Now that I’ve uploaded my snaps, the glamour of the New World is forgotten and I’m back to the day-to-day of combining the theoretical of a housing-related PhD, with the practical of managing a council estate. I hope the lasting legacy of my US trip will be some renewed energy for linking housing with political action, which ultimately is the most important thing, particularly now when the entire public service landscape is being redrawn and the housing sector is facing generational threats.
When I decided to blog, it was mostly with a view to discussing some of these issues through the prism of the place I work. I can’t identify it, but I manage a small estate in north London that’s controlled by the residents under the ‘Right to Manage’. This means I work for them, not the Council and am answerable to an elected committee of people who live on the estate. The concept of tenant management is tricky. Some see it as emancipatory and the only way that council tenants can ensure a decent level of service, others as a seed-bed for unrepresentative cliques and a distraction from demanding the conditions council tenants are entitled to. This is a fence I’m happy to sit on. The principle of local democracy and workers being directly accountable to the people they work for is a good one and my experience is that estates managed in this way are better looked after, but I’ve also seen lots of abuses and there is a tendency for tenant management to be promoted as a cult by evangelists who often have vested interests.
After twenty years, I remain baffled by some of the endemic problems that afflict housing management. I once worked with someone who had previously been an aid worker. He used to say, with all seriousness, that it was easier to organise shipments of food to sub-Saharan Africa than get a leak fixed on the Isle of Dogs. There have been improvements over the years, but I still find the simplest tasks being ensnared by multiple levels of bureaucracy, aggravated by the culture of sub-contracting that has long-plagued the construction industry and has now infected local government. From this perspective, tenant management has something to offer. People who live where I work are able to order repairs with the minimum of fuss, without going through a call centre and I’m able to get them done by contractors who I chose because they’re reliable and aren’t part of a group structure located fifty miles away. I’m not fixated with a ‘target culture’ because we get most of our repairs done within 24 hours. However, the main reason for this isn’t tenant management, but the scale of management. Some (albeit often those who didn’t like it in the first place) argue that the roots of council housing’s troubles were when it became too big, unwieldy and remote. I can name most of the people who live where I work, although this is made increasingly difficult by the high turnover of sub-letting private tenants, an often unrecognised adverse side effect of the Right to Buy that undermines any attempt to create the ‘stable communities’ of politicians’ fantasies.