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Tenant Participation: The Next Phase for Northern Ireland

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

by Colm McDaid

In early February, I was asked to give a presentation to the CaCHE Knowledge Hub about tenant participation (TP) in Northern Ireland. I was delighted to share my own experience and that of my organisation, Supporting Communities, in how TP has developed over the last 40 years or so since we've been working to empower communities to be involved in the decisions which affect them.

I won't go over old material here, our 40th anniversary last year gave ample coverage to the story of 'TP' and how it has evolved in this part of the world. Instead, I want to examine our present work and what I see as the essential steps needed to take tenant participation to the next level here in Northern Ireland.

Supporting Communities has long taken a leading role in pushing a tenant focused agenda forward and we intend to continue to do so. In January, in this blog series, our Chair, Lorraine Campbell, spoke about two of our new initiatives which will help us to do so - The Amp and the Tenant Participation Accreditation Scheme.

But the key driver for us is our position as the appointed Independent Tenant Organisation (ITO) for Northern Ireland. In this role, we have already delivered the main objectives of the Tenant Participation Strategy for NI (2015-2020) including developing TP Guidance and establishing a Housing Policy Panel made up of tenants from 50% of NI social landlords. Subject to the potential impact of Covid-19, we are set to contribute to the Department for Communities' 2020 review of their TP Strategy, strengthening and improving on what has already been accomplished.

As we build on the success of the first TP Strategy and continue to address the elements that are still in progress, namely appointing a Tenant Advocate, there are five further ingredients that I feel will take us to the 'next level' in terms of tenant participation in Northern Ireland.

  1. In our review of the TP Strategy, we will recommend that the Department for Communities (DfC) support our TP standards and accreditation scheme providing a baseline level of tenant participation across N Ireland. The intention will also be that awarding a level of accreditation will provide support to the DfC's Regulatory Body and, in turn, help meet the Consumer Standard for housing providers in Northern Ireland.

  2. Supporting Communities, in our role as the ITO, will further explore 'empowerment models' of tenant participation to forge a path from Arnstein's 'Ladder of Involvement', i.e. from tenants being informed and consulted to being given more 'power'. For example, that may well mean more tenants sitting on their respective landlord Board, if they so desired, or indeed tenants fulfilling some form of arm's length or management function. Such examples could include an Arms Length Management Organisations ALMO) or Tenant Management Organisations (TMO) both of which have been operational in England, Scotland & Wales for some time now.

  3. We need to establish a baseline of tenant's views to better measure our progress or the journey travelled to date. It is hugely important that DfC, and others including landlords and tenants, can reflect on the impact that the first iteration of the TP Strategy has had, not only in terms of meeting the targets set but also showing the excellent progress which has been made over the past four years since the introduction of the first TP Strategy for Northern Ireland in 2016.

  4. The baseline of attitudinal change captured in Point 3 will help inform a path forward with a clear theory of change and a demonstrable method of measuring the impact of tenant participation. Such a process will enable all stakeholders, including DfC, tenants and social landlords to inform the next iteration of the TP Strategy and develop a new phase of tenant engagement and empowerment for Northern Ireland over the next 5-10 years.

  5. With the above Points 3 & 4 in mind, I feel it is also vital to commission primary research, locally based, which would enable the social value of tenant engagement in Northern Ireland to be measured and, more importantly, valued. Such research would allow for Northern Ireland-centric social value proxies to be developed and used to measure the social value of tenant engagement for any landlord who wishes to show the value for money of engaging tenants and customers.

I feel it's time for housing professionals and community representatives in Northern Ireland to recognise that we have always been leaders in tenant participation practices. Since I first started working in the early 1990s in a redevelopment area in Clonard, West Belfast and then went on to be involved in the creation and development of the Housing Community Network (HCN), the Housing Executive and Supporting Communities have since built a province-wide structure that ensures both a bottom-up and top-down flow of information and contribution between communities and one of the largest housing providers in the UK.

Supporting Communities has now successfully expanded its scope to help other social landlords set up structures that work for their businesses and their tenants. Tenant Participation is thriving in Northern Ireland, but we cannot and will not rest on these laurels.

As I recommended at the CaCHE event in early February, we should be highlighting our excellent examples of tenant participation and tenant engagement as the benchmark for other UK regions to follow. We should have pride in what we do and how we do it because we are leaders in this field in many ways.

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