6.1 The chair welcomed the head of community housing, Darren Welsh, and the resident involvement senior manager, Simon Godfrey. She reported that she had received a number of comments and complaints from tenants’ & residents’ associations (TRAs) about the grant application process. The chair invited the officers to present their paper.
6.2 Officers explained that they were currently consulting on a new resident engagement strategy for housing. Officers said that they worked with one hundred and twenty-seven TRAs, needing various levels of support. Fifty-nine had been assigned an officer to support them and seven were currently at critical level, the most serious of which might involve suspected fraud and the involvement of the police.
6.3 Officers reported that they were developing a model constitution and had recently held a network event promoting financial inclusion. They were also working with TRAs on halls, asset management and stock condition surveys.
6.4 The review would look at how the Tenant Fund was utilised; this had an income of over £0.5 million per year and funded a variety of activities including grants, training, resource centres and the annual tenants’ conference.
6.5 Officers went on to explain the practicalities of making a funding application. This was now linked to a recognition policy whereby TRAs had to demonstrate that they were able to manage a hall or similar facility; were applicable for grant funding; could elect delegates to their housing forum and that the council could consult with the TRA. This was a new process that had been agreed by tenants’ council and area housing forums. The application for a grant was also the application for recognition, although some TRAs would be recognised but not seek or be awarded funding.
6.6 The recognition process acted as a governance check and officers explained that this allowed them to see for example whether enough meetings had been held and whether halls were managed and accounts were presented.
6.7 Officers explained that in 2010/11 the grant application process had changed. Groups now applied within three months of their AGM and grants were paid in advance. The idea was that this would spread the load; however, officers explained that this had created some confusion. There had also sometimes been delays because not all the paperwork had been forthcoming. Officers explained that they had provided an extension for TRAs until September for 2011/12.
6.8 Twelve applications had been refused because of, for example, inquorate AGMs, insufficient general meetings or that the TRA had closed. The report also gave details of issues raised at the Walworth West area forum.
6.9 The chair asked why around a third of TRAs had not applied for grants. Officers responded that there were a variety of reasons; for some TRAs this might be because of confusion, others had £10,000 in the bank and some TRAs might not think it was worth it. The chair commented that she was concerned that there was insufficient understanding of the new rules and processes. Officers said that they shared this concern and had been contacting organisations directly, attending events and setting aside funding. The chair reported that at one event the TRA said that the rules had got so confusing that they saw this as a deliberate attempt to reduce funding. Officers assured the committee that this was not a savings issue and that there were no plans to make cuts. Officers said that the council would like 100% of organisations to apply because the process was also a governance check. The chair suggested asking organisations why they did not apply for funding.
6.10 In response to a question about contact with TRAs, officers said that some organisations were healthy and therefore contact was less; however they would be chasing all TRAs up. Officers reported that a survey had been done about the new form and that 64% of respondents had said they found it easy to complete. TRAs had said that the hardest part had been the separate form for members of the committee to complete. Equalities questions had not been popular either. Officers said that they intended to retain this information, which would make successive applications easier to complete.
6.11 A member commented that even TRAs that were performing well were finding the two-year rule hard to grapple with. He said that the form he had seen demanded a fair amount of financial understanding. An officer acknowledged that there were capacity issues, however he said that support was available from the resident involvement and housing management teams and that officers were available to help with grant applications over the phone. Members requested information on the volume of grant applications awarded in previous years.
6.12 Members asked how applications could be made and if there was an option to make an application via email, or online using an application like Survey Monkey. Officers said that there were difficulties with using Survey Monkey to store confidential information as this was stored in the US and could breach Data Protection rules. Members asked about alternatives to Survey Monkey and officers said that there were other applications but that they also had limitations.
6.13 Members made a series of suggestions including resident involvement officers attending AGMs; a question being added asking why TRAs did not apply for funding and officers looking at how other parts of the council have developed online forms. Officers agreed that collecting as much information as possible at the AGMs was a good way of progressing applications and agreed that offering an electronic version of the main form would be helpful.
6.14 The chair invited the public to comment. An audience member commented that her TRA had recently found out that Resident Involvement Officers did not have to come to meetings and that housing officers would do this in future. She went on to comment that applications for funding used to take place at the end of the financial year and that her TRA had not been told of changes to the application process. The audience member asked why her TRA was no longer getting support and why Resident Involvement Officers did not give assistance in the same way.
6.15 A member commented that there appeared to be a number of issues that needed to be looked at including how information was provided and the role and function of Resident Involvement. Another member reported that he had been to a meeting in Rotherhithe recently and had been shocked that many TRA chairs did not understand the process, and this included healthy TRAs, which was of particular concern. Members said that they would like more information on contact to date by officers and to be able to assist in supporting TRAs. The chair asked officers to provide information on the extent of contact with TRAs and how far on in the application process they were.
