Chair’s report 2015

Paul Johnston delivered his Chair’s report at the Federation AGM on 21 September 2015.  A slightly shortened version of his speech is below.

Chair’s report

Having been Chair of this Federation for less than three years, I should perhaps hesitate before starting this annual report with the suggestion that the past 12 months has been the busiest, most intense, most challenging and most significant of any year in our proud 25 year history. In fact I have no such hesitation because I am in no doubt it is true – as I will seek to demonstrate with the following summary of our year 2014-15.

First however, for those of you who may be new to or unfamiliar with all of the Federation’s many activities, let me categorise our main functions as follows.

As the largest, oldest and most authoritative voice of council tenants, leaseholders and freeholders in the borough, we remain the major intermediary between all those who live in council-owned housing and your Kingston Council landlord.

This means that we work for you in four key ways by –

Advocating the best interests, aspirations and needs of our residents through a range of formal bodies and organisations, including a number of council committees, policy and project working groups.

  • Representation on behalf of individual residents, or groups of tenants & leaseholders, who have issues or problems with their council landlord.
  • Constantly seeking to influence or, where appropriate, change council housing policies for the benefit of residents, and
  • Acting as a regular and reliable provider of knowledge and information, support and advice to all our Residents’ Associations, as well as individual council tenants & leaseholders on all social housing matters.

Perhaps the most time-consuming area of our work over the past year has been the growing need to act as a powerful and persuasive advocate for residents during a fast-changing and turbulent year for social housing, which has seen, and is continuing to experience, huge changes brought about by the Government, and by Kingston Council.

While some of the biggest changes, such as those curtailing welfare benefits or ever-tougher Government constraints on council house spending, naturally get the media headlines – there are many other housing-related policies in the process of review or amendment, whose combined effect could have a major impact on council tenants and leaseholders. To mention just a few, the Federation is actively engaged in negotiating policy decisions on important issues like:

  • the review and potential ending of lifetime tenancies
  • the proposed impact of rent reductions on service delivery, and of course
  • our own proposals for the provision of most council house services to be transferred to a resident-led community housing trust.

It is often slow and painstaking work, with our attendance at many committees and working groups alone taking up at least 20% of our available time, but it is vital in order to protect residents’ interests and we have had some significant successes, including the establishment of a resident scrutiny panel with real powers to investigate and correct housing service shortcomings, improvements to the allocations policy and winning refunds for tenants wrongly charged for services they either didn’t want or never had.

The second area of activity, and another that has grown surprisingly over the past year despite the Council’s claims to have vastly improved customer service, is that of representing individual residents and groups of residents who either have unresolved complaints against their council landlord, or whom we feel have been wronged by the Council’s practices.

Sometimes it can take us many, many hours of research, discussions and negotiations to produce the right result for a resident, but eventually we usually succeed – and are frequently left wondering why the Council’s housing staff failed to resolve a particular problem or issue much sooner. Nonetheless, such cases are an ongoing testimony to the FED’s value in providing objective, independent intervention to resolve problems.

Throughout its long existence, the Federation has sought (and succeeded) to influence and where necessary, to change council housing policies seen as prejudicial to our residents. We also listen to tenants and leaseholders, by attending numerous residents’ association meetings every year, seeking their views on specific issues through our website, and inviting residents to bring their concerns or problems to us.Which leads me to THE most significant initiative ever taken by the Federation, namely our development of proposals for the Council’s mediocre housing services to be transferred to a brand-new resident-led community housing trust. For over 20 years, our residents had repeatedly complained about the very poor standards of service they received from the housing department and, in recent years, from the hopelessly inadequate centralised housing contact centre in the Guildhall which, five years after its formation still generates long call waiting times, and too often produces slow and unsatisfactory outcomes to residents’ problems. Against that backdrop, when the Council’s Administration changed some 16 months ago, we took the opportunity to talk to the new Leader and his colleagues about giving tenants and leaseholders far more control over their own housing affairs. We were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves pushing at an open door, with the new Administration keen to hand the management of many council services over to their respective end users – in the case of housing, to council tenants and leaseholders.

The Federation was invited to find out how this could best be achieved, and we spent the next six months researching a variety of possibilities before settling on a resident-led CHT, which is how we came to gain all-party support for our proposals in February this year.

