Tenants' conference 2010 13/05/2010 Labelled as Tenants

Tenants conference 2010More than 110 tenants who have chosen to stick with their council as their landlord met on 13 May 2010 for their fourth annual conference. Birmingham City Council, the largest stock retained authority in England, hosted the event.

 

Fighting for a better deal

 

ARCH is a cross party political body set up to fight for a better deal for tenants who have chosen for their council to be their landlord. ARCH has contributed to the review of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) Subsidy System, under which council rents are paid into a national pot for redistributive purposes. ARCH has called for a new local self-financing system. It will be responding formally to proposals for reform, upon which consultation is currently taking place.

The ARCH member authorities' tenants and residents showed their continued support for stock retention when they got together at the prestigious Banqueting Suite at Birmingham Council House.

 

Crucial times

 

The Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Cllr Michael Wilkes, officially opened the event. Birmingham City Council has retained direct ownership of around 68,000 properties following ballots among tenants.  He said: 'We are very positive about council housing under Cllr John Lines and senior officers and tenants, with whom we engage as much as possible.'

He said: 'These are crucial times for council housing so this conference is very timely.'

 

A louder voice

 

Marlene Price 2Marlene Price, chair of ARCH tenants' sub-group and resident representative on the ARCH executive board, said: 'As ARCH grows, our voice as tenants and residents grows. ARCH now has 54 member authorities responsible for half a million properties. This event shows the strength of feeling among people who live in local authority homes that stock retention is the best option. It is the only option based on genuine democratic accountability.'

 

Mrs Price described the work of ARCH to develop its tenant governance structure to ensure the views of people who live in local authority homes are heard.  She explained how the ARCH Tenant sub-group has been meeting for over a year now and has a healthy list of attendees.  She said: 'The sub-group was integral in the planning of today's event, both the agenda and speakers attending. We successfully elected Jennifer Holmes as the vice-chair of the group at our last meeting in March. We will both now be able to attend the ARCH Executive meetings and feed back to our members - providing an important link between the executive and residents.'


She also described how information on ARCH is available via the ARCH website, which has a specific members' area, newsletters, briefings and the annual reports. ARCH encourages the sharing of information and is keen to gather tenants' and residents' views.

 

Mrs Price outlined the 'significant issues' facing stock retaining landlords to be covered during the day's conference. 'Top of the list is the housing finance review and how it affects tenants. Next is building new council houses. How easy is it to do, will councils have capacity to do it on a scale that could have an actual impact on waiting lists?'

 

She added: 'We are entering a time of political change with the first formal Coalition government in 70 years. It is therefore likely that there will be some change in the world of local authority housing. ARCH will be keeping a close eye on all changes happening in central government and ensuring that ARCH's point of view is conveyed in the strongest terms possible. We as residents also have a role to play in ensuring that our views are also conveyed to central government.'

 

Direct democratic accountability

 

Milan_Radulovic_2010Cllr Milan Radulovic, ARCH'S national chair and housing portfolio holder at Broxtowe BC, told the conference: 'Direct ownership and management of council housing means direct democratic accountability. That ability to influence the home in which you live and the service you receive is undoubtedly part of the reason more than one million of you have chosen to stick with the council as your landlord - despite the odds being stacked against local authorities in ways in which we are all only too familiar.

 

'That faith tenants have placed in their council by choosing to stick with their local authority landlord has not been misplaced. A recent report by the public spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, showed that retained stock councils have managed to meet Decent Homes standards at a fraction of the cost of other housing providers. ARCH's research report Under One Roof also demonstrates that having your council as a landlord means housing is more effectively linked to a whole host of other priorities and services that make individuals' lives ­ and entire communities - tick. Retained council housing has vital links with health, education, environment, economy, transport, social care, youth services and better, cleaner neighbourhoods free of anti-social behaviour to name but a few vital services', he said.

 

Cllr Radulovic described how ARCH has been successful continuing to raise the profile of council housing since the last tenants' and residents' conference and will push for opportunities to build upon the organisation's and the sector's achievements in the year ahead.  He added: 'ARCH made sure tenants' and residents' views were taken into account as it developed its official submissions to the review of the housing finance system. We hope that the new Parliament will listen to one million tenants who have chosen for their local authority to be their landlord and give us the fairer funding system we have been campaigning for.'

 

Cllr Radulovic concluded: 'As a nation, we now have a new Government and we wait to see what the future holds for stock retained councils. One thing is for sure. ARCH will continue to do its utmost to fight for a better deal for its tenants and residents.'

