Friday, 3 October 2008

Under the Rainbow

The bidding phase of the Rainbow Project was formally launched on Tuesday, with an impressive gathering of tenants, councillors and officers from both Hounslow Homes and the London Borough of Hounslow coming together to celebrate the release of around £1.5m of funds for tenant-led initiatives on our estates.

After enjoying tea and biscuits whilst listening to a series of short speeches from Alf Chandler (
Chair, Hounslow Homes), Bernadette O'Shea (Chief Executive, Hounslow Homes), Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs (Mayor of Hounslow), Julie Brooker (Chair, Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations) and myself, delegates were led under a rainbow which had been imaginatively located across the door into a "fairground" at which popcorn, hot dogs, burgers and ethnic delights were purveyed whilst the younger ones were able to play games, blow up balloons and have their portraits drawn in caricature.

All in all it was a lot of fun, and with the latecomers taken into account some 100 people were able to partake. However the essential message was not in doubt - that residents of this borough, in this case tenants and leaseholders in properties managed by Hounslow Homes, are taking control of their own communities at last.

My speech to delegates at the event made the rationale for the Project abundantly clear, and I make no apologies for reproducing it in full below:

"When the new administration took office in 2006 I think it is fair to say that my appointment as Lead Member for Housing wasn't greeted with whoops of delight in every office at St. Catherine's House.

"I had, and have, some very forthright views on the question of Tenant Involvement, views which were the product of years of history and personal experience, and I was equally forthright in expressing them.

"When I came into this office I was absolutely determined to reshape our approach, as a local authority, to this area, and I pressed ahead determinedly - some might say a little pig-headedly - to do precisely that.

"Put at its very simplest, the goal I have striven to achieve is the maximum possible participation, involvement, and ownership by our tenants of everyday life and activity on our estates.

"Whether we are councillors or officers, Board Members or whatever, our sole reason for being here is to serve the public. We exist for the public, the public doesn't exist for us.

"Our tenants and leaseholders - our residents, call them what you will - are the eyes and ears of our community. They let us know when there are issues on their estates - whether it be a lapse in our performance as a landlord or wider issues such as anti-social activity, drugs, crime - it is usually through our residents that we find out. And when those residents are organised, we find out more quickly.

"Tenants' and residents' associations are the best vehicle for creating community cohesion (basically the "in" term for a society in which people from all backgrounds get along, enjoying the same rights and opportunities and living together in harmony). There is no better way to break down barriers between sections of the community which may mistrust or fear one another than for those people to come together and discuss, and campaign on, those issues that concern them the most. More often than not, they quickly discover that their problems and concerns are fairly much the same.

"So there is nothing to be afraid of with free, independent and strong tenants' associations. An association that just does what the landlord tells it and doesn't challenge us is frankly of no use to anyone. Working with organised bodies of tenants is actually an easier, and more productive option than not doing so.

"The Rainbow Project is about empowering our residents. What we have done is taken approximately £1.5m from Housing Revenue Account reserves - tenants' money - and said this is here for residents to spend how they think it should be spent, improving the fabric and quality of life on their own estates. Whilst we will offer help and guidance it is the tenants, not us, who will be leading on the Project. Even the name - Rainbow Project - was chosen by a resident at the HFTRA Conference back in the Spring.

"The objective of the Project is threefold:

"Firstly, obviously, it will provide regeneration in areas where it is needed. At a time when Hounslow Homes has had to reorganise and make efficiency savings, it is a piece of really good news. We hope we will see community centres refurbished, play facilities built, environmental and community cohesion projects launched.

"Secondly, it will energise existing TAs. Those of you who represent tenants' and residents' groups will be aware of just how thankless a task it sometimes is, working to create a better environment for everyone when so few people offer to muck in and help, sometimes even criticising you when things go wrong without having even the slightest intention of helping you to put things right. We hope this project will serve as an incentive and as a morale-booster to our hard-working residents' groups.

"Thirdly, we hope it will lead to the creation of new groups where none currently exist, and similarly to more interaction with other voluntary bodies, some of whom incidentally you may find being very friendly with you all of a sudden as this Project gets under way.

"Now, whatever the virtues of this Project, let me make one thing clear - empowering tenants is not all about money. Money is a necessity, money is nice. But it can be used for good or for ill. It can be used to empower and indeed liberate residents, or it can be used to shackle them. If money is thrown at you to make you do a certain thing or vote in a particular way then it causes more problems than it solves, and ultimately does nothing to help you no matter how much the opposite may seem at first to be the case.

"This Project is not about buying your support or your acquiesence, it is about giving you back something that's yours, and helping you to regenerate your estate in the way in which residents feel it should be regenerated. It's about empowering our community.

"I began by saying that my appointment as Lead Member for Housing was not well received in some quarters. Let me just say that, a little over two years on, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the co-operation, the help, the inspiration, the ideas and the sheer energy that has been put into this Project by all the staff at Hounslow Homes, as well as those who have been involved at the Council itself. The reaction of staff members to this Project has been nothing short of fantastic, and it is why I firmly believe that this Project will be a success.

"It is my hope that the Rainbow Project will not be a one-off, but will be the first of many schemes to put power and decision-making back where it belongs, and to build our already excellent tenants' movement into something still better and stronger.

"I'll shut up now. I hope you enjoy the remainder of the evening, and I look forward to working with you all on the Project."

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