Ten years ago this month, the new National Tenant Voice (NTV) appointed Richard Crossley* as its new chief executive, appointed the National Tenant Council and its board, and started business.
Sadly, it was to be very short-lived, as the general election swept Labour and its dynamic housing minister John Healey MP out of office and installed the Tory/LibDem government with Grant Shapps in charge of housing.
One of Shapps’ first acts was to axe the new-born NTV to save a miserable £1 million a year. Shapps, who could have invented double-speak, ludicrously claimed he wanted tenants to have a stronger say in things. But he saw the NTV as a waste of money as he laid waste to the social housing regulatory system, also abolishing the Tenant Services Authority and the Audit Commission.
The NTV had a long gestation and I had the privilege of independently chairing the Communities and Local Government department’s project group, which brought together a majority of tenants with all the other key housing bodies and the civil servants to find a way of meeting the common goal of strengthening the voice of tenants within UK housing. It was a complex process because we wanted the new organisation to have the status of a non-departmental government body, and the rules for establishing one were suitably complicated and not easily adapted for an organisation which would be run by tenants and not appointed by government.
The idea for the NTV as an integral part of the new structure for social housing regulation arose from an earlier report by Martin Cave which was broadly welcomed and accepted by government. The project group conducted a major consultation exercise involving 16 regional meetings with over 1000 tenants, collecting over 160 written responses. There was a huge and occasional fractious debate about the precise role and function of the NTV but the consultation broadly supported the project group’s proposals.
A lot is said about social tenants, and others who live on social housing estates, much of it based on ignorance. Tenants are stereotyped and stigmatised, especially in the media but also by some politicians and housing professionals. By grasping the opportunity presented by the NTV, there is a chance that the authentic voice of social tenants may at last be heard as citizens of equal worth. The NTV will be a voice for change and over time it could help transform the culture of social housing – and thereby improve the lives of nearly 10 million people.
From the introduction to ‘Citizens of Equal Worth, The NTV Project Group’s Proposals for the National Tenant Voice’, Report to Communities and Local Government, October 2008
The NTV’s vision emphasised that it would be a resource for tenants (which included leaseholders and shared owners) of social landlords, an independent organisation that would be accountable to tenants, with clear values of inclusion, accountability and transparency. It would not replace the existing national and regional tenant representative organisations, but would be a business-like support organisation working for all tenants whether in existing organisations or not. It would not in the first instance cover private tenants, but the plan was to consult about if, when and how it would extend its remit.
The key roles of the NTV were
- advocacy – helping tenants collectively to speak for themselves to put their views to government and other bodies, placing particular emphasis on seeking and promoting the views of tenants whose voices are rarely heard.
- Research – identifying the impact that policies have on tenants and discovering the views of a wide range of tenants on policy issues.
- Communication – providing good information to tenants and developing a two-way dialogue with them.
- Support – for the existing representative tenants’ movement to help it to develop and strengthen.
The working group and ministers believed that it was important to have a significant number of tenants involved in the governance structures of the NTV – to build its base, to encourage diversity, and to draw more people into policy discussions. It therefore had a National Tenant Council of 50 tenants to consider policy issues and a board of nine tenants and up to 6 independents to take legal responsibility for and to manage the organisation. An arm’s-length accountability committee operated an open recruitment process for the organisation.
Over the last 10 years it has become clear to any observer that the decision made by the incoming Tory government to scrap Labour’s regulatory structure, including the NTV, was a short sighted knee-jerk mistake. Whatever Labour was in favour of, the new government was against. Despite the best efforts of some social landlords and many tenants, since then the voice of tenants has become weaker when it needed to be much stronger. The government (and much of UK housing) took its eye off the ball of maintaining and improving the quality of services to tenants.
It took Grenfell to open the eyes of much of the housing world, the government, and the public to the fact that tenants were not being listened to and their interests were not being served as they should be. Now, once again, there is some acceptance of the need to hear tenants’ voices and to ensure that social landlords are monitored and regulated effectively (as all housing providers should be). But forward movement is even more glacial than the process ten years ago.
Ten years ago, the structure of regulation, with the NTV, was much closer to the right answer for social housing than anything we have now.
The NTV is a wheel that is waiting to be reinvented.
*Richard Crossley was the Chief Executive of the NTV.
Richard died in 2014 of a rare cancer. You can read my appreciation of his life and his work for tenants here.