Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to chair a Commission for the National Housing Federation to raise the voices of tenants in social housing. The life of the Commission was a participative exercise in itself, ending with a large-scale deliberative forum held in Leeds with a representative sample of tenants and leaseholders across the field of social housing.
Our report was called ‘What Tenants Want’.
There were and are some outstanding examples of ‘dream landlords’ in the UK of housing bodies that champion the interests and the voice of tenants, including but not limited to the UK’s co-operative and mutual housing. At the same time, this was far from universal.
A neglect of tenants voice, a downgrading of their concerns could be found in many associations, including the very largest. It was, one tenant said, a ‘get what you are given culture’.
What we argued, based on what tenants had said and then prioritised, was that there was a need for a new relationship of mutuality. A mutual ethos implies a relationship that goes beyond the commercial transactions and a normal customer relationship (all of which also matters) towards an expectation of reciprocity and accountability.
The Commission led to the development of a voluntary code on service and accountability by the National Housing Federation for its members.
The case for a national tenant voice was one that was picked up the then Government in its new regulatory system. It is one we argued for when I led the National Consumer Council in an influential 2007 submission with Bob Chilton called House Rules. The initiative was then, however, dismantled.
It feels like not just overdue business but urgent and timely therefore to read a formal letter from a network of tenants organisations to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid David, calling for a national tenant voice.
They argue that the horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent work being done to ensure the safety of social housing tenants demonstrates the need for a coherent, legitimate and empowered voice for tenants – and leaseholders.
As the late Colin Ward, a pioneering author and commentator on community issues, wrote some years back: “ours is a society in which, in every field, one group of people makes decisions; exercises control; limits choices; while the great majority have to accept those decisions, submit to this control, and act within the limits of those externally imposed choices. It happens in work, politics and education and nowhere is it more evident than in the field of housing.”
We need to listen to the voice of social housing tenants and we will all feel part of a fairer and more inclusive country if we do.