10 December 2018

For much of 2018, housing associations across the sector were eagerly anticipating the publication of the Government’s Social Housing Green Paper. Published in a year when ministerial resource has been focused on Brexit is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is that the Government have placed social housing residents at the very centre of the debate.

This is in stark contrast to the start of the decade when the Government prioritised quashing quangos, setting bonfires to regulations and ignoring the outcomes of the 2009 National Conversation that took place with residents. The Tenant Services Authority with its commitment to co-regulation, outcome based tenant metrics and tenant driven inspection processes were negated as irrelevant and costly to the tax payer. A merger of sorts took place with the then Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) where the ‘tenant’ function was merged into the HCA. However, the HCA had no leverage to intervene on behalf of tenants who might be worried about a poorly performing landlord.

I witnessed this first hand when I was working for a large housing association with complex governance arrangements. The repairs service was catastrophically failing. Residents had lost all faith that anything would change, complaints were out of control, MPs and councillors were writing daily, Environmental Health Departments were deluged, pressurised staff were leaving in droves. However, there was very little evidence that this reality was recognised by members of the Group Board. The chasm between residents and board members was vast. The Consumer Standards were in clear breach but the board did not understand the magnitude of the failure and the impact this was having on the very residents that were claimed to be central to the organisation. In fact there was no mechanism for residents to feed into the Group Board. When the regulator announced a regulatory inspection there was a collective sigh of relief that finally something would be done to sort out the sorry mess.

More broadly, it’s damning that it took the tragedy of the 14 June 2017 for a strategic realisation that residents are a key part of effective housing association governance. Yet any resident involvement must be truly representative and must ensure that residents' views together with the insight they provide holds weight and influence. It’s sometimes difficult for decision makers to listen to views that are challenging or provide a different world view from the one that is created in the board room. The lesson here is for all of us to ensure we engage, listen and give a positive, fully considered response despite the difficulties that this may present us with.

Across our sector there are some fine examples of collaboration between staff, residents and board members who recognise the value of residents forming part of governance arrangements.

I have been a board member for over eight years and currently sit on the board of Optivo. Optivo at owns 44,000 homes across London, the South East and the Midlands. Despite the geographical challenge we’ve successfully embedded a resident governance structure that enables our residents to work alongside board members and senior staff. Some of the formal ways residents have real influence across ourorganisation include:

  • Setting the strategic and corporate direction of Optivo as board and sub-committee members
  • Driving service improvement through membership of our Resident Strategy Group
  • Contributing to service panels that focus on complaints, service scrutiny and policy
  • Representing local area issues via regional area panels.

In addition, it’s a compulsory part of our board membership and a reinforcement of our commitment to residents that all board members attend one of our four area panels throughout the year. This keeps the Board in touch with resident experience and provides an ongoing understanding of what matters to residents. It’s the power of the resident voice that can provide board members with the absolute assurance that the regulatory standards are being met and delivered and in particular those very standards that matter to residents most.

Samantha Herelle

Samantha Herelle is Operations Director for Mount Green Housing Association and Board Member at Optivo

In 2010, Samantha became a non-executive board member of Viridian Housing and contributed to the merger with Amicus Horizon creating a 44,000 home organisation with the development capacity of 1,500 homes per year. Following the merger, Samantha was appointed to newly formed Optivo board. Samantha has served on audit and risk, people and remuneration and customer experience committees. Samantha has been Operations Director for Mount Green Housing Association since 2016.

Resident engagement and board assurance