Sunday, 3 August 2008

Old dogs and new tricks

On Thursday I and the excellent Sue Witherspoon, Acting Director of Housing at the London Borough of Hounslow, made a presentation to the Board of Hounslow Homes about the coalition administration's vision as defined through the new Hounslow Plan, and its ambitious Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) which will create the structures through which it will be realised.

Such a presentation was never going to be greeted with whoops of enthusiasm by everybody on the Board. When Hounslow Homes was set up in 2003 under the old administration it was regarded by most as fairly much an appendage of the New Labour political machine. All five council appointees on the new Board were either serving Labour councillors or unsuccessful Labour candidates. Having been rejected at the polls by the borough's tenants, the then administration thought it a good idea to cock a snook at the electorate by putting these same people in charge of the borough's housing stock.

The five tenant representatives were elected behind closed doors and, amazingly, usually resulted in the election of known New Labour activists. The ten council and tenant Board members would then choose another five independent members to make up the remainder of the Board of fifteen.

On the staff side the set-up was not entirely dissimilar. Many of the problems on our estates described elsewhere on this blog arose from the fact that those of us who were the "wrong" councillors were effectively frozen out of discussions relating to things happening in the wards which we had been elected to represent, as were the tenants who were known to have supported us.

When I took over the Housing portfolio I resolved to introduce a new culture into Housing in Hounslow. I believed there was a better way to conduct business, one which was not only more ethical but which also served our tenants and leaseholders better. The conduct of business by whisper and secret handshake may well work in other institutions, but in the field of government it is not only undemocratic, it also leads invariably to stagnancy in ideas and complacency and inertia in service delivery.

Nevertheless the Old Guard retains an important presence on the Board and, surprising as it may sound to some people, I have no issue with this. When we first came into office, both the Community Group and the Conservatives agreed to elect council representatives to the Board on the basis of political balance, rather than political allegiance as had been the case previously. Consequently two of the five seats were offered to Labour, an offer which they happily accepted without any evident embarrassment, even though we all know full well that in the event of Labour being voted back into office in Hounslow the old, undemocratic practices would immediately be restored. As Councillor Mark Bowen rightly said during a recent debate at Borough Council, we do things a better way because we are better.

Similarly I have no issue with other Labour activists being on the Board, just so long as they are properly elected or appointed by means of an open and transparent process. To me it is healthy, and a good thing, for all shades of opinion to be represented on such an important body.

Anyway, I digress. My brief was to present the administration's vision to the Board and I entirely anticipated that the political element would not pass up the offer of a platform from which to give voice to their sometimes very peculiar notions of where they believe me, as Lead Member, to be coming from.

The first indication that this opportunity would not be passed by came as soon as Sue introduced the ruling coalition as being one comprising the Conservative and Community Groups. "And the Liberal Democrats," interjected one of the Labour councillors, obviously disappointed by the more selective and intelligent approach to opposition taken by the small Lib Dem team on the council than by his own gang.

But it was at the Question and Answer session following the presentation that the claque really got into the swing. One member delivered himself of the opinion, completely unsupported by any evidence at all, whether circumstantial or actual, that I intended to sell off all HRA (Hounslow Revenue Account) land to developers to build private accommodation. Another, paradoxically, took the opportunity to plug a proposed development in which a close relative of a very well-known local Labour politician has or recently had an interest, even though the issue had no connection with Hounslow Homes whatsoever.

However, when all is said and done what really was pleasing about the evening was the level of interest being taken by some of the newer members of the Board, who seemed genuinely keen to know where the future lay for social housing in the borough, and how their partnership with the local authority might be further developed. This, and the fact that I already enjoy a good and positive working relationship with most of the current senior officers at Hounslow Homes, bodes well for the organisation in the future.

I hope I am not being naive when I say I believe that many who may at first have been sceptical now see the new positivism as being an altogether better way. There is no reason, other than possibly party diktat, that this positivity cannot in time transcend organisational allegiance and permit a group of people who are united in their desire to improve social housing in our borough to all work together in a spirit of openness and mutual trust.

I remain of the view that it is just possible in certain circumstances, given the time and the will, to teach an old dog new tricks. To those who counsel that it would have been easier to have just shot the dog and been done with, I would simply point out that I still have the gun.

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