A Community Housing Trust for Kingston : What You Need to Know
Why set up a Community Housing Trust?
In common with an increasing number of UK local authorities, Kingston Council intends to ‘buy in’ many of the public services it has traditionally provides. It believes this will lead to improved services being provided more efficiently and effectively than the Council itself can deliver.
For housing services (covering everything from repairs and maintenance to rent collections, homelessness and allocations), the Council wants to give its tenants and leaseholders a direct and major say in how they are run. It means that in future, residents will jointly manage nearly all housing services, becoming the major stakeholders in a new community housing trust, making all the key decisions about spending priorities and service delivery. For the very first time, tenants and leaseholders will largely control their own housing affairs.
What is a Community Housing Trust?
The Council invited the independent Kingston Federation of Residents (the borough’s main champion of tenant and leaseholder rights) to investigate the best possible way to give residents maximum powers to determine their own housing destiny. After examining several alternative management models, a community housing trust (CHT) emerged as the clear favourite and the Council has just given the go-ahead to start the transition.
A CHT is an independent, not-for-profit company that will be set up and wholly owned by the Council to manage and deliver its housing services. The big difference is that the Council’s annual housing budget will in future be jointly managed by YOU – council tenants and leaseholders – who will be the majority group on the Trust’s management board. Quite simply, it will put you in joint control of future housing decisions.
The even better news is that, unlike a stock transfer, setting up a CHT does not involve any change of ownership of your home. The Council will retain the housing stock and you will remain council tenants and leaseholders, with all the same rights and privileges you currently hold. In short, while the Council will retain ultimate responsibility for housing, the resident-led CHT will decide how best to manage and deliver services.
A CHT is managed by a board, comprising tenants, leaseholders, elected councillors and independent advisers. Residents will make up the largest group, elected annually by all tenants and leaseholders.
Unlike the Council which has many competing services to provide, the CHT will focus solely on housing, and on providing greater benefits to the community. As well as delivering services, it will get involved in activities such as running local community centres and community transport schemes.
A CHT needs Government approval before it can start delivering housing services, and the Council is required to show a majority of its residents’ support a CHT. There is no ballot because, unlike a stock transfer, the Council continues to be your landlord, and you remain council tenants and leaseholders.
What are the benefits of a CHT?
A CHT can concentrate all of its time, resources, knowledge and expertise on just one thing: the provision of better housing and certain community services. Key housing staff will not have to be ‘shared’ between other council services, as currently happens. Resident representatives will be the majority group on the CHT’s Board, which will determine key priorities and make the major management decisions.
Council housing in Kingston will once more become an integrated service, after losing key functions (including rent collections, repairs and maintenance) to other Guildhall departments five years ago. This will lead to residents getting a more ‘joined up’, accessible and user-friendly service. Crucially, under resident-led management, it should also be better protected from the increasing cuts that cash-strapped councils across Britain are having to impose.
Will the staff of the CHT be the same as the housing staff now?
The Council’s housing service has just undergone a radical transformation programme in which all existing posts were reviewed and restructured. Staff who were retained, along with any new staff appointed, will be offered transfers to the CHT with the same rights, terms & conditions of employment that they currently have.
If the staff is the same why will things be better?
Because their working environment will be better, providing a fully integrated service which concentrates all its staff time, energy and focus on one thing: delivering better housing services. And the CHT Board will be able to make any management and/or delivery improvements it sees fit without recourse to council bureaucracy.
Can a CHT be a step towards privatisation?
No. This would require a ballot and government approval. A CHT is about managing the housing service in a better way, not a change of ownership.
Who will elect the residents to the board?
Tenants and leaseholders will nominate and elect the resident board members, through an independently conducted ballot.
Can the wishes of resident members on the board just be ignored?
No. This would be a serious breach of the CHT’s constitution, leading to formal complaints to the Council and, if necessary, the independent Housing Ombudsman, who would have the power to change any wrongdoings.
Won’t the Council just tell the CHT what to do?
While the Council will own the CHT and is ultimately responsible for its actions, the CHT will make all day-to-day management & operational decisions, and be jointly engaged with the Council in deciding overall strategy.
Will the repairs and maintenance services improve?
This will be a key objective of the CHT, through the better management of housing budgets and contractors.
What kind of extra community activities will the CHT start?
Building and managing community centres, providing better community transport, and improving the local environment of housing estates are just three priorities along with supporting community events like fun days.
What will happen to rents, charges and tenancies?
Policies may change whoever runs the housing service, but a CHT is better placed to maximise financial efficiency, keeping rents and leasehold charges as low as possible. Existing tenancies will NOT be affected.
What are the alternatives to a CHT?
Staying with the current council-run housing service is not an option. Kingston Council has already decided to become a ‘commissioning’ council, buying in services rather than managing and delivering them itself.
If things were to stay as they are, responsibility for delivering housing services would continue to be split between several Guildhall departments, making them less efficient and less cohesive. Residents have already experienced a downturn in service delivery since the previously integrated housing service was broken up.
Even if residents now wanted it, a housing stock transfer to a housing association (or another registered social landlord) is no longer possible, because any new landlord would now have to take on £116 million worth of debt, incurred two years ago when the Council bought its housing finances out of damaging Whitehall control.
The ONLY feasible alternative to a community housing trust would be for the Council to outsource all of its housing services to a remote commercial facilities management company. This would leave residents with even less say than they now have, with any management company focused more on its own profitability than on delivering quality services. Both the Council and Kingston Federation of Residents see this as the worst possible option for residents.
How much will the CHT cost to set up?
In comparison to Kingston’s annual housing budget of more than £34 million, start-up costs will be small – around £200k – all of which will be quickly recovered through the CHT’s lower operating costs. Other CHTs have delivered improved housing services while generating surpluses of more than £10 million in just a few years – money that is already being ploughed back into new social housing, upgrades to existing housing and enhanced community services. In summary, the CHT should be able to make bigger investments in the Council’s housing stock.
What if it all went wrong?
No CHT has ever failed but, if things were to go wrong, the Council is empowered to close the CHT and either revert to direct management of the housing service or, more likely, contract it out to a management company.
If you have any questions or require any further information, please contact Richard Grosvenor or Barry Mitchell on 020 8974 5806 or 020 8547 4750, or email your enquiries and comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
How do I register my support for the CHT?
The Community Housing Trust will only be set up if enough support from residents can be demonstrated. It is therefore vital that if you support the idea you let the council know. You can pledge your support online for the Kingston Community Housing Trust using this link to the council’s website.