Taking on The Housing Challenge: A Scrutiny Councillor’s Guide

Posted on 26/09/2018 by Dave McKenna. Tags: ,

This guide is intended to provide practical advice for scrutiny committees and task and finish groups working on housing issues. 

This guide is intended to show cabinet members, council officers and others in the world of housing policy and management that scrutiny councillors can and should help to tackle the housing crisis. Our aim is that this guide will start a conversation rather than provide an off-the-shelf checklist.

There are five stages that, broadly speaking, reflect the process that scrutiny councillors will use to conduct reviews. These are based on the principles of “design thinking”, which places the needs of “users” (for us, local people) at the centre of how a product or service is designed. This is about more than thinking in the abstract about people and their needs – it is about involving and engaging them and, where relevant and appropriate, involving them actively in helping to design new systems.

The complexity of policy around housing makes design thinking a particularly useful tool for scrutiny. It provides a way to remind us of the centrality of people’s needs when the temptation might be to focus scrutiny on the “structures” of “housing delivery” – thinking of different ways to review the work of the council, developers, housing associations, and so on – without recognising that they are all connecting.
The five stages are::

  • Discovering. Getting a broad sense of the issues to understand where it might be best to intervene, and what would be best to scrutinise. This includes:
    • Discovering and understanding residents’ needs and concerns;
    • Discovering and understanding national policy. In this paper, we look at policy in several areas – tenant engagement in social housing, tenant engagement in private housing, the environment in which regeneration and major planning decisions happen, and policy around homelessness.
  • Prioritising. Understanding what specific issues need to be investigated, and why. This is also about understanding the issues as local people understand them, and drawing those people into the discussion. Co-option (installing people on council panels) commissioning (tasking people
    or groups with doing work on scrutiny’s behalf) and co-learning (working alongside others to find solutions) are good ways to do this;
  • Investigating. Carrying out the scrutiny work itself. This includes the importance of working in public – both to holding decision-makers to account and to consider, and find solutions to, difficult issues;
  • Recommending. Proposing solutions to cabinet and other policy-makers;
  • Reviewing. Reflecting on the process, considering what has worked well and less well, and amending your approach for the future as necessary.

Our thanks are due to the following people who all providing valuable insight as the research was being developed and written:

Catherine Ryder, National Housing Federation, Gavin Smart, Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Plummer and Helen Kelly, The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Louise Thompson, TPAS , Professor Alex Marsh, University of Bristol, Gary O’Key, London Borough of Lambeth, Tony Birkin, Cambridge City Council, Diana Minns, Elected Resident representative of the Housing Scrutiny Committee, Cambridge City Council, Christine Bradley, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.