'Telling Phibbs' TPAS chief hits back at Tory blogger
Published by 24publishing for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Communities, Local Government
'Telling Phibbs' TPAS chief hits back at Tory blogger
The body that promotes tenant participation in social housing has come in for harsh criticism from Hammersmith and Fulham councillor Harry Phibbs who, through a series of blogs on the Conservativehome website, is taking aim at housing associations and their representative bodies.
In his latest piece, he has accused the Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS) of spending thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on "lavish" awards and employing policy officers to lobby against government housing policy.
Here, TPAS chief Michelle Reid (pictured) - who herself came in for criticism - says Phibbs' remarks are not only unfair, but require the record being put firmly straight on the organisation, how it's funded and its achievements.
"I’ve recently been made aware of a blog written by a Councillor Harry Phibbs in which he presents his interpretation of reality as factual information about TPAS. I was in two minds whether to respond to this piece, or just to dismiss it as one man’s bid for publicity using reactionary criticism of an organisation about which he clearly has little real knowledge. Sadly though, his claims are so unfair that I’m going to have to take time to put the record straight.
"TPAS was set up in 1988 by a conservative government, following the ‘Enquiry into British Housing” chaired by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. Its aim was to promote tenant participation, in line with the model already used in Scotland. We’ve been promoting tenant involvement and empowerment for the past 25 years, and judging by the strength of tenant involvement across the housing sector today, we feel that we’ve done quite a good job, despite many cuts in funding. We’ve been a critical friend to governments of all political persuasions, and have worked with other national and regional representatives to influence and shape social housing policy.
"Mr Phibbs’ main misconception seems to pivot around the fact that we take “tax payers’ money to lavish on awards”. We do take tax payers’ money. All of our voluntary membership fees come from rents paid by tax-paying tenants of social housing. Our members decide whether to join TPAS based on the quality of the service we provide. We have a membership fee system based on the size of your organisation. If you are lucky enough to manage over 50,000 homes, we will charge you £3,500 for an annual membership to TPAS. However our membership fees start of at £620 for organisations with up to 500 homes, and if you want to join as an independent Tenant Association you pay £73 per year. It’s all tax payers’ money, and people have a choice about whether to spend it with us or not.
"We also offer support services, such as Independent Tenant Advisor work, training on a range of essential topics, and the TPAS accreditation mark. We do this because we don’t receive any government funding and so we fund our policy work by not-for-profit social enterprise activities. We generally have to go through competitive bids to win contracts, just like any private company. Again, people have a choice about whether to spend their money with us, and we survive or fail on the strength of our reputation and the quality of our work, just like private sector companies.
"An example of one of the contracts we recently won was the National Tenant Training Programme, where we trained over 1,500 tenants in just 7 months about the new regulatory framework and tenant-led scrutiny. We delivered this for £146,000, and the Department of Communities and Local Government selected us from a field of 22 independent bidders because of our skills and expertise in this field.
"We also run conferences. We used to hold a government contract to deliver a national annual conference for tenants but the funding for that contract was cut several years ago. So now we have to charge to cover the costs of our conference and make a contribution to the running of the organisation. It is still the largest tenant conference in Europe, and I warmly invite Mr. Phibbs to come along to our next conference, as my personal guest, to experience the real TPAS conference. I don’t recognise the one he describes in his opinion piece, and in fact I can give him a cast-iron guarantee that he has never been to a conference like ours. His description of the conference belittles, undermines, and radiates contempt for the hard work, debate, and learning that is achieved by tenants and staff attending those three days in Birmingham. The conference is valued by his colleague the Rt. Honourable Grant Shapps, who has told me that he intends to come along to next year’s conference to give the keynote speech, something which Housing Ministers and Secretaries of State of all parties have done in the past.
"Mr. Phibbs has of course erroneously presented one of the key messages from the conference as “the“ key message. But he should perhaps confer again with the Housing Minister, who has repeatedly encouraged people to contact him through Twitter. It’s interesting that Mr. Phibbs assumes that the resulting tweets would all be hostile, and again this demonstrates a lack of real knowledge about the quality and level of debate that happens at our conferences, and an ignorance of the spectrum of political viewpoints within the tenant movement.
"There is no denying that our conference costs money. We constantly work to bring down the price since we no longer receive any funding to help with the costs. But our all-inclusive price squares up well to any conference offered by for-profit companies in the sector, all of which are paid for by rent, paid by tax payers.
"We also run the TPAS Awards. In the past five years the TPAS awards have become one of the most highly valued and sought after awards in social housing. Why? You’d have to ask the winners about that, but perhaps it’s because they are focused on the people who make a real and meaningful difference in their communities. They are about the people who have to live with and work to government policies every day. They are about tenants and landlords working together to make things better. They are about tackling inequality, raising awareness, fostering relationships, and managing conflict. And in the absence of a regulator who can proactively champion tenant involvement and empowerment, the TPAS awards serve as a standard to strive towards, in the absence of effective regulatory muscle.
"To suggest that the winners of any TPAS award somehow “pay” for their success is, once again, to belittle, undermine, and sneer at the people and achievements upon which we seek to shine a light, not to mention the efforts of our independent judges. It is an odious and probably libellous statement, and one which I do hope Mr. Phibbs will have the sense, if not decency, to retract one day.
"The TPAS Awards are a voluntary event, and people and organisations have a choice about whether or not they want to enter. When people win awards, there may be some who want to celebrate their success with champagne. That is their choice, and is often a small token of appreciation of the hours and hours of unpaid work that volunteers put in to making their communities a better place in which to live. If that constitutes “lavishing” then we stand guilty as charged.
"Again though, I warmly invite Mr. Phibbs as my personal guest to attend either a regional or national TPAS Awards dinner, and see for himself whether the TPAS Awards represent value for money. I guarantee that he will have never attended an awards ceremony where so much tax payer achievement is celebrated. As well as asking tenants and staff why they value the awards, he will also be able to speak to our sponsors, to find out exactly why these high-profile private companies value their name being associated with such an event.
"Finally, there are some small factual corrections to point out. TPAS accounts are available to all members on our website, and can also be obtained very easily from Companies House, along with any other company limited by guarantee. We represent 1,900 tenant and resident groups, and around 230 landlord members, and are accountable to our membership body. We are governed by a board of 10 people; 5 tenants and 5 landlords. We have 14 members of staff, having restructured twice in the past 3 years to maximise efficiency and weather the financial environment, which doesn’t seem to be getting much better. Those staff members haven’t had a pay rise for 2 years, but they still go the extra mile every day. So I’m very sorry that Mr. Phibbs doesn’t like what he’s read about us. But we’re really quite proud of what we do, and the impact we have on the social housing sector."