For decades the Welsh Tenants both prior and post devolution has relied upon the Welsh Government for its financial survival. This has enabled the organisation to continue to work for tenants since 1988, importantly, this has allowed the tenants to work constructively with landlords and the wider sector to give voice to tenants helping them to shape policy nationally.
Over the past three years, in an era of austerity, and due to the consequences of the reduction in state support across a range of voluntary sector organisations, this question has never been more important. For example, in the past 3 years, our funding has been reduced by over 50%.
Over the past few years the Welsh Tenants has grappled with the question ‘how will it survive and thrive as a representative voice for tenants in Wales with zero grant funding while maintaining its mandate as a national tenant focused organisation?
Our model of governance has meant that tenants are elected because of their popularity, we acknowledge that this popularity is based on candidates making a strong contribution in their own communities as advocates of improvements in housing. For a board, this has meant at times that there were key skills shortages with the board focusing on housing issues which has not always been balanced with strong business acumen. With reducing staff numbers, it’s important that the board can make up any lost expertise.
Gail McFee our previous chair, led the view, supported unanimously by the board, that if we were to deliver good governance we needed to achieve a better balance. This view has been carried forward with successive chairs including the current chair Sonia Benbow Jones and by myself as the managing director.
So the consistent message was the need for strong governance and expert support and leadership across a range of disciplines – not just one. In 2012, we took the view, that the governing body needed to change to represent 55% tenants and 45% independents to provide that expert support, but always with tenants in the majority. This meant having a board of 5 tenants and 4 independents with co-opted members to fill additional gaps if required. That constitution has been awaiting implementation.
However in doing so, we also wanted to ensure that we didn’t lose influence of having the representative groups that were required to provide a focus on the issues that were important to tenants, leaseholders and the wider customer base that tenants now are.
We also recognise that times have changed, and there are now a wide constituency of tenants from three sectors, as the housing becomes more diverse, namely housing associations, local authorities and private rented sector. Within these sectors there is an increasing diverse range of constituent tenants and customers, be they sheltered, general needs, supported housing, the temporarily housed etc. Not forgetting the range of profiles within these constituencies such as the disabled, and those of an ethnic minority. Maintaining the ability of these constituents to have influence is important to people within the membership of Welsh Tenants and becomes difficult with just 5 tenants on the board.
The board at the time of approving the new constitution found the compromise in the form of establishing a ‘National Tenants Council’ (NTC) that will deal with ‘housing policy and practice’ made up of these three sectors. So while the board would have a stronger focus on business planning, the general support base would have a critical influence on what mattered to them via the NTC. This compromise allowed for our two reform objectives to be met. a) Strengthening governance and b) Maintaining strong links to the tenant constituency base across the three sectors. The new constitution although adopted in 2012 was not enacted until this 4th December 2015. The board has now been appointed and work will progress to recruit independent members and establish the National Tenants Council. The NTC will be able to present to the board their housing issues deliberations and any consensus reached by the membership.
Two other important discussions also took place regarding ‘funding’ and ‘conflicts of interest’.
For some time now, the Welsh Tenants has taken the view that landlords should give tenants the choice of whether to support financially a national representative voice for tenants. After all, tenants rents or landlord charges, support and fund a national representative voice for landlords as well as dozens of other representative organisations. Although supporting the concept of a national representative voice for tenants since 1985, landlords have never been asked to support it financially. The board believes that tenants should be given the choice on whether to support financially the national representative voice for tenants.
Our current and past constitution allowed for membership fees to be charged, but due to the nature of the social housing sector, we have never asked tenants to pay for supporting their national tenant organisation.
In adopting the new constitution, and given the changing funding scenarios we are faced with, the new board decided to enable the Welsh Tenants to charge for certain membership classes. This means that the Welsh Tenants would be able to approach a landlord (regardless of sector) to ask for funding for their tenants to support a national representative voice. Importantly, the landlord isn’t the member, it funds tenants to support their national representation. A tariff commensurate with the size of landlord will be approved by the board.
Another issue under discussion when implementing the new constitution was ‘conflicts of interest’, and how these were to be perceived and addressed.
Following discussions a resolution was presented that enabled any projects managed by the Welsh Tenants such as TAP/STEP-UP/Key Tenants scheme or any future projects, would not have representation on the board.
The board took the view that a scenario where a complaint was made against a serving voluntary project member where the managing director had to take disciplinary action against the voluntary member who may be in effect the employer of the managing director should be avoided. How these were to be perceived by the complainant, if the decision was taken not to dismiss? Nolan principles are not just about ‘direct conflicts’ or benefits received from being involved in the project but also about the perception of benefits or influence over the project manager.
The proper place for the volunteer to influence on ‘housing policy matters’ would be the National Tenants Council, if they so wished to stand. Therefor the board resolved that the member would have to resign their position from the project if they became a board member. This would not however effect their nomination to the National Tenants Council.