London Borough of Camden, May to December 2007Establishing dialogue and trust between a local authority and existing residents
Effective communication with tenants early on in any process is important to avoid later tensions and problems. Local authorities often find it difficult to talk to a representative mix of their tenants in a meaningful way. Historically low levels of trust in the relationship can make engagement even more difficult, so it is important to approach the process with a commitment to being proactive and flexible.
- Consultation with a diverse local population
- Undoing a legacy of distrust
- Finding new ways to engage with residents
Diversity and distrust
In May 2007 the London Borough of Camden began an ambitious in-depth consultation process with its 33,000 tenants on the Council's plans for the housing stock. Camden has a young, mobile, and ethnically diverse population. At the time of the Census in 2001, 52 per cent of the population was classed as 'White British', 27 per cent were from Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) groups, and 20 per cent were non-British white.
The borough has a strong economy, and includes some of London's most affluent suburbs, such as Bloomsbury and Hampstead Heath, but it also has problems with worklessness and drug offences. This diversity posed a challenge for the council when it came to engagement with tenants. The council had to be flexible in its approach to consultation so as to engage residents who were not involved with traditional forums such as Tenants and Residents Associations (TRAs). The council also had to work hard to overcome a legacy of distrust and to build a rapport with its tenants.
‘The fourth option'
Consultation took place as a result of tenants voting against a transfer to an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) in 2003, choosing instead the 'fourth option' - continuing to be tenants of the council. This left a funding gap as only ALMOs, Tenant Management Organisations, and Housing Associations are eligible to receive Decent Homes funding from central government to meet the Decent Homes Standard in their housing stock. The council was still responsible for ensuring that all the houses it managed met the Decent Homes Standard, and calculated that it would need £413 million to do so. Taking into consideration the available resources this left a funding deficit of £242 million. To fill this deficit the council developed a plan that included selling selected empty properties to raise funds. The three main parts of the plan were:
- 'a new housing investment strategy' - redefining priorities for the renewal of the Council's housing stock so they are in line with the Decent Homes Standard
- regeneration of selected estates that were deemed to have the most significant needs
- sale of selected empty residential and commercial properties to raise funding.
At the same time as the consultation was taking place, a 15-year public sector transport infrastructure and private sector regeneration programme began in the Kings Cross area for new commercial, retail and residential space. The Kings Cross development straddles both Camden and the London Borough of Islington. The regeneration of this area was prompted by the transfer of Eurostar services to St Pancras station from November 2007. It is one of the largest developments in Central London and differs from the Camden consultation in that the properties involved are not predominately residential, or managed by the local authority.
One of the council's aims was to make sure it achieved a representative, statistically significant consultation of its tenants, leaseholders and community stakeholders, reflecting the diversity of Camden's population. However, the borough's 21 Tenants & Residents Associations (TRA's) were not necessarily representative of the demographic make-up of the wider community and did not cover all council managed homes. Many of the council's tenants did not engage with the TRAs, and language was often a barrier to participation. The council concentrated its efforts on creating information in an accessible format and in helping residents gain a sense of ownership over the process.
The council began by sending a survey to all 33,000 council managed households asking them how they wanted to be consulted. From May to December 2007 council officers attended 83 different events. This included events set up especially for the consultation such as workshops, focus groups, and drop-in sessions, as well as meetings with established community groups that council officers attended to discuss the proposals. In total 5,560 individuals - 14 per cent of the council's tenants and lease holders - were involved in the consultation process.
In order to engage BME communities council officers were proactive in approaching community groups to ask if they could attend meetings, or visit individuals and groups for a cup of tea and a biscuit with tenants who would not normally have responded to other forms of council communication, such as postal surveys.
The council had to deal with historical distrust from residents and a perception that the council was all powerful and responsible for all the grievances residents had with public sector agencies. Any and all queries or concerns raised by residents by e-mail or letter, over the phone, at meetings or events whether related to the investment consultation or not were followed up by letter or e-mail. These identified actions already taken by the council or signposted residents to the correct agency. All correspondence was copied to ward members. The process was tremendously labour and resource intensive - the number of individual letter and e-mails sent reached well into the hundreds - but helped the council build a rapport with its tenants.
The historical distrust also meant that when council officers first tried to present the proposals to residents they often were not listened to and were shouted down. Distrust was so entrenched that sometimes photos of what was written on flip charts were taken by residents as they did not believe the council would report a meeting's findings correctly. This put a great deal of pressure on officers, who had to work hard to change the nature and the tone of the dialogue and make it a more deliberative process.
Council officers found that meetings with smaller groups were more conducive to establishing constructive discussion. Smaller groups also gave residents the confidence to speak openly, and reduced the incidence of the agenda being hijacked by 'the usual suspects.'
Councillors were involved in the process and tried to be responsive and consistent in the messages they put across to residents. At the same time, there was a tension between councillors who wished to respond to residents' desire to sometimes maintain the status quo, and officers who felt it was not appropriate to give residents a veto over any proposed plans.
Members understood that there was no scope to raise funding to meet the investment deficit in the council's housing stock and deliver Decent Homes programme if contentious issues such as the sale of council owned property was scrapped. This raises important issues regarding councillors' independence and ability to act.
It is worth pointing out that this happened at a time when officers were working with a new partnership administration and Executive with many first time councillors after the local elections of May 2006. The Housing Renewals division where the Investing Camden's Homes officer group are based were also undergoing restructuring that put pressure on teams and the resources available.
While the process had its difficulties, it gave the council a mandate to proceed with its plans. It directly affected the sale of empty properties and the priorities for repairs of existing stock. By listening to its tenants the council was able to learn what they considered to be the priorities for their homes. For example, there was an emphasis on quality repairs, heating and safety works rather than a blanket policy of replacing entire bathroom and kitchen units which would have been more costly.
One of the main challenges the council faced after the consultation process was how it could incorporate residents' feedback into its reports and future actions in a way tenants who participated would recognise. The risk existed that if tenants could not recognise their contribution to the follow-up actions, the historical distrust would again rise to the surface, and any trust the Council had built with tenants would be lost.
There is a sense that if the Council was to embark on such an ambitious consultation project again, it would approach it differently. While it provided an opportunity to learn a lot about the priorities of their tenants, the process was incredibly time consuming and resource intensive. Although some of the smaller meetings were more conducive to constructive discussion, the benefit of attending some of the smallest meetings, which only a handful of tenants attended, is uncertain.
Transferable lessons for new communities
Many of the proposed new communities, particularly those in the New Growth Points, will be extensions of urban areas. The success of these projects will in part be determined by how well the local authority engages with the existing residents, listens to their concerns and works to incorporate their ideas to reduce any potential tensions. Lessons that can be learnt from the Camden experience include that:
It is unrealistic to expect residents to engage with the local authority immediately on the issue of housing if the local authority has not addressed previous questions and complaints residents have asked about actions the local authority has taken in the past. Residents often do not make distinctions between different local authority departments. Taking the time to address these issues builds rapport and trust.
It can be valuable for the local authority to be open and flexible in how it engages with residents, instead of having a pre-defined approach. There is no one-size-fits-all form of consultation: individual residents will respond differently to the different forms of consultation on offer.
It can be beneficial for local authorities to take a proactive approach to broadening consultation beyond ‘the usual suspects'. Camden actively approached existing community groups within the borough, including BME groups.
It is important for local authorities to report findings back to residents in a way that shows their feedback was taken into consideration. Failing to do this could potentially fuel mistrust between residents and the local authority.
For more information about the consultation process Camden undertook see: Camden
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