Saturday, 25 April 2009

Out and about with the RSLs - Part One

Despite the gout coming back yet again with a vengeance I managed to stay on my feet for most of the day yesterday to tour the borough with Paul Doe, Chief Executive of Shepherd's Bush Housing Group (SBHG) and Chair of the Hounslow Housing Association Forum.

Shepherd's Bush is one of the larger Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) and it owns a diverse portfolio of properties around the borough from individual, restored street properties, through small isolated schemes comprising a dozen or so units, to medium-sized stand-alone developments. In my own back yard SBHG manages a major chunk of the Smallberry Green estate, in Syon ward.

It would be fair to say - and I did say it to Paul at the first opportunity - that my initial experience of RSLs in this borough left me somewhat unimpressed. Indeed it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that it left me emotionally scarred. As a tenant myself living on Isleworth's West Middlesex estate I spent the first seven or so years trying to make meaningful contact with my landlords to point out to them that the contractor responsibile for putting the buildings up had omitted to install any soundproofing. Three of these valuable years were used up trying to teach them, ultimately to no avail, how to respond to an e-mail.

When I did finally establish proper contact with somebody capable of communicating in polysyllables I spent the next couple of years trying to coax them out of a perpetual state of knee-jerk denial. Many arguments were had, and an embarrassingly fraudulent sound attenuation survey was even conducted to "confirm" the existence of visibly non-existent soundproofing as part of an overall strategy clearly designed to wear us down into silence.

The tragedy of it all was that our landlords had an agreement with their contractor that any faults reported within ten years from the date of construction would be put right at no cost to themselves. Had they worked with us rather than argued with us, they could have compelled the contractor who had ripped them off with substandard work to come back and finish the job gratis, thereby improving the quality of their stock.

The efforts of tenants to launch and sustain a successful residents' association encountered similarly insurmountable obstacles. Earlier in the process there was the usual attempt to politicise us, and when that fell flat due to the vigilance of residents the estate's three landlords all quickly lost interest in supporting us. The community centre ended up as a private nursery for well-healed residents from off the estate, for which payment is extracted both from hirers in the form of a usage charge and - simultaneously - from tenants of the estate who are no longer able to use the premises through service charges.

Shepherd's Bush Housing Group is clearly of an altogether different mindset. Indeed in the field of tenant engagement - in service management as well as simply in community life - it is in many respects ahead of us at the local authority. Paul understood - I mean he already understood, he didn't require me to tell him - that getting tenants involved in such areas as quality control and reporting problems and issues can save the landlord money and enable it to deploy its limited resources more productively as well as being good for Community Engagement in a more general sense.

SBHG encourages tenants' associations, and has a tenants' forum which it funds and supports. Where the establishment of an association isn't feasible, it has a network of Tenant Monitors, three of whom I had the privilege of meeting at schemes in Hounslow and Bedfont. Tenants help to produce the Group's publication and website, and SBHG is currently looking into the viability of creating an e-mail forum for those residents who wish, or are compelled by their lifestyle, to engage differently.

All members of staff employed by SBHG must meet at least four residents in their natural habitat, reminding them in dramatic style of the raison d'etre of a housing provider. And Paul himself hosts a number of "Meet the Chief Executive" meetings, where tenants can come along and ask questions, provide information or simply let of steam according to their wont.

On Monday afternoon I will be attending the borough's first RSL Conference at Hounslow Civic Centre. As the need for social housing becomes ever more acute the RSLs will play an increasingly important role in helping us to bring it about. There has never been a more important time for us and them to find out a little more about how each other works.

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