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The potential of public participation in social policy and administration: Tenant Management Organisations in council housing in England

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Support for measures to increase public participation in social policy and administration first came to prominence thirty years ago in the UK (Skeffington 1968, Lucas 1976, O’Malley 1977, Loney 1983) and in the USA (Arnstein 1969, Pateman 1970, Sewell and Coppock 1977, Checkoway and van Tijl 1978). This led to the development of many now familiar practices and institutions, such as the formal representation of service users on school governing bodies, university committees, police consultative committees and Community Health Councils. Interest and support for participation never really waned, but over the last fifteen years, interest in participation has come into “new vogue” (Hague 1990 p.243), and there has been an “explosion of enthusiasm” for it (Beresford and Croft 1993 p.2). Initiatives in social policy since the late 1970s have encouraged greater consultation by the police and public involvement in what has become known as ‘community safety’ (Scarman 1981, Weatheritt and Vieira 1998), parental involvement in education (Boyson 1975, Wolfendale 1989, Halstead, 1994, O’Connor 1994), public and user involvement in health, health promotion and health care planning and purchasing (NHS Executive 1994, Wann 1995, Smithies and Webster 1998) and empowerment of the users of social services (Croft and Beresford 1990, Wilson 1996), greater public participation in local policies for sustainable and liveable environments through Local Agenda 21 (Local Government Association 1998), and participation in the activities of local government in general (Gyford 1991, Hill 1991). The Labour government elected in 1997 sought ways to diversify and increase public involvement in local authority policy and activity (DETR 1998a). Support for participation has coincided with and appears to have been at least partly stimulated by structural changes in and challenges to many elements and institutions of social policy. It has been supplemented by movements to get ‘closer’ to consumers and services users in both private and public sectors, through decentralisation, consultation and consumerisation (Hood et al. 1996), and greater emphasis on the use of human resources both of staff and, potentially of customers in business (eg Drucker 1996). The increased support for participation was particularly marked in council housing. Increased participation by tenants in management has been advocated as one of the main ways of improving council housing over the last fifteen years: “during the 1980s… virtually all studies of housing policy and practice advocated [tenant participation]” (Birchall 1992 p.173). Tenant participation has been seen by some as a “successful panacea” (Wooley 1987 p.112). It has been particularly associated with attempts by both central and local governments to tackle the problems of unpopular, difficult to let or socially polarised council housing, which were first recognised officially at the end of the 1970s (Burbidge et al. 1981) and increased in policy salience though the 1980s. By the early 1990s, “it would be unthinkable to discuss regeneration without considering resident involvement” (Hastings et al. 1996 p.1). By this period, tenant participation was seen by central government and local authority landlords as no longer merely fashionable but as an orthodox part of good housing management practice and as a necessary part of improvements to management or wider conditions. Increased tenant participation is an important par of the Labour government’s Best Value regime for improving public services (DETR 1999a,b), and a central element of policy on social exclusion (Social Exclusion Unit 1998). Participation is almost a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ concept (Beresford and Croft 1993, O’Riordan 1997), an “internationally-accepted desideratum” (Steifel and Wolfe 1994 p.4), which virtually all support and few oppose, at least openly. Table 1.1 shows some of the organisations and individuals that have declared support for greater tenant participation in social housing management since the late 1970s. (Table 1.1 ommitted): The extent of consensus on tenant participation is almost bizarre. Political organisations and individuals that are sharply opposed on other issues appear to be in unison. Organisations that usually try to avoid political statements also support participation. Policy makers and implementers, regulators and regulatees, lobbyists and the lobbied are in agreement. Few writers have even considered why so many and such a range of organisations are in apparent consensus. Cairncross et al. noted that “on few housing issues is there such consensus” (1997 p.viii). Cole and Furbey commented dryly that this formed “an interesting coincidence” (1994 p.149). Is public participation a special issue which, within a democratic political system and culture, it is difficult to say no to? Are there divergent views and practice behind shared advocacy? How much is noisy support reflected in actual practice? Does participation offer significant and unambiguous benefits for all parties? Does support for participation indicate a new idealism beyond traditional ideological frameworks, or the reverse, a new pragmatism? What is the potential of public participation as a complement, as a supplement or even as an alternative to conventional social policy and administration through central and local government, or to the role of more traditional voluntary or charitable organisations, which has grown significantly over the 1980s and 1990s? Some fundamental questions were asked relatively early on in the encouragement of public participation in decision-making outside the political system, for example: “how much participation is possible and desirable?” (Sewell and Coppock 1977 p.8). These have not been answered and appear to have been forgotten. Despite or because of the