6.16 Officers were asked if the £30,000 unspent grant money had been lost and officers clarified that the money remained and had been carried forward to this financial year. Members asked what comments had been received about the revised process of applying for recognition and grants. Officers responded that there had been a range; for some TRAs the recognition process had been perceived as “big brother”; however, officers said, de-recognition was a last resort. Officers reported that usually it did not come to this and that groups either stepped up or fell apart. Members requested that feedback from TRAs be included in the strategy report.
6.17 Councillor Noakes commented that the report indicated that seven TRAs were in critical condition and fifty-nine had a dedicated officer giving support. He noted that in his ward there were a variety of TRAs; some were very good, some were new, some barely met, one was critical and one held an AGM but could not elect a chair. He commented that it seemed that quite a few TRAs were struggling. Officers reported that some of the problems were interpersonal and that officers had been working in the background to support the struggling organisations that were at risk of quietly falling apart, not just the more vocal TRAs. Councillor Noakes requested specific information on TRAs in his area and progress with the recognition and grants process, and said that he was very supportive of TRAs.
6.18 An audience member commented that funding was achieved through a small levy on rents and that leaseholders paid a percentage. A member asked officers about estates that did not have TRAs and an officer responded that the service was considering how all householders could gain value from the fund. Officers commented that while they could encourage the formation of TRAs they could not make them form. Members reported that residents had been complaining that funding and rents were rising and questioning value for money. Officers said that the review was considering the priorities for the fund, for example whether a TRA with many resources, or those that offered significant benefit to the community, should get less or more funding.
6.19 A member asked if there was a target for processing applications and officers confirmed that this was fourteen days, however this was not being met and they were looking at the council processes to see what was holding this up.
6.20 Members asked if officers would be doing a satisfaction survey and officers confirmed that they would be. Officers went on to comment that sometimes they were addressing problems and that this might make them unpopular with TRA committee members, because officers would be saying difficult things. The other issue was that the communities were often looking back to levels of support that could no longer be sustained.
6.21 A member of the audience, Ian Ritchie of Buchan TRA, commented that this process was the triumph of bureaucracy over tenant democracy. He commented that the forms were overly long-winded, which in his view made the process intensive for both tenants and officers. He said that if changes were introduced there needed to be adequate back office support. He went on to comment that resources were wrongly targeted, and that despite his organisation having serious problems he had only seen a Resident Involvement officer once. He ended by asking if the chair would accept a letter outlining his concerns, which the chair welcomed.
6.22 Susanne Webb then spoke about Astley Cooper TRA. She reported that at one stage they had been struggling with issues such as hall management and access. She said that officers had given support and that the TRA committee had learned new skills, however there remained an ongoing need for Resident Involvement support. She commented that if the TRA had been more aware of the grant process they would have applied for more money and that volunteers had little time to chase up applications. A member of the audience said that at the very least Resident Involvement officers should come to TRA AGMs. He also added that forms had been delayed for a long time and lost.
6.23 The chair thanked the officers for their attendance and for their frankness.
6.24 The committee discussed the information that they would like officers to provide and the recommendations for cabinet.
1. That officers be asked to circulate all members with additional information on:
- the number of TRAs who made applications in 2009/10
- officers’ contact with all TRAs, in order to assist with the recognition and grant application process
- TRAs who have not made an application for funding and recognition, in order to assist ward councilors with supporting local TRAs to complete an application, where appropriate.
2. The officers be asked to provide Councillor David Noakes with additional information on the status and activity of all TRAs in his ward in order to assist with support.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO CABINET:
1. That the application process for grants and recognition be made less complicated, less bureaucratic and more accessible.
2. That officers create an online application process to complement the paper based process, so that tenants’ and residents’ associations (TRAs) have options for making applications. This to be completed within six months.
3. That there be an emphasis on support for TRAs to make funding applications over the next few months, rather than on recognition, in order to clear the backlog of applications and enable organisations to receive funds.
4. That it be obligatory for a Resident Involvement Officer to attend every TRA AGM, and that officers use this occasion to assist TRAs in their applications for recognition and funding.
5. That TRAs create a standing item at every AGM covering the administration needed to complete the recognition and funding application process.
6. That the Resident Involvement Team be asked to consider how to work with ward councillors to support TRAs.
7. That a report on resident engagement be sent to the Housing Commission, Southwark Tenants’ Council and Southwark Homeowners’ Council.
8. That officers be asked to return to overview & scrutiny committee in six months’ time to report on progress on the above recommendations.