The All-Ireland Tenant Engagement Conference, held on 13 June in the Carrickdale Hotel, brought together tenant participation experts, social housing providers and involved tenants and community members from all over Ireland and further afield to discuss ways to empower tenants and build stronger communities. The conference, which was the first of its kind, was a resounding success, with attendees leaving inspired and motivated to make a difference.
In a packed schedule of events, it was the tenants who told their personal stories that stood out. The day began with Grainia Long, Chief Executive of the Housing Executive, discussing the NIHE’s approach to community involvement and service development. Then, Linda Watson, a NIHE tenant of over 30 years, took the stage to talk about her journey from getting involved in a local community group to chairing the Central Housing Forum and sitting on the board of several organisations. “Linda’s journey, how she got involved in her community and the big differences made was truly inspiring,” said one attendee.
The speakers from Circle VHA, the headline sponsor of the conference, were also praised for showcasing tenants from their newly established Tenant Advisory Group, David Kortukohun and Lorraine Gorman.
They each explained how life had brought them to Circle and what drove them to get involved and volunteer. Liz Clarke, Director of Services at Circle VHA, discussed the journey Circle has been on in developing their Tenant Communication and Engagement Strategy and working towards the ultimate goal of tenant membership on the Board.
Good practice examples from Grainne Mullin and Judith Gray of Radius and Caroline Casserly-Farrar from Oaklee Housing had us ‘putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes’ and thinking about how every aspect of the social housing business can be improved with tenant oversight and input.
After a plentiful luncheon sponsored by Newington Housing and the Housing Executive, there was a choice of three breakout sessions.
In the main room, we heard from Alison O’Gorman from Tuath Housing about how they had grown both their housing stock and tenant engagement programme exponentially in just four years.
James O’Neill, Tuath tenant and the chairman of An Garrán Residents’ Association in Tramore, provided some plainspoken wit and wisdom about what makes a community and how his little corner of the world had welcomed newcomers from all over and built a happy, cohesive community for all.
Next door, the ‘Meet the Regulators’ session gave delegates a chance to hear from Trudy Creane from the NI Department for Communities, and Steven Sheridan from the Approved Housing Bodies Regulatory Authority, who discussed their respective country’s approaches to housing regulation and what they are doing to ensure tenant engagement is on the agenda.
And in the third room, Sheenagh McNally from Supporting Communities and Laura O’Dowd from Ark Housing went through the process of getting a Tenant Participation Accreditation. This vital benchmark will help social housing providers improve their tenant engagement work and strive to take it to the next level.
The keynote address brought everyone back together for the last session of the day. Lesley Baird, the former CEO of TPAS Scotland, gave a frank and funny presentation about what she has learned about the importance of tenant participation over the years, offering some sage advice to those starting out that effective and meaningful engagement takes a lot of time and effort. Still, it can be an immensely satisfying journey. Enjoy it!
The final panel looked ahead to the next steps from the perspective of the policymakers. Patricia Leathely from the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland and Bob Jordan from the Housing Agency in the Republic gave an overview of what they are working on and the importance of learning from others.
Patricia McQuillan, the new chair of the Housing Policy Panel, shared the last presentation of the day, wherein she explained how tenants are currently influencing policy in the north and her new role as Tenant Advocate. She left us wondering if tenants, north and south, can band together to speak with an even louder voice to improve social housing right across Ireland.
In his closing remarks, Colm McDaid, CEO of Supporting Communities, was adamant that we cannot rest on our laurels. There is always a ‘next level’ for tenant participation. Until we can honestly say that tenants are genuinely empowered to have control over all aspects of their housing and live in empowered communities, our work is not done.
He set us all a challenge when he said, “A new level around empowerment and citizenship is happening elsewhere, and I would like to see how we can enable or influence that conversation here through the creation of new TP legislation in the Republic of Ireland and by refreshing and improving existing legislation in Northern Ireland. I would love to see the island of Ireland become the benchmark for Tenant Engagement across these isles and, indeed, further afield.”
The All-Ireland Tenant Engagement Conference was a significant milestone for Supporting Communities and the tenant empowerment movement.
Attendees left inspired and motivated to make a difference in their communities with a better understanding of the work needed on the ground and at a governmental level. We all have our work cut out for us as we continue to strive to raise the standard of tenant participation for all.