 

Proud tradition of council housing in Birmingham

 

Birmingham City Council's cabinet member for housing, Cllr John Lines, commented: 'As you know, we all have something in common - retained council housing. I am proud of the tradition of council housing in this city.' He thanked ARCH tenants' sub-group member Jim Nicholl in particular, for the hard work he put in to make the event possible.

 

Cllr Lines continuted: 'Tenants in Birmingham made it very clear on a number of occasions that they wanted to remain with the council as their landlord. I gave a commitment to improve their homes to the decent homes standard and I am proud that we have been able to exceed the government's target by what is known in this city as 'Birmingham's Fourth Option. Not only that but we have started the largest building of council homes across the city in three decades, through the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust with a plan to build 500 new homes a year, and yes, these new homes will be managed by the council.'

 

He commented on why his authority joined ARCH: 'We joined ARCH to work alongside other retained stock authorities to lobby the government for a change in the biased and unfair subsidy system and to pursue other matters of which we share a common interest. With this in mind I am pleased to welcome you to this conference to further our cause.

 

'Tenants are at the heart of all we do in Birmingham and will continue to be the driving force of service improvements and developments in housing for many, many years to come I hope…I am sure many tenants here from other authorities have experiences of being involved and making a real difference to services, their homes and neighbourhoods in which they live.'

 

ARCH's history and future

 

ARCH's secretary John Bibby, director of housing and community services at Lincoln City Council, reflected on the association's history and future. He described how his authority and small number of others such as Broxtowe BC, Exeter City Council and the London Borough of Wandsworth, initially came together following stock option appraisals as there was no additional money to meet Decent Homes standards.  'It was clear we had to live on the budget we had. It seemed to us as directors and councillors that nobody was speaking up as a unified voice for the sector. From that initial series of meetings we have grown into the organisation we are now.'

 

john_bibby_2010He continued: 'As a relatively new organisation, we are not perfect and have plans to develop and more forward. Having attended several of these annual conferences there is still a need for a voice for council housing and the stock retained sector.'

 

Mr Bibby described progress on housing finance reform: 'We have been campaigning for reform. We felt that was not a level playing field. We started arguing on your behalf for a level playing field. A lot of officers and elected members have been represented on working groups and that culminated in the offer currently on the table for reform of the housing finance system. There is a closing date of 6th July for a response to that offer.'

 

He urged the sector to continue to argue for reforms under the new Coalition government. 'We have the tantalising prospect of reform of housing finance. We need to make sure that, in dealing with the overall national debt, that council housing does not lose out. We are continuing to argue the case for a more sustainable future for council housing.'

 

'Make sure you express your views as tenants and residents about the future of council housing,' he urged delegates. 'When we set up ARCH we wanted to make sure we had a tenant voice. This is the fourth annual conference. What is encouraging is both the increasing numbers and the quality of the debate that has taken place over the years.'

 

Getting to grips with housing finance

 

Consultant Graham Martin led a useful session on reform of the HRA. He explained how under the proposed settlement, a total debt of £18bn means an average of £7,000 per home. Each council will carry out an exercise to prepare a 30 year financial business plan taking into account all income, expenses and investment. He said: 'All control will be with the council, which will be better able to plan and have more money to invest in housing.' While the trade off is that councils will need to take on debt, the typical council will be able to repay debt after 20 years. 'The reason for transfer disappear. Councils get at least 10% more to spend a year than at present,' he said.

 

Discussion of HRA proposals

 

Tenants and residents from stock retained authorities raised key questions and shared their opinions on HRA proposals during the conference.

One tenant asked about protection from putting council rents up to prop up other council services under a new finance regime.

Graham Martin responded that this is something to include in ARCH's feedback on the consultation.

Another commented that they would want the HRA ring-fence to remain so that housing revenue is targeted at housing.

Tenant sub-group member, Alison Moore from Exeter City Council, asked: 'If we were to take on the debt for the HRA, can we search for lower rates of interest or do we have to borrow from the government.'

HRA_question_2010Mr Martin replied: 'I understand there can be a range of sources but there are proposals in the consultation paper to deal with how interest rates are charged between the housing revenue account debt charges and general fund debt charges"

 

Some tenants expressed anxiety about taking on debt. As one commented: 'We have worked hard to get rid of the debt and would be opposed to further burdens.'

A Southwark resident pointed out that the position for councils such as his who appeared to be losing out under the proposals and that this needed careful consideration: 'We have a £800m investment gap. Under the offer being made we understand that we will be left with £390m debt and it is going to cripple us. We will not be able to pay that off in 20 years.'

