executive of the Housing Corporation on the theme "Power to the People - will the Tenant Services Authority deliver?" which I have found the most helpful so far.

I would like to digress just for a moment and offer some background as to how I came to be here in the first place. The ICG, which is a partner in the coalition that took control of the London Borough of Hounslow back in 2006, has its roots in the tenants' movement. It emerged from within the heart of the Isleworth community as a response to the inequities and unfairness of a régime which possessed a strictly limited view of the tenants' movement as simply one of many vehicles through which to pursue a political agenda. An ipso facto consequence of this narrow view was that our tenants' associations became political playthings, with positions of office being achieved through service to the political cause rather than through a democratic process driven by residents. Associations thus constituted were never going offer a meaningful challenge to the policies or actions of a régime of which they were, after all, an integral part.

The justification which the practitioners of this chicanery attached to their actions was that they, as a "socialist" party, had the tenants' interests at heart. Historically there is little doubt that there is some truth in this, although the existence of checks and balances on political power is healthy under any system.

More recently, however, the Labour Party has of course abandoned its traditional values in its pursuit of electability (which must rather grate with people of principle who remain in the party now that it is neither socialist nor
electable). As New Labour, the party has become an organisation whose raison d'etre would appear to be no more than the acquisition of power, for the purpose of being in power.

So we have (or had until very recently), on our estates, a policy which sought to influence our tenants' movement, not for the furtherence of an ideological agenda from which it might expect to derive some benefit, but simply for the purposes of pursuing the power objectives of an organisation which desires to exercise control over others.

The ICG has an entirely different philosophy, one which our opponents almost universally fail to understand, and one which they sometimes go to extraordinary lengths not to understand. In our way of doing things, criticism and complaint is encouraged. We believe in structures which are by their nature self-critical, always holding themselves up to scrutiny. In order to achieve this we welcome and encourage the greatest possible level of involvement from everybody, including those who oppose us as a Group. Our opponents mock us for what they perceive as our lack of political savvy in taking such a position (although it is worth noting that they do so now from a position of opposition), but for us this is, quite simply, morally the right thing to do.

It is also our belief that tenants' and residents' associations are among the best means of promoting community cohesion. Residents from diverse backgrounds who find that they have concerns and issues in common soon learn to put any differences to one side. In the current climate, to do anything with might jeopardise the growth of associations and interest groups across the community in pursuit of a political agenda would be an act of unforgivable selfishness and irresponsibility.

It is because of Labour's track record and instinct for organisational self-advancement at any price that I harbour a natural suspicion of any member of that party who seeks to be involved in any way in the process of tenant participation. My default position when any new initiative issues forth from this government with the stated objective of empowering residents is always to look for the catch. So it was when Phil Morgan, the Chief Executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, declared to the Conference that he had always been "a bit of a lefty". Not because there is anything at all wrong with being a "lefty", but simply because the majority who would describe themselves thus still seem to retain an irrational organisational affinity to the Labour Party in spite of its rejection of its their core beliefs, which in more cases than not leads them to a position of party before principle.

But as I waited for the catch it occurred to me that maybe that I would be left waiting for some time. The language which brings news of the powers which the Tenant Services Authority will have is uncharacteristically that of giving communities more power and more independence. Proposals, for instance, to give tenants powers to reward good practice and to take action against poor landlords have to be encouraging. There is a worryingly frequent use of the word "regulation", but only time will tell how this fits in within the wider context of the initiative.

As Lead Member for the whole Housing portfolio I will be taking a keen interest in all these developments, and in particular will want to analyse their implications for Hounslow. More on this anon.

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