Since then we have sought to maintain a close working partnership with the Council, to ensure that IF the CHT initiative gets sufficient support from our residents, it is given the necessary range of services to manage.

You may wonder why this latter point is so important, and the answer is simply this: despite acknowledging that key functions such as the housing contact centre and housing finances (including rent collections and debt recovery) should be managed directly by any new CHT, the Council wants to continue to run these – and a number of other key housing functions – for an indeterminate period of time.

The Federation disagrees and believes that these vital functions, which have been poorly managed and performed badly in recent years under council control, should form part of the community housing trust from Day One. As of today, there is no sign of such issues being resolved quickly, so it is my guess – as an independent member of the Shadow Board (set up to oversee the CHT’s development) – that we could be looking towards the end of 2016 or early 2017 before any Trust gets off the ground. And this, of course, still assumes the proposals will attract sufficient support from our residents who, quite rightly, want a lot more detailed information before making up their minds.

Please don’t think from these comments that the Federation is getting cold feet about the community housing trust concept. Far from it; we believe it represents the perfect opportunity for handing overall management control of council homes to those who live in them.

Where the Federation will stand in any new housing management structure, or indeed whether it will exist at all, is of course a secondary matter, but one that is naturally exercising our minds as we enter the final six months of our remaining council funding.

Finally, I must turn to the mainstay of our work, which is to act as the primary source of information, advice and support for all council tenants and leaseholders in the borough – including of course providing practical help to our modest but healthy network of residents’ associations.

Sadly, in the last 12 months we have lost two RAs, one of which – Cumberland House – was among the founding members of the Federation. The other fallen RA is at nearby Kingsnympton Park – with both associations suffering declining resident support and too few officers left to keep their RA flags flying.

That said, we remain hopeful of resurrecting a residents’ group on Kingsnympton Park Estate early next year, and just next month we will be re-launching the previously very active FREDY RA (covering Dale Court and adjacent flats’ blocks in central Kingston), following the slow return to health of its popular Chair, Alex Cannarsa. Welcome back Alex!

Assuming the successful re-establishment of these two groups, we will have RA coverage across some 40% of Kingston’s total council homes. We would obviously like this figure to be much higher, but the reality today is that ever fewer residents are willing to give up even a couple of hours of their time to be involved in helping their local community. Indeed, we spent many wasted days last year trying to set up new RAs.

Among the wide range of support services offered to our members are:

A regularly updated news and information service (mainly via the FED’s own website) to keep everyone abreast of the latest developments in both national and local social housing affairs.

  • RA community newsletters, now offered to ALL of our RAs thanks to our successful bid for modest lottery funds which have enabled us to take on a part-time writer (Matthew Page) to produce at least two editions per RA by next April.
  • A simple design and reprographics service, whereby we can supply colour leaflets, flyers and posters to local residents’ groups.
  • Publication of our own quarterly newspaper, Home Truths which we distribute free to all council tenants and leaseholders in Kingston. Unlike its Council counterpart HomeLife, our publication presents all the facts about social housing – the good, bad & ugly – which is why it is the most authoritative source of information.
  • Practical and technical help with the planning of community events and activities
  • A dedicated meeting room at Tadlow, adjacent to the FED’s office, for use by RAs and community groups, and
  • Full-time staff to provide RAs and individual tenants and leaseholders with expert advice and practical support, including help in settling disputes with, or claims against, the Council.

So, in closing this year’s Chair’s report, I want to say a personal ‘thank you’ on our collective behalf, to the unstinting and always professional efforts of Federation Secretary Richard Grosvenor, our Co-ordinator Barry Mitchell, and our long-suffering but never-complaining administrator, Beverly Rogers, who nearly always manages to bring calm to the office’s often highly stressed environment. Your efforts, and your successes – often unseen – are nonetheless genuinely appreciated.

Finally, I must thank my fellow Federation directors for their continued support and wisdom over the year; to Ray Austin (our elder statesman, font-of-all-housing-knowledge and tenacious internal auditor for keeping a very tight rein on our finances), to Harry Hall, who somehow manages to juggle a job and chairmanship of the borough’s largest residents’ association on the Cambridge Road Estate with his campaigning role for the Federation, and of course, to Richard who also acts as the FED’s strategic development manager.

Thank you for your attendance this evening, and for your attention during my report. I and my colleagues will be happy to answer your questions during the course of this AGM, part of which provides time for an open forum discussion.

– ENDS -