Sunday, 1 March 2009

Community Empowerment - a National Conversation

On Wednesday I attended an event at the RFU Stadium in Twickenham in the company of Eileen Gladwell from Tenant Participation at Hounslow Homes, and Julie Brooker, Chair of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Leaseholders Associations (HFTRA).

The event had been organised by the government-owned Tenant Services Authority (TSA), and was part of a roadshow organised by same under the title The National Conversation.

This particular conversation, it would seem, is about raising standards of service for tenants, be they with a local authority, an ALMO, a co-op or a housing association. So far so good, but what is particularly appealing about the project is that the TSA appears to recognise that delivering service improvements must necessarily run alongside a far more deep and meaningful engagement with tenants than is currently the case in most areas.

To this end the two-hour session concentrated largely on discussing what community engagement and participation actually mean.

Many of those present were themselves representatives of tenants' organisations, and I have to say that what really struck me was what little understanding many of these people actually had of the core principle of tenant participation. I formed the view that whilst many of them had achieved a good working relationship with their own landlords, the extent of the relationship that many of them retained with the very people they were supposed to be representing was often questionable.

It is too easy to conclude that a landlord has a good understanding of the needs of its tenant base because it enjoys a good relationship with a handful of individuals who have climbed to the top of the tree (itself often planted by the landlord) of the local tenants' movement. But in this modern day and age, there are a raft of alternative mechanisms available through which closer contact can be maintained by the landlord with the tenants themselves, whilst retaining the traditional structures through which the tenants' elected representatives can negotiate with them. We need to be thinking intelligently about complimenting, not replacing, existing channels of engagement.

Am I suspicious that such a forward-looking initiative could have emanated from a New Labour government? Of course I am. But let us accept this apparently excellent initiative at face value until it proves to be otherwise.

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