Jonny’s blog on Not just bricks & mortar conference

Jonny from the PRS Block

PRS & Event Intro

I’ve decided to write this blog, which is about Welsh Tenants’ (WT) Not Just Bricks & Mortar conference, from a private rented sector (PRS) tenant’s perspective; allowing me to comment from a service user’s point of view and not as a staff member of WT/ Tenantiaid Cymru (TC), making this blog more open and relatable to others.

Green & Red leads to Yellow

I thought to myself “it’s not easy wearing green” as the first day started with me wearing a light-green coloured shirt (one of the colours of the logo). The colour, like the theme of fancy-dress later that day, hadn’t been seen since the ‘60s.

Unfortunately, I lost my original red shirt (the other tradition colour of the logo) to wear for the second day due to the constant move from tenancy to tenancy in the past two years…it’s a long story.

Somebody had asked me if I has misplaced it in a “moving box.”

I told them that they’ve watched too many Hollywood movies that fostered the silver-screen ideology of a family moving into a new property. Unlike them I did not have the privilege of having a “moving box” or extreme dental whiteners.

As a PRS tenant who works, pays the bills, has family members to support – the last thing I’d think of is “where’s that red shirt?”

In regards to the yellow – The National Tenant’s Council could be holding up a yellow-coloured flag in future that would represent those committed to the tenants’ movement.

Steve opened the conference, focusing on the progress WT/TC made in relation to last year’s Rent –Well live well campaign and the five asks that focused on security of tenure, affordability (and the need for a living rent), representation for renters, choice and flexibility (about supply) and standards. While much had been achieved since devolution there was still more to be done to deliver on the tenants asks of government and the sectors. What did come across was that tenants have played an important role in helping to shape some really important issues facing renters in Wales and that unity among renters and indeed the sector on key messages like the Homes for Wales campaign can achieve quite significant improvements for all -delivering on health, social well-being and equalities.

Leaseholders, London and Wales

Dona Awano from The Leasehold Advisory Service was a guest speaker launched the organisation’s major works project.

It was good to give a voice to these almost “unsung” tenants and their tenure type, since many aren’t aware of their rights and obligations as a leaseholder.

Cathy is 50th

Cathy Come Home was on everybody’s lips as Shelter Cymru’s John Puzey and WT’s Steve Clarke introduced the first plenary of the conference, which highlighted the docudrama’s 50th anniversary that gave rise to the creation of Shelter.

Shelter Cymru’s newest campaign Take Notice was promoted at the event.

In a way it rekindled the memory of Cathy. It reminded us that anyone can become homeless and more importantly that we should stop people’s perceptions and change their attitudes towards homelessness – you should never stereotype!

I hope that Shelter Cymru’s campaign will breathe life back into the support services and raise public awareness of homelessness, like Cathy did back in ’66. The question, what can Cathy expect top come home to in 2016’ was answered. In Wales at least there is a prevention strategy that does appear to be showing good early signs. However, welfare is a major issue. Cathy and Reg could well have their benefits sanctioned for the most ridiculous of reasons, and housing benefit cap may well mean that they may not to be able to afford a home of their reasonable preference, even social housing. There’s still much to be done to ensure we have a more equal society that can support people like Cathy, Reg and their children in times of crisis.

New Chat-in-the-Box

During the plenary sessions, WT/TC used a throwable-mic box. The box bounced with ease from table to table, from tenant to tenant – but there were no boxed-emotions here. The conference welcomed any voice from any sector to contribute any thought.

Chit Chat Corner

WT tested out their new idea called Chit Chat Corner.

Setting up a gazebo in the Metropole’s main exhibition area and assigning workshop sheets for delegates to sign up to would hopefully give delegates; whether exhibitor, sponsor or tenant a chance to voice their views on a particular subject.

I must admit that more planning was needed to coordinate and promote the “corner,” but it did receive attention (being a gazebo in a hotel) and further interest with its objective.

For example, Mr Sparks, a RSL tenant who had paid to come to the conference, volunteered to lead a discussion on disability access, which is a subject that isn’t only confined to housing.

In terms of the private rented sector and disability access (particularly physical/ wheelchair user); it appears to be next to impossible, as investment and support is almost non-existent. Also, because it’s a commercially-driven market, there are no breaking of laws because it’s all about who is “suitable” for the property, and is not hindered by any social values or a sense of social responsibility.

On the conference’s second day, Peter Griffiths from New Pathways (who also exhibited) had volunteered to lead a discussion concerning his project’s work on supporting victims of rape (and human trafficking), domestic violence, which I believe is an issue that isn’t stressed enough in the sector.

Rape itself would constitute as a life crisis because its violent nature has the ability to do long-lasting damage both physically and mentally; where a victim’s nature would change in the process.

