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Tenant engagement strategy ‘formally paused’

The development of an overdue strategy aimed at linking social landlords with tenants to improve services has been “formally paused” due to a lack of resources.

The Tenant Participation Strategy, which previously ran from 2015 to 2020, has not been renewed and it now seems unlikely that the Department for Communities will publish an updated strategy unless additional resources are allocated.

Originally published in 2016, A Tenant Participation Strategy for Northern Ireland: 2015-2020 sets out a framework for the introduction of tenant participation services within Northern Ireland’s social housing sector.

The Housing Executive and various housing associations act as Northern Ireland’s social landlords, and the previous strategy recognised inconsistencies in the approach to tenant-focused services across housing associations, with an acknowledgement that tenant engagement works best when government provides leadership and support.

Among the main achievements of the original strategy and subsequent action plan was the founding of an Independent Tenant Organisation (ITO), the establishment of a Housing Policy Panel, and the introduction of a Tenant Advocate Role.

Importantly, the strategy mandated all social housing providers to develop and put in place their own tenant participation strategies.

It was envisaged that a review at the end of the strategy would identify any improvements that should be included in a successor strategy. However, work on the strategy has been stalled and no timeline has been set for work to resume, even after the return of the Executive.

Speaking before the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Communities Committee, the Department’s Rent Project Manager Heloise Brown said that following a resource review, work on the Tenant Participation Strategy is now “formally paused”.

Outlining that the policy teams within the department were now focused on areas including developing the ‘decent home standard’, the review of regulatory policy and affordable rent for social homes, Brown indicated that Tenant Participation Strategy work had been “paused”.

However, she stressed that engagement between the Department and housing associations continues, adding that the Department was still “very confident” that the various housing associations have their strategies in place for tenant participation.

In response to a question by the Committee’s vice chair, Ciara Ferguson MLA on whether a timeline had been established for the development of a strategy, Deputy Secretary of the Housing and Sustainability in the Department, Mark O’Donnell, stressed the resource pressures his department is facing, including some 600 vacancies.

“Unfortunately, there are things that we are not able to take forward and the development of the new tenant participation strategy is one of them,” he stated.

Ferguson has since described the decision to pause work in this area as “disappointing”.

“The Tenant Participation Strategy is important because it gives people living in social housing input on the quality of their home,” she says.

“Previously we have seen issues caused by sub-standard social housing, such as extensive mould in homes, and the negative impact that has on people’s health.

“This underlines the importance of maintaining and improving social housing and the voice of residents is an important part of that conversation. Talking and listening to social housing tenants on an ongoing basis is something that the Department and the Housing Executive must do going forward.

“I will continue to raise this directly with the Minister and his department,” she concludes.