I've not long returned from the annual Away Day of the Hounslow Homes Board, of which I am now a member, which this year took place at the Richmond Hill Hotel, just outside the gates of Richmond Park.
Despite it being called an Away Day, it is actually an Away Two Days as proceedings began yesterday (Friday) afternoon, and finished today (Saturday).
Some of my colleagues - both coalition colleagues from the Conservative Group and fellow ICG councillors - regard at least the overnight aspect of the event as an extravagance. Its defenders argue that it is the only occasion on which fifteen hard-working members of the Board, who are unremunerated for their efforts throughout the year, can avail themselves of such an opportunity to bond.
I very much doubt whether there is a "right" or "wrong" view about this, but nevertheless for good or for bad I opted to participate. I ate the lunch, stayed the night and participated in every session other than the "walkabout" at the close of the day, when I had to sneak off home slightly early to take my daughter to a party at the home of a schoolfriend some in some West End backwater.
One recurring theme of the discussions at the Away Day, both formal and informal, was the relationship between the Board and the local authority. It is very difficult for me to consider this question entirely as a new Board member without calling upon my previous experience as Lead Member for Housing for nearly three years. I am pleased that my Board colleagues seem to accept my new role as having the potential to introduce some fresh perspectives rather than viewing me as somebody whose brief is to keep an eye on them.
Prior to my being appointed to the Board I think it's fair to say that my opportunities to interact with the body as a whole had been limited. Regular partnership meetings were held with the Chair and Vice Chairs and with senior officers, and with the latter I also of course had many dealings on routine and sometimes not quite so routine operational matters. On the one occasion during the last year that I attended a Board meeting business was sadly sidetracked by some frankly unnecessary politicking from a very small number of members who unfortunately dominated the session. There are undoubtedly those for whom old habits do die hard.
But at this weekend's session I saw nothing but a group of highly motivated and capable people (and I refer both to officers and Board members) whose singular objective was to map out the future direction of the company as far as was possible against a background of uncertainty and probable change in the whole field of housing provision nationwide. There was no noticeable political agenda at play, even from the politicals (who are now very much a minority anyway) and the discussion was focussed, intelligent and very, very useful.
When I first assumed the role of Lead Member in 2006 things were very different. Even something as basic as arranging a meeting with senior officers presented seemingly insurmountable difficulties, with irritable negotiations about at which level it was appropriate to engage with whom, whether such and such an officer was of such importance that demanded the presence of the Leader of the Council and not a mere Lead Member, and much more besides. Views were exchanged but promises could not be depended upon to be kept, with word reaching us sometimes within half an hour of a meeting having ended that something completely different had been done than had been promised, and so on. And then there had been the small matter of the ill-tempered Hounslow Homes Management Review.
Back in those days I was charged with overcoming a horrible dilemma. There was no way things could have continued the way they were. As a point of principle I disagree with selling off social housing stock. My instinct was to take it back in-house but I recognised that ideologically this may have been difficult to sell to our coalition partners. And so, despite in theory being in control of the situation, I was negotiating from a place in limbo, unable to continue with the status quo but reluctant due to limited options to do anything to change it.
As often happens, fate intervened and the "oppo" gave way. There were important changes in the management team and a good working relationship was established. There were, of course, a few hiccups and flashbacks along the way, but by and large the relationship developed nicely.
Against all this, however, and in the face of what seems to be a very real recognistion of the benefits of a more tenant-focussed agenda, my fear has always been that this new positivism would not survive a return to a New Labour administration, that with a few tweaks the structure remained in place for a swift and seamless return to the bad old days. This weekend I saw the first very real signs that this might not be the case, even in the increasingly unlikely event of a reversion to Labour control next year. People seem to want to open up the organisation, to involve tenants and leaseholders, not because it is being something they are being told to do by the Lead Member but because it is self-evidently right. If anything, any political uncertainties come from elsewhere.
I left the Away Day highly enthused and encouraged about the future of Hounslow Homes. There are some procedural efficiencies that seem to be required of the organisation, but it has its heart in the right place and the personnel to make things work. It was perhaps symbolic that the event should have been held on a hill with a clear and panaromic view over miles around, with Ivybridge staring out boldly from the very centre of it. The late, great Tom Reader would, I believe, be a very happy man.