Public consultation and social housing: the importance of listening to tenants

We all have a right to shelter, but do we also have the right to have our voices heard? Taking the perspectives of tenants on board is increasingly necessary, particularly since the Grenfell disaster in the UK in 2017.

Although tenant participation is becoming more common when it comes to planning social housing, the ability for tenants to influence their landlords remains considerably limited. One issue is that there simply isn’t enough affordable housing available. That could possibly be helped, at least in part, by considering the views of the people who are in need of this accommodation.

Social housing white paper in the UK

The British government’s social housing white paper makes some attempts to rectify these concerns. The white paper introduces a charter to outline ‘what every social housing resident should be able to expect.’ This includes tenants having their voices heard, with the government providing access to help if people are struggling to be listened to by their landlords.

Academics have suggested that it will significantly impact the social housing situation in the UK. This is due to the range of benefits it aims to bring, including having access to landlord performance data and ensuring safety in social housing. However, it is important to consider what is already being done in the UK by way of good practice consultation regarding housing.

Good practice public consultation

In his recent webinar regarding online public consultation and housing in the UK, Jonathan Bradley explained how the algorithms present in social media promote micro tribes, meaning that individuals are rarely exposed to opposing perspectives. Thus, alternative online means should be offered, so as to enable people to engage in productive debates with people with different opinions (for more information about community engagement, check out this eBook).

It is important to bear in mind that consultation has not, and is unlikely, to move to be completely online. Instead, there is a trend towards a blended, or hybrid, approach that incorporates traditional and online methods. Nonetheless, digital communication with stakeholders is vital in the modern world, and Bradley discussed the importance of offering a safe space that ‘can provide more meaningful online communication.’ Engagement HQ includes fourteen different widgets to help monitor and improve consultation, as well as a text-in option for the 3% of people in the UK without access to the Internet.

With 75% of people afraid to speak out in public, using online tools makes consultation more inclusive than providing only face-to-face opportunities. It is crucial to offer a variety of means of engagement in order to maximize and broaden participation. Online tools can include surveys, webinars, discussion forums, and ideas boards.

However, for any of this to be successful, people need to be provided with the right information so that they can consider any proposals or discussions appropriately. Furthermore, instead of giving lengthy consultation documents, like what happened previously, it is better to offer ‘snippets of useful, shareable information,’ says Bradley. With everyone so used to quick reading while on the go, providing bite-sized chunks of more digestible content is better.

Additionally, the traditional view of having a 12-week consultation window isn’t necessarily applicable to the online model. Asynchronous engagement, in which people can contribute to conversations whenever and wherever suits them, is more appropriate now. Finally, it is important to know who is taking part in your online consultation, meaning that registration is required. This enables the consultants to check the quality of any responses that they receive, ensure that there is equality in terms of representation, and control the safety of all participants.

Local communities are already engaging tenants

There are many different housing associations and local authorities that provide positive examples of online consultation in action. In relation to listening to tenants and genuinely taking their viewpoints on board, a particular point of reference is Catalyst Housing’s ‘Welcome to The Garden’. This is described as: ‘An open and safe space for everyone, to grow ideas, share views and find solutions together.’ Not only can local people engage well through this channel, but Catalyst Housing also advocates enabling a transparent view of their performance information, thereby making consultation a two-way dialogue.

Another example is Leeds City Council’s ‘Greener Gipton and Harehills Campaign’, which incorporates a broad range of methods of participation. Furthermore, there is a large variety of topics in which local tenants can become involved, including international concerns like climate change. Magenta Living also offers discussion about topics such as this, as well as much smaller-scale issues, for example clearing out garages.

Community Gateway offers a Tenant Engagement Portal, in which local residents can have their say about various issues in a way that is considered to be safe and to provide more constructive participation. They use the key point, ‘In your community, in order to emphasize how people should have the opportunity to speak out because these are issues that affect them personally.

Further examples include Cornwall Council’s ‘Let’s talk homes’ that allow local people to share their stories via open discussion forums, or BPHA’s ‘The Place’, another instance of an open and safe space for genuine conversation to take place. Gentoo has a ‘Rate your estate’ function, with the opportunity to provide feedback to the association, and Accent Group specializes in having online consultation for building safety contractors. An example of a project from Accent Group is ‘Local Heroes’, in which tenants can nominate outstanding contractors and people from their community.

As is clearly evidenced here, myriad housing providers are offering excellent online consultation tools. The perspectives gathered through these could help to inform government decisions and play a part in the new white paper.

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