Monday, 18 May 2009

Empowerment or mere service?

Being mindful of the fact that I am a notorious repeater of myself, I spent part of my weekend reflecting on what I should report about this year's HFTRA (Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations) Conference that I didn't say last year. Only then did it occur to me that this blog is now actually over a year old! Doesn't time fly?

Well, this year I had the pleasure of both opening the Conference and giving the closing speech. Following hot on the heels of my introduction was a workshop, attended by all delegates, at which a Panel of senior Hounslow Homes officers took questions on the subject of Service Charges.

And many questions there were too. Some of them could easily have been predicted, whilst others called for quick thinking on the part of the Panel.

I think most if not all officers accept my view that the implementation of the second tranche of Service Charges this year could have better handled. I believe strongly that residents have a right to know why they are being asked to pay for a service, even if they don't agree that they should be paying it. And if a charge is patently unfair - as is the charge for communal electricity, even though we can do nothing about it - then the easiest and most honest thing is simply to say so.

It is because we didn't do this from the outset that we received a large volume of enquiries when the bills first went out, most of them from tenants demanding to know why they should pay for street columns on estates managed by Hounslow Homes, when they also pay for street lighting throughout the borough through their Council Tax. Or why they are paying for grounds maintenance when they cut their own grass. Or for Neighbourhood Wardens whose services they have thus far never needed.

Other than for the aforementioned injustice - forced upon us by government policy - of the charge for street lighting, there are reasonable explanations for all of the other charges. If one considers that all residents of the borough pay - through their Council Tax - for the upkeep of parks and open spaces irrespective of whether they use them, for the police service irrespective of whether they have been victims of crime, or for cemeteries irrespective of whether they wish to be cremated, charges for the maintenance of grassed verges on an estate whether or not they are immediately outside one's home do not seem so unreasonable after all. But if we do not explain it, we cannot expect tenants to understand it. Let alone accept it.

The good news is that this truism now seems to be accepted by all, and the Panel responded skillfully to the questions with humility and authority in equal measure. Most importantly of all, they acknowledged old mistakes and pledged to make good.

At the closing end of what turned out to be a very useful and enjoyable day, I was called upon once again to pick up the (very temperamental) microphone, this time to explain the rationale behind Project Empower, the name now given to the scheme, backed by Borough Council in January in the face of depressingly predictable opposition, to release £4 million of HRA (Housing Revenue Account) funds for service improvements to be identified by tenants.

The response from the floor to this talk provided for an interesting socio-analytical study. From those whom I've come to know as firm advocates of tenant participation there was tangible enthusiasm. Particularly supportive of my empowerment initiatives, for which I'm truly very grateful but the reasons for which I've yet to fully appreciate, have been the rapidly growing number of Somali ladies (it's nearly always ladies for some reason) who now attend HFTRA activites. Conversely, the questioning from those whom I've learned to associate with the "old guard" focused entirely on service issues and then with a primarily economic emphasis, much of it as it happened completely unrelated to the theme of the speech that I'd made.

Herein lies the essential difference between the two mindsets that have been doing battle in the field of community activity since the ICG arrived at the heart of local politics. For some the passion for involvement, engagement, participation - for others the dreary belief that all residents want in life is to be provided by their political masters with good service, in exchange for which comes their silence and acquiescence. Whilst the latter is a view that I and some of my colleagues tend to associate mostly with New Labour, I don't think any of us are oblivious to the fact that our ideology, if that is the correct term to use, is considered an eccentric enthusiasm by many on all sides of the traditional political divide. That for which our opponents despise us, many of our allies merely tolerate us. We know that.

Nonetheless when I think back to the battles of 2006 I am proud that we have placed tenant engagement into the forefront of everything we do, and I look forward to the coming year with excitement and some impatience when considering the work still to be done before we next go the polls.

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