Opinion: Well-meaning ventriloquists are doing harm to the idea of a tenant voice | News

Opinion: Well-meaning ventriloquists are doing harm to the idea of a tenant voice

This article first appeared as part of the January edition of the Housing Quality Magazine.

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO.

Many people claim to speak for tenants – but all too often they’re well-meaning ventriloquists. Why don’t we hear more from tenants themselves and at the right time?

Stigma and Social Housing in England, a study by Mercy Denedo and Amanze Ejiogu, points out that many of us fail to listen to the tenant voice. It follows that we don’t take account of their views.

So, we have contractors telling tenants that they can come in and out of their homes as they please, and when universal credit reared its head, we assumed tenants couldn’t manage their money. It’s a sort of hybrid between a hostile and patronising attitude. And we know from ITV news last year that this doesn’t end well.

Landlords do have a lot on their plate. They need to bring in the cash to pay for fire safety work and decarbonisation on top of the normal outgoings. At the end of the day, most of the money for all these bills must come from rents.

So, it comes as no surprise that most landlords want index-linked rents of some sort. The problem is that many tenants don’t have index-linked wage increases – and, to make matters worse, heating and food bills are skyrocketing. Quite simply, we’re between a rock and a hard place.

I’ve not heard of many real conversations between landlords and tenants about this year’s increase. More often than not, landlords have opted for the full 4.1% hike. And you can see why.

But if we’re not talking to tenants about difficult issues like this, where does it leave us? Will we turn a tin ear to concerns about the practicality of heat pumps too? There is a better way.

When Gwyneth Taylor ran the National Federation of ALMOs she always sent in the tenants to talk to ministers. Why? Well, the tenants, as voters, just got a better welcome than chiefs would. And they spoke plainly. The record shows that Gwyneth did very well in keeping the funds coming in for much-needed improvements to council homes. But tenants could only play that role after frank exchanges of views with landlords.

Now, I’m not saying that ALMOs are perfect, nor am I harking back to the good old days. I’m just making the simple point that landlords and tenants can thrash out tough issues and that tenants can go on to be effective advocates at the highest level.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mercy and Amanze that we need a national tenant voice and I know for a fact that tenants are up to the job.

But timing is everything. We need to talk to tenants properly at the start rather than foisting Hobson’s Choice onto them. And the more we engage with tenants as equals or adults, the more we’ll have what you might call the tenant reflex in organisations. We really are going nowhere if the hostilities on Twitter keep on as they are.

Let’s hope that Michael Gove at long last puts a national tenant voice in place. Who should run it? The leaders need to be tenants or have a very good idea about what our residents go through.

The hardest bit of the job will be distilling what tenants want into clear messages. There are millions of tenants living very different lives and, to no one’s great surprise, they will hold varying opinions.

Just now, some of the tenants on Twitter regard tenants in official structures as ‘hand-picked’ – by which I fear they mean ‘puppets’.

How do you bring tenants together? While that’s a daunting task, it’s par for the course amongst unions, political parties, and trade bodies. In all likelihood, someone, or maybe a few people, will emerge who can pull it all together. That’s what usually happens.

One final plea is to make sure the national tenant voice has enough cash to do its own research and run its own figures.

We can’t continue in a situation where landlord bodies are fairly well-funded while tenants have no voice. You know what happens when we only listen to one side. It’s great for social media spats but bad for society.