There were some worrying comments from participants about the dangers of shared accommodation for young vulnerable people and for people with mental health conditions. Delegates were concerned at the extent of human trafficking and the appalling conditions some people have to endure in illegal HMOs and basement dwellings that are off the radar of the authorities. Overall, I thought Chit Chat Corner delivered well and could still (with more planning) be a great addition to future of WT/ TC conferences.

Tenants’ Chit Chat

WT/TC are also thankful to Jonathan Conway (Newport City Homes) for facilitating Tenants’ Chit Chat, more of an open house discussion  workshop that enabled tenants to vent their views on recent tenant matters in Wales. The workshop was well attended and contributed to lively discussions. We look forward to Jonathans feedback.

Exhibitors & Sponsors – support services are key

I’m glad to have seen StepChange (the debt support charity) again at the event, especially as this year’s conference marks the anniversary of Cathy Come Home, which involved financial exclusion and debt that affected the family’s well-being.

Poverty and debt (including the methodologies that lead to the exploitation of those at risk in deprived areas) are still putting financial-strain on low-income families and individuals. And with cuts to welfare, it begs the question – is living affordable? Are we just existing and nothing more?

When I think back to Cathy and Reg and how they had back-payments that drowned the family in debt. I think to myself – has much changed?

Sadly supportive organisations such as Moneyline (part of the growing responsible lending network that’s evolving in Wales) weren’t available back in ’66, with only major corporate banks available that required credit checks – in the end denying them any choice.

Moneyline provides assistance by offering small secure loans that are affordable, flexible and encourages tenants to save. As a company it sits between the credit union movement and more corporate lenders, providing affordable credit, helping to steer people away from high interest borrowing.

As a private tenant, I believe that the organisation is beneficial because its flexibility and its affordability gives tenants an opportunity; unlike being labelled insecure by creditors, which is a negative attitude towards families trying to make a house their home or simply trying to get secure.

Another aspect of the docudrama that’s not well highlighted is mental health; Cathy develops paranoia brought on by anxiety that later becomes depression, which is more than likely the result from the many issues that she faced.

Therefore, the presence of Mid Powys Mind was a great choice by WT – housing and mental health go hand-in-hand. After all one of the key messages of the conference, was that while bricks and mortar are important – it’s also about people.

More support is needed, more now than ever before, since it’s estimated that 1 in every 4 people will have a form of mental health illness. Securing future funding to cope with mental health services as part of the health and well-being agenda is therefore critical for many. Are local authority services in Wales able to follow the new legislation regarding both the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act and Social Services & Well-being (Wales) Act with the current cuts to funding? We will have to see how they cope.

These issues are relevant to Powys Carers’ Service, whose organisation had exhibited. Its presence helped to emphasise not only the cross-sector challenges but more importantly the family struggle, especially with austerity cuts that create further hardship for those who support their loved ones that have particular needs.

This local support service is a lifeline to carers that may seem only to assist them in the simplest of ways, such as letting them have time to themselves, but unless you’re a carer you’re unable to fathom its significance.

Without question, one of the biggest life crisis is cancer. I’m glad to have seen The Bracken Trust feature at the event, because the reality is that everybody will know someone whose life has been affected by the life-threatening and life-altering disease.

Sponsors support the ideals of an event and it’s no surprise that Linc Cymru and Tai Ceredigion came out on top as key sponsors, along with representatives from the sector HouseMark Cymru, Electrical Safety First, Orbits IT and others.

Here’s some of the workshops

WT/ TC commits to providing an all-round tenure workshops; whether you’re a tenant from a HA, LA or PRS – there is always something for everyone.

Fuel poverty and energy sufficiency is always a hot topic in housing. Landlords should support their tenants in getting the cheapest deals that provides a quality service in regards to payments with bills. Perhaps tenants aren’t aware that they can “shop around” with energy or other suppliers.

Hence, William Jones from CAB Ceredigion ran a workshop on Energy Best Deals, which is ideal for a PRS tenant like me. The standards in heating efficiency isn’t regulated that can cause serious health problems, which I’ve personally experienced myself.

There needs to be more support for not only tenants but home-owners, specifically those with young children, older people or medical conditions; cold homes aren’t just a negative mark against suppliers and sometimes landlords, but they can lead to unthinkable consequences! Delegates also raised concern about the proposed reform of the NEST scheme for private households.

It was nice to see Elle McNeil from CAB Cymru return to another WT conference, after seeing her last year at Building Bridges – she being one of many speakers on the all-women panel.

She led a workshop on rights and obligations, which are fundamentally the relationship’s infrastructure agreed upon between landlords and tenants. It may seem as if it goes back to basics, but with new legislations (in Wales) over the last three to four years popping up left, right and centre in the sector – it’s important that everyone be kept up-to-date.

I got talking to Stephanie Davies and Rachel Rowberry-Jones from Money Matters at Cynon Taf Housing Group, and their workshop sounded almost like a homage to Cathy, as it was called dealing with a life crisis, which proved successful with the delegates.

Their services can support those going through a life crisis, tenants who accessed their support service have benefited to the sum of 450k to date.. But perhaps (I believe) their services are important for their ability to prevent a life crisis, which should be in all support services’ goals.

