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Tenants on the board or not?

What are housing organisations trying to achieve when they involve tenants in decision making? Tamsin Stirling looks at the issues involved in her latest Board Diary.

The role of tenants on housing association boards can be contested territory. For some associations, including tenants as an integral part of the body with ultimate responsibility for the organisation is a matter of principle. Others are less wedded to this principle, see many options for involving tenants in the governance of organisations and may or may not have tenants on their boards.

And for some individuals, the role of board member brings with it an immediate and serious conflict of interest for tenants who have been elected by tenants but are not around the board table representing tenants’ interests; as for any board member, they have to act in the best interests of the organisation.

In recent years, we have seen increasing ‘professionalisation’ of boards, with payment of board members playing a part. The rationale has largely been around the size of housing associations – businesses with multi-million pound turnovers – and the technicality and complexity of what they do, including commercial activities.

Part of this professionalisation has been a drift away from having tenants on boards, either altogether or a reduction in the number of tenants. Selection of board members on the basis of skills matrices has become the norm. Depending on what skills are included (or not), for example experience of living and/or working in the communities that the organisation serves, such practice can result in few or no tenants being appointed.

To me, the move away from tenants on boards seems to have taken place without much analysis of what we were trying to achieve through tenant board membership and what might replace it, other than some useful developments around tenant scrutiny.

In this context, I think it is worth unpicking what we might be seeking to achieve, (explicitly or implicitly), by including tenants on boards. A list of possible outcomes could include one or more of the following:

  • sharing of power
  • enabling direct tenant influence
  • supporting organisational legitimacy
  • ensuring tenant focus
  • making space for tenant voices to be heard
  • including tenant perspectives in decision-making and tracking the impacts of decisions
  • demonstrating accountability to tenants
  • providing development opportunities for individual tenants who become board members
  • ensuring associations don’t become removed from the communities that they were set up to serve, their experiences and concerns
  • increasing diversity of thought/world view around the board table.

Of course, most, if not all, of the above can be achieved in ways other than, or as well as, having tenants on the board.

Both the new principles-based Code of Governance for the Welsh housing association sector [1]and the Welsh Government publication The Right Stuff [2] put emphasis on the right people being around the board table, with a balance of skills, experience, knowledge and backgrounds. Neither document requires or mandates specific roles for tenants/residents in relation to governance, rather they are seen as being at the heart of what associations do.

For me, it is difficult to conceive tenants being at the heart of associations’ work without them having a direct role in decision-making and, preferably, in the ownership of the organisation. I am a big fan of mutual models and have followed with interest the developments at Merthyr Valleys Homes.

In developing its tenant and employee mutual, Merthyr Valleys really thought through how tenants (and staff) are involved in governance. Interestingly, there are no tenants on the board. However, the organisation has a Democratic Body made up of elected tenant and staff representatives along with two members from the local authority. The role of the Democratic Body includes approving the appointment of board members and the corporate strategy, as well as reviewing services and rent setting.

A report from the Democratic Body about its work during 2017/18 [3] clearly demonstrates its centrality within the governance of the organisation. It has appointed a majority of the board members, has recommended to the board a rent policy based on a living rent, developed a value for money strategy and assisted with the development of a procurement strategy. It is evident that the Democratic Body provides a say for tenants before decisions are made by the board (as opposed to scrutinising decisions after the event). The way that tenants are involved in governance within the organisation appears to achieve all of the possible outcomes from tenant board membership listed earlier.

The structure adopted by Merthyr Valleys Homes is very particular and is unlikely to be widely taken up across the sector. However, all associations can work with tenants to think through and make explicit what it is they are aiming to achieve through engaging tenants, whether through board membership or other ways. Given the increasing complexity of the world in which housing associations work, it will be interesting to see whether the number of tenants on association boards continues to decline over the coming years.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at [email protected] and is on Twitter @TamsinStirling1




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