A national body for tenants would crumble without solid foundations at grassroots level

Published on October 10, 2018

Published on October 10, 2018

by Pat Turnbull, LTF Regional Delegate

The Social Housing Green Paper proposes the establishment of a national representative body for tenants.

Our view at London Tenants Federation is that of course tenants should have representation at the national level – but that representative body must be answerable to well-resourced and thriving local, landlord-wide and regional democratic tenants’ organisations.

A national tenants’ organisation was proposed over a decade ago by Martin Cave in his 2007 review of social housing regulation, Every Tenant Matters. His report said that “the evidence the review team has received from many organisations representing tenant interests is that strengthening the voice of tenants requires resources.

The voice of tenants needs to be heard not just by their landlord but at a local authority, sub-regional, regional and national level – in other words, at all levels where decisions that affect tenants are taken”.

He added that “a fully representative national tenant body that has regional and local elements would provide a level of legitimacy that the other options would not achieve”.

Unfortunately, the previous manifestation of this idea, the ‘National Tenant Voice’, fell short of this brief. It had wide gaps in representation and was principally comprised of selected rather than elected members. Accountability was pretty much absent.

This time a national representative tenant body must have the solid foundations to provide that legitimacy. It would have to be an organisation that was democratically answerable to social housing tenants as a whole. And the only way to ensure that would be for it to be a bottom-up organisation, not a top-down one.

As a regional organisation, London Tenants Federation and our members are made up of elected, democratic, and accountable tenants’ and residents’ associations at the grassroots level. This is the basis on which we would like to see any organisation claiming to represent tenants established. The challenge in making that a reality at national level is principally one of rebuilding solid foundations at the local and regional levels.

Stock transfers, the Right to Buy, rising rents, growing insecurity of tenure and the break-up of communities through estate regeneration have all made it harder for tenants and residents to organise at a grassroots level. At the same time there has been a reduction in funding and practical support from councils to assist in this organisation, and many housing associations are reluctant to encourage democratically elected estate level tenants’ organisations.

Overall, the shift towards individualistic consumerist models of engagement has isolated and disempowered social housing tenants.

These difficulties have also affected representation at borough-wide, metropolitan and regional level. London Tenants Federation is currently the only regional tenants’ federation still in existence. We have seen eleven active borough tenants’ federations and organisations either closed down, or lose funding by councils in London one after another since the Cave Review.

So, if the government genuinely wants to set up a national representative tenants’ organisation, it has to assist in rebuilding tenants’ organisations at all levels, from regions to urban areas, to boroughs and grass roots – financially and with supportive legislation, giving tenants the collective right to be involved in decision-making about our homes. It would need to address the gaps in representation of tenants across the country.

In our view, these are the principles which matter:

  • A national representative tenants’ organisation must be made up entirely of tenants and must be accountable exclusively to tenants.
  • We want to see a democratic and accountable tenants’ organisation that operates by consensus, especially given the diversity of the tenant movement.
  • It would operate in an open, transparent and communicative way.
  • It would assist tenants in developing the skills which make them fully able to represent the views of their fellow tenants to their landlords and other bodies.
  • We want it to support and promote tenant engagement at all levels in decision-making in relation to our homes.
  • A national representative organisation would need a structure that would accommodate the wide regional differences in terms of need and affordability of housing – a non-hierarchal and federal structure.
  • A national representative tenant organisation must have a core belief that tenants are citizens of equal worth who should not face discrimination, social exclusion, prejudice or stigmatisation because of their tenure. Their organisation would have to be similarly respected.

These are our views on the type of organisation that would genuinely represent tenants.

Anything else would be paying only lip service to these principles – or, worse still, would consist of a carefully selected forum of yes people, nothing more than a fig leaf and a pretence that tenants are being heard.

This comment piece was originally published in Inside Housing on 10 October 2018.