Across the North, NHC members are breaking new ground, delivering innovation and excellence, and transforming communities. Central to our role as a membership body is our ability to share your stories and connect members around themes, projects and ideas. It is this connectivity that is the lifeblood of the NHC’s role as “the voice of housing in the North”.
Starting with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, we are launching our new series, “Member Spotlight”. We are keen to come out and spend time (usually a day) in your organisation looking in more detail at the work you do, why you do it and the impact it has. We will then write a short briefing paper and share it with the wider NHC membership. Hopefully sharing the work you are doing will bring other members with similar interests together and then snowball into even bigger and brighter ideas!
If you are interested in taking part in our Member Spotlight programme please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Rochdale Boroughwide Housing: Bringing Mutuality Home
Rochdale has a long history of innovation. The famous Rochdale Pioneers were among the first to share the benefits of co-operative working, from which grew the Co-operative Group in the North of England and as far back as 1844 they established The Rochdale Principles; a set of guiding principles giving co-operative members the right to participate in the decision making processes of their organisation and encourage the organisation to work for the benefit of the wider community.
In the 21st century, Rochdale is still flying the flag for mutuality. In 2011 Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) became one of only a handful of mutual housing associations in the UK and the first to include employees as well as tenants in their membership.
Starting life as an ALMO, RBH began their journey of reinvention back in 2009. By 2010 they had managed to agree to a stock transfer in principle with the Council and gained wide cross-party support. It took a further 12 months for government approval but finally, in 2012 RBH became the first mutual housing association in England owned and run by employees and tenants.
After the initial drive to involve existing tenants and employees in 2011, RBH invited new tenants to become members when they signed their new tenancy agreements. Realising that moving house is a busy time, the association decided membership discussions should take place at a separate visit when tenants had settled into their new home.
Making full use of those 4,500 minds to help them tackle the complex issues thrown up by the new legislation, RBH established focus groups to look at specific feedback and questions. Surveys are sent out to members and employee and tenant representatives meet regularly with the Board. Everyone is aware of the need to respond quickly and engagement has been extraordinarily positive.
Members’ views are represented to the Board of Directors by the Representative Body made up of tenants, representatives from tenant management organisations, employees, council members and representatives from external stakeholders. The Representative Body, separate from the Board, is responsible for setting the framework for accountability, appointing and removing non-executive directors, monitoring progress, providing input into future strategy and, of course, communicating with members. This model, with its focus on accountability, gives the Representative Body real influence. Furthermore, , RBH have placed an emphasis on creating a Board with all the skills and experience necessary to make the big decisions.
So what are the benefits of being a mutual? According to RBH Chief Executive, Gareth Swarbrick, being a mutual allows the organisation a certain flexibility in the way it adapts itself for the future where changes are made from the bottom up rather than the top down. This is something Gareth thinks is particularly valuable as the organisation faces dramatic changes in the sector and grapples with the challenges of rent reductions and Right To Buy where the whole organisation – employees, tenants and the Board – will be involved in finding the necessary savings and deciding the future direction of the company.
Gareth believes that this level of regular, open consultation means expectations are raised. It makes the executive team accountable, to respond to the positive, constructive challenge of the governance structure. The Association’s transition into a mutual has altered relationships throughout the entire organisation. A clear constitution has been put in place to help guide the process but this young association is still working on fully understanding the nature of these changes. There is no single formula for consultation. Instead, they use a variety of channels to engage with members depending on the nature and objectives of the subject matter but they have recognised that there is a need for constant dialogue to ensure that members understand how their ideas have impacted on outcomes.
The leadership team at RBH admit that it has taken time to embed the new culture and there will always be more progress to be made. But ultimately, they believe that the mutual model will take away the possibly paternalistic attitude of a Board imposing their views and that a culture of formal engagement, striving for a consensus, will counteract build positive, supportive relationships
This new collaborative partnership model demands accountability – the board have to be provided with evidence that adequate consultation has taken place and that members have been provided with enough information to make an informed decision.
The passion felt by the Representatives for this new way of working is self-evident. They are keen to stress that the atmosphere is more open and ‘non-hierarchical’ and that people do feel they can express their views freely – like a ‘critical friend’.
In recent months, the organisation has looked at ways to increase member involvement through a ‘Member Benefits Scheme’. Initial thoughts brought up the idea of a rewards scheme for paying rent on time. However, this was rejected by the tenants’ Representative Body who felt that this was simply part of their contract with RBH. Instead, they suggested that Member Benefits should focus on recognising where people have participated above and beyond their contractual obligations. The message from tenants was that the new Member Benefits Scheme, as it takes shape, should reflect the core values of RBH in recognising voluntary activity and helping to build stronger communities.
“The values of mutuality make the challenges worth overcoming…”
Edward Carpenter, Governance Manager
There have been lessons learned along the way. It is true that decision making with additional layers of scrutiny could elongate the process as with any organisation, there is a constant pipeline of issues so it can be difficult to manage the process. Are there enough meetings or too many? What level of consultation should take place? These are questions that Governance Manger, Edward Carpenter, wrestles, balancing the needs of the business with the wishes of the membership. It is a challenge that he relishes; “I am truly excited when I think of the potential that our model has for RBH as a society and as a community…” and it is clear that his commitment is matched by the members of the Representative Body. RBH concede that ‘democratic apathy’ can be a potential risk but over time they hope to demonstrate the benefits of membership and excite more interest.
Looking to the future, RBH is harnessing the power of its membership to navigate the choppy waters ahead and stand ready to consolidate the success of the past four years. In doing so, they remain wedded to their core values: creating and sustaining better communities.
The NHC is keen to hear from members who are considering mutual routes and who may be interested in learning more about the benefits of this approach.
The Consortium would like to thank Gareth and his team, the Representative Body and everyone at RBH who gave up their time to host the NHC and share the RBH way. We really enjoyed our visit and left inspired.