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Tenant scrutiny – getting it right Matthew Warburton - 19/04/2012

Scrutiny stethoscope300Strengthened tenant scrutiny is the key counterpart of the lighter-than-light touch approach of the new social housing regulator. 


The government's thinking is that accountability to government and national regulators should be replaced by stronger accountability to the actual users of the housing service - tenants and local communities.  And it is difficult to disagree with this direction of travel - provided landlords everywhere are willing to work with their tenants to put effective scrutiny arrangements into place. 


This is no small challenge for any social landlord.  Councils with housing face the additional task of making tenant scrutiny work alongside existing arrangements for councillor scrutiny.


Getting tenant scrutiny to work well is not just about setting up a scrutiny panel and putting a process into effect.  Culture and commitment are, if anything, more important.  There is no one right way to do scrutiny, but it will only work if the council and tenants' representatives  share a commitment to make it work.


Formal arrangements for scrutiny are little more than a decade old in English local government.  Many councillors remember  the old committee system where no formal separation of executive and scrutiny existed , and some may be thinking of taking up the opportunity provided by the Localism Act to bring committees back.  In the smallest councils, the committee system never went away.  There may still be work to be done in many councils to embed a full understanding of the role and importance of scrutiny as a part of effective governance, before it is possible to win commitment to the principle of independent and powerful tenant scrutiny.


The key message to get across is that scrutiny and challenge are not a problem or distraction from the job of running a housing service, but  drivers of improvement.   This is as much true of backbench scrutiny of council decisions as of tenant scrutiny of landlord performance.  Councillor and tenant scrutiny are not in competition but complementary.


There are undoubtedly examples of councils where tenant scrutiny is forging ahead and others where progress is much slower.  ARCH needs to consider what it could usefully do to support the development of this important element of self-improvement and self-regulation. 


Suggestions welcome.

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