It’s always interesting to see Housing Associations’ influence on the running of the event, with workshops being crucial by creating “a moth to a flame” situation when attracting delegates.

For instance, Merthyr Valleys Homes’ staff and tenant board member Frances Bevan did a workshop on becoming a mutual organisation – insisting that together we’re stronger. Or Steve Clarkes mantra that landlords problems are tenant problems and tenant problems are the landlords, it’s in both our interests to work together to resolve them. Perhaps, like the recent success of the Wales Team in the Euro football, the decision (agreed by both landlord and tenants) is an example that could kick things into gear to create a fair and better relationship.

It was good to see regulation there too, with TAP members discussing the expected ruling that housing associations should be reclassified public bodies. The consequences of which would mean serious restrictions on the borrowing to build new homes that we so desperately need. The regulatory team also discussed how we better rate service delivery.

Future Gazing

You don’t need to be an astrologer to see how well this plenary would turn out.

Everyone present was engaged in learning more about the housing sector’s transformation through technological advances in terms of both data and enabling those receiving care and support to live more independently.

The panel consisted of Brett Sadler, a self-confessed IT geek from North Wales Housing; Rachel Honey-Jones, who is the Community Regeneration Manager at Newydd Housing (one of the first RSLs in Wales to incorporate biotechnology in one of its sheltered schemes); and Karen Foster from Deeplake, a mobile communications software that’s all about providing accessible rent account and making services more accessible from your mobile device but also using big data in social housing to improve investment decisions

It was a nice touch by WT/TC to use plasma globes at the debate, which was appropriate for the plenary’s technological theme. The debate concluded that while IT is producing widespread service delivery and life opportunities, we should also be well informed about the risks in relation to fraud, confidentiality, data protection and accessibility for all. Delegates needed to take responsibility for our digital futures too.

Future Gazing – Private Sector, not so Private

I’d like to add my concerns on a recent article, which acknowledges sites such as Tenant Assured that compiles “tenant’s personality report” from “open data” to vet certain tenants based on their personal social media accounts, but still insists that it uses traditional checks to carry out any final decision.

What this is, in a nut-shell, is backdoor profiling. This negative use of data could be used in a prejudicial way including the possible inciting of homophobia, racism, xenophobia and others forms of –isms.

What’s next the Tenant Factor? Four buzzers and you’re out on the streets?

As a private tenant who works for an organisation that represents the national voice of tenants, would a landlord be willing (if given the data by this company) to let me rent?

What to expect from a new Welsh Government?

The last plenary of the event featured Tamsin Stirling, an independent consultant; Sonia Benbow-Jones, WT Chair; Susan Hill, a town councillor and a local authority tenant; and Paul Clasby, a member of Tai Ceredigion’s Monitoring Group and CAVO’s disability forum.

It was quite unfortunate that no PRS tenant was available to become a panel member for this plenary. This only emphasises the difficulty in engaging with tenants of this tenure. It’s a hard-to-reach group!

The delegates were encouraged to work together and write down what they thought the future of the Welsh Government would look like including services to housing and in the community…and I believe I heard Brexit.

This co-productive activity reminded me of the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” which I’m sure Tamsin would agree with me, being a self-confessed “policy nerd.”

Although, we need to remember that not every policy or legislation can be followed, if the demand goes beyond funding capacity.

I’m glad to have witnessed a conference that has tenants’ at its heart, and promotes  true representation with the presence of service providers and more importantly service users (tenants), who are the key to the existence of providers – not the other way around.

Service providers (landlords) should be evaluated on their performance, otherwise like any kind of service, how do we know that it has improved in quality and in other areas, which is why Welsh Tenants / Tenantiaid Cymru needs to carry on –  an independent beacon that keeps on shining to safeguard tenant representation, making sure is alive and well. 

PRS Participation

There are few apparent steps towards private tenant participation, unlike its big brother, social housing. This is something that needs to be addressed if we are to ensure that all renters can benefit from the collective involvement, locally, regionally and nationally.

In my opinion, Local Authorities and Welsh Government understand the dilemmas facing private tenants but struggle with the resourcing necessary to truly empower them. The priority it seems is to educate the landlords rather than empower the tenants.

While every event such as this needs to choose what it has on the programme, it would have been great to have the ability to get the private renters voice at the event and to examine how for example landlord registration is progressing in Wales through Rent Smart Wales.

Don’t get me wrong, there are good private landlords, but we need membership bodies such as the RLA and NLA to get on board with supporting the enforcement of standards in the sector and sponsoring tenants to attend, just like the RSL sector does, perhaps next year we can look at this.

Conclusion

Not Just Bricks & Mortar was not only a name of this year’s WT’s conference, it’s a current message that we need to encourage in the sector. Not just for Wales but for everyone, everywhere. It’s about putting people first.

We don’t produce housing, we provide homes!

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