HLBs – A Partial Labour Climbdown – But With Important Caveats

You can tell it’s Christmas when Council business suddenly increases. So after yesterday’s mammoth Cabinet meeting, this morning I attended a Council budget consultation meeting (more about that in a later post), and this afternoon I went along to the Districts & Public Engagement O & S Committee to hear the results of the Tenant Engagement Consultation (about HLBs) and – most importantly – the proposed way forward. The same presentation will be made to the City Board on Thursday.

The initial thought of some members of the Committee (of which I am not a member) was that this was a Labour surrender (running up the white flag was the term used.) Not so, in my opinion. It may be a bit of a climbdown from what the consultation document originally proposed, but there are still important caveats.

The final plans will be agreed by Cabinet in February, but at the moment, the future model for tenant engagement is looking like this:

NEIGHBOURHOOD LEVEL – The Council will abandon the idea of new tenant led Neighbourhood Panels, but will instead work with Neighbourhood Forums and other existing organisations. MY VERDICT: Seems reasonable.

WARD LEVEL – The Council will retain HLBs and continue to support them. I asked the officer for clarification on the term”support”. Would that include providing Council officer support such as a Housing Officer to attend and someone to take minutes, would it pay for the hire of rooms and other sundry expenses? I didn’t get a definite answer to those questions but was assured that for the moment it’s the status quo and any changes would be consulted on.

The HLBs will have fit for purpose standards for them to work on. There will be a review of gaps in the coverage of HLBs across the city as some areas don’t currently have one, and there will be a review of membership and recruitment. MY VERDICT: the fact that HLBs are staying is brilliant news BUT quite what are these new fit for purpose standards? A review of gaps in the HLB coverage, doesn’t promise new ones will be created (they might be, but it doesn’t actually say that), and the review of membership suggests Labour are going to press ahead with their plans to reserve certain places on the HLBs for certain groups of the community such as ethnic groups and young people. At the consultation meetings I attended, many HLB members found this idea offensive and potentially divisive as HLBs are currently open to everyone and no-one is excluded and they thought that was the way they should stay.

HLB DISCRETIONARY FUNDING – HLBs will retain the current allocation process for HLB discretionary funding BUT to make it more transparent and accountable it will be linked with priorities for local investment through District Committees.  MY VERDICT Letting tenants keep their own small budget was a thing I argued strongly for. I’m delighted it looks like they will retain it, but they will have to spend it accordance with the District Committee’s priorities which somewhat limits tenants’ ability to make their own decisions.

THE FUTURE FOR HLBs – Formal performance reporting will move from the HLBs to the new District Housing Panels (more about them in a minute). And the Council will develop an incremental approach to change and development for HLBs.  MY VERDICT: The first point means the HLBs lose some of their raison d’etre. That should ring alarm bells for the future. The second point should ring alarm bells too!

DISTRICT LEVEL – Constituency Tenant Groups will fold. Instead they will set up District Housing Panels (DHPs) but refine the model so the structure includes places for people other than Council tenants – such as tenants in private rented accommodation, tenants with other  social landlords and owner occupiers. (Bear in mind this is the body that in future is going to receive the formal performance reporting – so it won’t just be Council tenants doing that in future.)

The DHPs will nominate co-optees to District Committees with the co-optees coming from different tenures depending on the make up of each district.  MY VERDICT – Bad news all round. No climbdown from the Labour Executive on the proposal to put co-optees on the District Committee. I fail to see the point personally, as they cannot have a vote, and the Chairman can allow people to speak anyway – people don’t have to be co-opted in order to speak so why not just formally invite them to attend and then allow them to speak?  From the HLBs’  point of view, the co-optees may not be Council tenants any more, they could be owner occupiers etc. Yet it is Council Housing that would primarily be being discussed at the District meeting surely? Is it fair on our tenants that the chance to discuss Council Housing matters at the District Committee could be given to say owner occupiers who live nowhere near a Council estate, instead of to the Council’s own tenants?

CITY LEVEL – Retain the City Board  to, it was said “receive information”. The membership of the City Board to have clear links with HLBs and DHPs. Retain Leaseholder and Sheltered Special Interest Groups. MY VERDICT – The last sentence is good, but the first comments look  more ominous. What does “receive information” mean? They currently do more than that (as the Chairman of the City Board pointed out at the end of the meeting). And note the membership is now to have links with the DHPs as well. Before, the members came from HLBs. It wasn’t made clear how many City Board members would be nominated from HLBs and how many from DHPs – and the latter will include private rented tenants, owner occupiers etc. so presumably some of the nominations onto the City Board will in future cover people from tenures other than Council housing.

So a lot to take in – some good news, some potentially more ominous. And I think we all need to watch out for the “incremental approach to change and development for HLBs” which was promised. I hope that means sensibly helping the organisation to move with the times. But I fear it might actually be a case of the Labour Executive saying “if at first you don’t succeed, try try try again – but next time in a piecemeal fashion which hopefully no-one will notice until it’s too late!”

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