extensive and enthusiastic overt support for public participation, there has been relatively little research on the extent to which participation initiatives have been implemented or on the level of participation achieved through them. There are however, many references in available literature to slow or only superficial changes in practice, and to tacit obstruction or even active opposition to participation in some cases. My own experience suggested that in the case of council housing, where there have been some statutory obligations on landlords to inform and consult tenants, and where many local authorities have introduced structures, policies, procedures and support to enable participation, practice had been slow to change and often did not fulfil tenants’ expectations or understanding of what ‘real’ participation was: “why don’t they listen to tenants’ associations? They invented tenants’ associations so we could get together. It’s time they took notice – or else we’ll give up” “we have no clout and no money… It’s difficult to get council staff to attend meetings as we have no authority” “it was a council takeover. They wanted us to be just as social club” “we’re not going to struggle when we become a TMO but there’s going to be an almighty shock down the Civic Centre” (council tenants’ association members interviewed in 1994 for Power and Tunstall 1995). There has also been insufficient research on how participation works or what effects it has, despite the claims made for participation by some of its supporters. For example, in the case of tenant participation in council housing, Cairncross et al.'s influential report advocating tenant participation gave little emphasis to persuasion of the benefits of tenant participation and had little evidence of effects (IoH/TPAS 1994). Taylor’s summary of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Action on Estates research programme argued that the potential of participation should be “unleashed” and tenants borough “to the centre of regeneration”, but spent less than five hundred words discussing why participation might be important or what it might achieve (Taylor 1995a pp.13-14). In order to assess the potential of public participation in social policy and administration, this thesis aims to address three principal empirical issues: i) how much participation is and can be achieved? ii) what difference does and can participation make to processes? iii) what effects does and can participation have? It investigates the case of tenant participation in council housing in England. It examines the growth, operation and effects of one particular structure to enable tenant participation, the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), which was first introduced in 1975 but which became much more prominent in the late 1980s. TMOs are legally constituted organisations, established to institute a high level of resident participation in housing management at the local level. After a training and development process lasting about two years, a board with at least a majority of elected resident representatives takes on responsibility for directing and monitoring day to day management. The landlord retains ownership of the housing and some powers and responsibilities according to legislation and to a formally negotiated and legally binding agreement between it and the board. TMOs in council housing offer a particularly interesting example of public participation in social policy and administration and a challenging test of the actual and potential impact of participation. The promotion of participation in social housing has gone further than in many other services. TMOs have come to be seen as a ‘gold standard’ in participation within rented housing, because of the formal delegation of powers and responsibilities to residents. They have even been seen as the maximum feasible level of participation at which residents remain tenants. In the late 1970s TMOs were seen by some as potential solution to the housing needs of those excluded from conventional council housing and other tenures (Hayhow 1977). However, social housing has increasingly become identified with social exclusion and deprivation (Wilmott and Murie 1988, Lee and Murie 1997, Power and Tunstall 1995, Kleinman 1996), and since the late 1980s, TMOs have been advocated to help combat the problems of the most socially polarised parts of the tenure. If TMOs can achieve significant effects, this may suggest that participation has potential as a complement, as a supplement or even as an alternative to conventional social policy and administration, or to the role of more traditional voluntary or charitable organisations, even where potential participants are excluded or deprived. If TMOs do not or cannot achieve significant effects, this suggests that more limited initiatives have even less potential. Chapter 2 concludes the introductory part of the study by setting out the aims of the study in detail and the methods used to achieve them. The second part of the study draws together information from existing literature. Chapter 3 considers the concepts of ‘participation’. Chapter 4 examines evidence for the growth of tenant participation in social housing, and considers explanations for growth. Chapter 5 assesses evidence for the effects of tenant participation in social housing in general and for TMOs in particular. The third part of the study presents the findings of original research on TMOs. Chapter 6 presents evidence on the growth in the numbers of TMOs and changes in their characteristics over the last twenty years, and investigates explanations for this growth. Chapter 7 presents evidence on how TMOs develop and operate in practice. Chapter 8 presents evidence on the effects of TMOs. The fourth part of the study summarises the findings of the previous chapters and draws conclusions on the potential of participation through TMOs, and the implications for relevance to the potential of participation in social policy and administration more generally.

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