Tenant control can help fix our broken housing system

Ballots on regeneration plans are the first step to giving tenants a real say.

If we learnt anything from the Grenfell tragedy, it was that for too long, social housing tenants’ voices have been ignored. Residents knew the tower was unsafe – but nobody listened to them.

Earlier this week we heard from the leader of the Labour Party a real commitment to increasing tenant power. His promise to give social housing tenants a ballot on the decision to regenerate their estate would be an important first step in putting tenants back at the heart of social housing policy.

In many places across the country, regeneration has become a dirty word – synonymous with demolition, eviction and lack of community control. Consultations have so often felt like a stitch-up, with the decisions about what happens to people’s homes made behind closed doors, without meaningful input from residents. Some notorious regeneration schemes, like the Heygate Estate in Southwark, have seen the numbers of affordable social rent homes plummet, with only 82 of the 2,704 new homes built available at social rent levels.

Putting regeneration schemes to a ballot gives tenants a meaningful, formal role in the decision-making process. Local authorities and housing associations would have to offer increased access to information and clear options for regeneration – something which has so often been lacking in recent schemes. They would need to win over’ their tenants in order to succeed in the ballot, which should provide a strong incentive for them to develop regeneration schemes with tenants involved.

Some fear that granting tenants a ballot could lead to a rise in tenant NIMBYism’, whereby estate residents use the ballot to block any scheme put forward, preventing landlords from building much-needed affordable housing. However, in London, as has been widely reported, the current models of estate regeneration already lead to a large net loss of social rented homes, with regeneration often actually making the housing crisis worse.

Instead, community control over regeneration can work, and putting tenants in charge of the process need not forestall it. On many estates undergoing regeneration, residents have created their own people’s plans’ – innovative regeneration schemes which put residents in control and deliver net increases in social housing. For instance the residents of the Waterton and Elgin Community Homes estates in Westminster, which are entirely tenant controlled, are undertaking a major regeneration scheme, adding 43 affordable homes to Westminster’s housing stock.

On many estates undergoing regeneration, residents have created people’s plans’ – innovative regeneration schemes which put residents in control.

However, guaranteeing tenants a ballot is only a first step towards building genuine tenant power and delivering regeneration schemes which meet the needs of the community. Poor decision-making in estate regeneration stems not only from a lack of tenant involvement, but also from the limitations placed on local authorities and housing associations. For social landlords to be able to work with tenants to deliver regeneration which consistently meets the needs of the community, they themselves will be need to empowered, reskilled and resourced – for example, by lifting the borrowing cap which so often forces local authorities into unsatisfactory regeneration partnerships with private developers, to the exclusion of tenants.

And expanding the power and control of tenants must not be restricted simply to regeneration. To begin to fix our broken housing system tenants and local communities need to be genuinely empowered in areas where for too long they have had too little control. This would include giving tenants greater involvement in the day-to-day management of their estates, to end the them-vs-us’ relationship between social tenants and their landlords which has become so common. It would also include putting the needs of local communities at the heart of decision-making over what gets built in the local area, especially on public land.

At the New Economics Foundation, we’re working with resident-led groups across the country proposing detailed, costed plans for affordable housing projects on public land – such as StART Haringey. It takes courage, resources and imagination to see tenants and communities as the real agents of regeneration, and ensure that what gets built responds to community needs, instead of ignoring them. But that is exactly what needs to happen.

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