of course. Mark Smulian reports
Involving tenants in decisions that affect their homes can be as simple as pushing a leaflet through their door and as complex as giving tenant representatives a formal role in budget setting.
The growth of consultation culture has given impetus to it, not least because the Audit Commission's housing inspectors look for successful tenant participation and are ready to criticise councils and arm's-length management organisations that drag their heels.
Phil Morgan, chief executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, says there are three key steps: 'Focus on service delivery, diversify the ways in which people can get involved and then link the results of that to an impact on service delivery as part of a virtuous circle.'
Mr Morgan advocates a 'patchwork quilt' approach and says 'there is no one way to engage - it is a matter of what works locally'.
The following councils have made innovations in tenant participation that have earned them beacon status:
1 Give them routes in
Kirklees Metropolitan Council has involved tenants in decisions for over 20 years, and 112 tenants' and residents' associations operate in the area.
These are supported by the tenant-run Kirklees Federation of Tenant & Resident Associations.
Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing is an arm's-length management organisation (ALMO), owned by the council but operationally independent of it.
It encourages tenants to get involved at a level and pace that suits them, and so offers several different was of doing so.
Head of tenant participation Philip Hardstone says these range from serving as an elected board member to giving informal opinions at a fun day.
Annual investment and service planning conferences are held and some 250 tenants sit on the federation's talkback panel, which is regularly consulted by the ALMO.
Tenants also take part in mystery shopping exercises and in environmental inspections of estates.
A forum has been set up for younger tenants - as opposed to children of tenants - who are traditionally a hard-to-reach group.
Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing's work with children and adolescents has proved valuable in resolving cases of anti-social behaviour by building links between them and tenant organisations.
Mr Hardstone says: 'There was concern 18 months ago about anti-social behaviour on an estate in Dewsbury, and the young people went to the local paper and asked to be given a chance.
'Out of that, they approached the tenants' association for help and now there are sports programmes for them.'
Tensions between young and older residents on a Cleckheaton estate were resolved after sports activities were organised. These led a more relaxed atmosphere in which some young people offered to do their older neighbours' gardening.
'Now, the old folks have stopped moaning - and the young ones have the activities they want,' says Mr Hardstone.
2 Tenants as inspectors
Bolton MBC's housing is run by Bolton at Home, an ALMO responsible for some 19,000 homes.
The organisation recognised that in addition to looking after homes, the cleanliness of estates was essential to residents' well-being.
A service level agreement existed with the council's environmental service but residents had had no input and it was rarely referred to.
Bolton at Home decided to consult customer groups, in particular the Bolton Affiliation of Tenant and Residents Associations, and 15 neighbourhood panels were held at which residents gave their opinions on what the service should provide.
A new jargon-free agreement resulted, but residents had made it clear they would like to be involved in monitoring.
Volunteer 'green' inspectors were recruited through open days and residents associations. There are now 50, each of whom has been trained on the agreement's performance standards.
Their checks have taken place monthly since October 2005 and have enabled environmental services to better understand what residents want.
Co-ordinator Ruth Anderson points out that the scheme was not completely original, as it built on earlier work in which Bolton had involved tenants in devising a standard for the refurbishment of empty homes.
She says: 'Green inspectors walk round estates and suggest how to improve the area. Because they are there all the time they see things that professional staff might not.
'Their input makes a huge difference to what we can do and we definitely deliver a better service through doing this.'
3 Talk to hard-to-reach residents
Croydon LBC used to rely on meetings for tenant involvement, until it realised that this excluded those unable or unwilling to attend.
The council now has a housing sounding board, which 750 residents have joined and which allows them choose their level and method of involvement.
Special interest panels were established for ethnic minorities, who make up half the population of parts of the borough.
Verna Francis, resident participation officer, says: 'We found that the previous structures were not representative and that black and minority ethnic residents did not know about council services. There were also cultural and language barriers.
'It is important to know for example, if religious occasions might clash with planned meetings.
'The problem for many is that they just do not know the housing system, and it needs to be explained that there is not someone sitting in the town hall writing cheques.'
Among the cultural issues found was that Somali boys and girls were not allowed to socialise, and so the girls were excluded from any mixed facilities provided.
Conversely, Somali women tended to be more actively involved than men in the community.
Ms Francis says verbal translation of documents was needed for some communities, some of whom were illiterate in their own language.
She is now starting to work with Croydon's growing eastern European community, for whom the main issue is the language barrier.
4 Release the purse strings
Carrick DC's ALMO Carrick Housing owns 4,000 homes, across a rural district, ranging from estates of 700 homes in towns down to just one or two in remote villages.
Tenants are involved in planning the housing service's future, setting delivery and performance plans and the housing revenue account budget.
Budget involvement is through a policy development committee, which meets prior to the council committee that takes the formal decisions.
Tenants are either elected to the committee by their local group or through elections run by the council in remote areas, where it would be impractical to establish a tenants' group.
Linsey Cottington, director of community engagement at Carrick Housing, says: 'Tenants are given options and papers in advance and support to make sure they are up to speed. They are involved closely throughout the year though, so it is not like they just get one chance to shape things at the meeting.'
Carrick uses roadshows, a newsletter and leaflets and is about to launch a mystery shopper scheme. Every three years some aspect of the service is reviewed in detail.
Ms Cottington says: 'Tenant participation has definitely helped to improve services, and we are now a three-star service.'
5 Get the skills
'Tenant consultation' sounds like something that anyone could do - just go and talk to people. But it is an acquired skill, and Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing takes staff training seriously.
Job descriptions for all employees require them to work within the context of the ALMO's Tenant Consultation & Participation Charter.
All new workers are trained in tenant involvement as part of their induction.
Both staff and tenants are among the 15 people sponsored by the ALMO each year on the certificate in tenant participation course at Huddersfield College.
'It makes a huge difference to their understanding and many have been promoted as a result,' says Philip Hardstone, head of tenant participation.
Tenants are also involved in recruitment 'at all levels from the chief executive downwards', he says.
Find out more
Improvement & Development Agency
Tenant Participation Advisory Service
National Housing Federation www.housing.org.uk
National Federation of ALMOs www.almos.org.uk
Federation of Black Housing Organisations
Housing Corporation www.housingcorp.gov.uk
Carrick www.carrickhousing.org.uk or www.carrick.gov.uk
Bolton MBC www.boltonathome.org.uk or www.bolton.gov.uk
Croydon LBC www.croydon.gov.uk
Kirklees Metropolitan Council www.kirklees.gov.uk