Friday, 28 March 2014

At Home With Michelle Reid


Why nothing is gonna stop us now

When TPAS celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, the organisation’s then chief executive took time out of a busy conference schedule to tell Mark Cantrell why there must be no let up in promoting tenant involvement

From Housing Magazine, October 2013
Welfare reform; there’s no getting away from it, even – perhaps especially – at a major national gathering for social housing tenants. When TPAS held its annual conference last month, the issue certainly generated some “quite feisty debates”.
Actually, at risk of being a tad tongue-in-cheek, the conference was so good TPAS repeated the experience. Prompted by its 25th anniversary, the organisation decided to use the milestone to shake things up. Instead of one massive national conference, it held two – one in the South and one in the North. Talk about piling on the workload, but for TPAS’s chief executive, Michelle Reid, it was certainly worth it.

“It was a more intimate conference; we really built in lots of time for people to network,” said Reid. “You could just see all the connections being made. People really had time to sit down and talk. You could find people the next day, which you can’t always do in a big conference.
“The people there really appreciated the time to learn from each other and spark ideas off each other, and check out how they’ve handled particular situations. The ability to get together, to talk, to inspire each other, to get ideas, to make connections across tenants and staff, that always comes out of our conferences as one of the key areas of value.”
Housing caught up with Reid in between the two, and if it sounds rather like one is a rehearsal for the other, she soon disavowed the notion; rather the first “whetted the appetite” for more, she said.
“People make conferences,” she added. That’s why no two events are ever the same. “There will be similar things – the networking, the passion, the enthusiasm, the working together – but it will have a different feel to it just because it’s a different conference with different people. I think there will be the same level of feisty debate.”
There was certainly a lot to discuss. September proved something of a tumultuous month. The social housing regulator at the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) was subjected to a barrage of criticism in a Communities and Local Government Select Committee report. Naturally, TPAS had its own views to air given the aspect of consumer regulation is a close concern. The UN’s special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik lit the blue touch paper with her comments on the bedroom tax. And, lest we forget, Ed Miliband effectively made housing a key battleground in the coming election.
So there was a lot of fuel for discussion, but on top of this came the usual ‘bread and butter’ matters of tenant and resident involvement, of sharing knowledge and networking, and developing the already deep pool of tenant empowerment expertise, but over all of this lingered that dreaded spectre of welfare reform.
For Reid, the case for tenant involvement goes to the heart of a social landlord’s business, but isn’t there the temptation, given the pressures of welfare reform, that it will end up on the back burner?
“There’s always a risk,” Reid admitted. “And it may be put on a back burner by some organisations, but it’s not going to be put on the back burner by the groundswell of involved tenants, and the groundswell of landlords who want to work with their tenants. We all know that welfare reform is probably the top priority for housing providers. 
There are people who are taking the view that they need to disinvest in tenant involvement, perhaps put resources into income management roles, so yes welfare reform has the capacity to scupper some of the resident involvement that’s going on, but I would argue that it is absolutely crucial to successfully mitigate some of the impact of welfare reform.”
Another threat, perhaps, is the ‘deadening hand’ it might exert on tenants feeling able to take an active role with their landlords. However, there is a flipside. “Welfare reform galvanises people,” Reid said. “We’ve seen tenants protesting, we’ve seen tenants leading conferences on welfare reform for tenants and professionals to go along to, and there’s been a real coming together over this issue, so sometimes adversity can really galvanise and re-energise that spirit.”
Spirited tenant involvement is all very welcome, of course, but there is the worry that the adversity of these times may sour the relationship with social landlords. That’s something TPAS is understandably keen to avoid as its heads into its second quarter century. For one thing, it’s the relationship between tenants, staff, and social landlord that holds the means to clearing the hurdles of these troubled times; for another, one might say that the tenant empowerment movement has come too far to be turned back now.
“If you think about 25 years ago, if you think about the role of tenants in 1988, and the role of tenants now, then there has been a lot of progress made. Most providers have a baseline of resident involvement and empowerment. There are some really good trailblazing organisations that really get the business case for resident involvement – but there’s loads more to do,” said Reid.
“Tenants and landlords, working together in partnership, make real, tangible differences to organisations. But we’re also looking to celebrate what has been achieved, because there is an enormous amount of resident involvement going on across the country. There’s thousands of residents; I’m just really inspired by the ways that people are helping their landlords to improve. There are thousands of hours of volunteer time that’s given by people up and down the country to really get involved with their social landlords. It’s a huge amount of community expertise.
“So we’re using the 25th anniversary to try and get the message across. It’s not just a nice thing to do, it’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”
This interview was first published in the October 2013 edition of Housing magazine and subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 24 March 2014. Since first publication, Michelle Reid has become group chief executive of Cynon Taf Community Housing Group in Wales.

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