ARCH's secretary John Bibby responded: 'What we are being offered is the chance to buy ourselves out of the subsidy system to be able to keep your rents. The executive will consult further with its members before making the official ARCH response to the HRA proposals by 6th July. We brought housing and finance officers from member authorities together last week to discuss a collective response. For authorities such as Southwark, and there are about half a dozen of them, there is perhaps an argument that ARCH needs to make about making some special dispensation and we will come to a view on that. We will be running a series of consultations for the ARCH member authorities. We are trying as an association to get an overall picture and respond to the general position.'

ARCH will look to produce a specific briefing on the HRA reforms for tenants and tenants organisations.

Cllr Radulovic urged delegates to ask for a meeting with their elected members and officers to ask about the impact of proposals in their own particular circumstances: 'The figures we have seen, with small number of exceptions, show the vast councils would have more at their disposal than if the current system carried on. You need to go back and talk to your own officers and elected members about how it would affect you.'

Alan Hill, Lewes DC tenant, raised the question of who would be monitoring local authority finances under a self-financing regime?

Mr Martin replied that how council housing departments will be governed is one of the issues that is up for discussion in the consultation: 'How do tenants get a formal say in the process is one of the issues. Tenants need support to examine whether your are finances being run properly - in my experience, tenants can grasp it quickly but need training.'

Jennifer Holmes of West Lancashire DC, vice chair of ARCH tenants sub-group, who sits on the TSA tenants' panel, advised: 'There is training out there. I have been on a course to become a tenant inspector. There could be scrutiny committees. This is the first time tenants have been able to get involved in setting what they want. Go back through your tenant participation officer and ask them when they are going to get help to set standards for what we want as tenants.'

Tenants from Stoke on Trent City Council told the authority they had employed a consultant to check finances and, following this experience, have since been travelling the country talking about their involvement to other authorities, they commented.

 

Tenant Services Authority regulation

 

Delegates at the ARCH annual tenants' and residents' conference 2010  also heard from Brindha Nathan, domain policy manager at the Tenant Services Authority (TSA). She described how TSA has been regulating council housing as of 1st April.

TSA's aims are: 'A fair deal for tenants, protecting the taxpayer and to deliver a modern and effective way of regulating.' She said: 'The new regime focuses on the relationship between tenants and their landlords and ensuring a two way conversation is happening, this is what we call co-regulation and moving away from the traditional relationship between the landlord and regulator.'

She said standards are outcome-focused. 'We are asking tenants to talk to their councils. Tenants in different local areas may have different priorities and must talk to their landlords about creating local offers.'

Other speakers included Kofi Ackah of Birmingham City Council, who explained how his authority had addressed rent arrears in a positive manner.

 

ARCH Award Winners

 

southwark_tenant_awardTenant and leaseholder participation compact manager, Ross Lambert, collected the ARCH Green Efficiencies Award 2010 on behalf of Southwark Council.

Tenant Michael Hewlett colleted the ARCH Tenant Participation Award 2010 on behalf of Croydon Council.

Announcing the winning Southwark entry, presented by John Bibby, Marlene Price commented:

'ARCH commends Southwark as the Green Efficiency Award winner for its initiative to insulation wall cavities. A lot of council buildings are high rise and have cavities that if they try to insulate to make homes warmer and improve fuel efficiency this means putting scaffolding up, which makes the area look unsightly and is costly. This innovation means this council can to fill the cavity in the high rise without the need for lots of scaffolding. This has enabled energy costs and save lighting and heating costs by at least £50 per year.

Announcing the winning Croydon entry, presented by John Bibby, Marlene Price commented:

'ARCH commends Croydon as the Tenant Participation Award winner for measures including; taking part in the development of the national resident involvement champions; organising and hosting learning exchanges attended by 80 delegates; and involvement in capital programmes, environmental improvements, youth provision and selection of contractors. Croydon has reviewed the effectiveness of all participation activities and details outputs, outcomes and value for money to ensure the most effective and efficient methods are used.'

 

Under One Roof

 

ARCH recently published Under One Roof: The holistic benefits of retained council housing, which outlines the result of research demonstrating the added value local authority direct ownership and management of housing brings in terms of meeting local government's wider goals and joining up service delivery. The results of the research were discussed at a workshop during the conference.

 

Feedback

 

Tenants gave feedback that they had found the event most useful, but that they would like more opportunity for this open forum style debate and to hear more from tenants in other authorities at next year's conference. John Bibby assured them this was possible and said: 'At the next annual conference it would be helpful if tenants themselves were able to come forward to run sessions about what is happening in your authority and learn from each other". Other comments included that not all tenants have easy access to the internet and that information needs to be available in a variety of formats.


Slideshow of photos from the conference

 

 

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