"Zipping up my boots," sang Odyssey. "Going back to my roots, yeah." That is very much what is happening in Rochdale, home of the co-operative movement, and the Rochdale pioneers – 28 weavers – in the 1840s. It has a proud tradition of advancement through self help – rather than handouts from private charity or the state.
This tradition is being renewed now that 13,700 dwellings in Rochdale have ceased to be owned by the council and now belong to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. This is not a council housing department, or a housing association, or an arms length management organisation. It is a mutual – owned by its staff and tenants. It would be naive to suggest it will be as independent of the state as the weavers. There will still be regulation and subsidies. The council will be "permanently embedded in the mutual governance."
So what will change? It's early days. The new status officially came about in June although it has been effective for the last year or so. ALMOs – and in recent years housing associations – are really just bits of the public sector – with the drearily familiar attributes of bureaucracy, delay, inertia, inefficiency and the "sod the public" ethos. It would be naive to imagine that RBH will be as attentive as a typical private landlord competing for the custom of tenants paying a market rent.
However, just because it won't be perfect does not mean the possibility of improvement should be dimissed.
It's chief executive Gareth Swarbeck says:
The RBH vision confidently asserts the principal of public ownership, but does so not through the mechanism of state or municipal control, but through membership open to tenants and staff, and a democratic form of governance which makes those ultimately in charge accountable to the community they serve.
This should be the prime mechanism for driving the organisation to improve, to adhere to its commitment, and to carry on business for the benefit of the community – not external regulation. In addition, there continues to be a legal and constitutional obligation to carry on business for the benefit of the community, retaining surplus for the aims of the organisation.
The theory is that the RBH will be its own master – for its residents as well as staff – rather than being beholden to the state. Its members hire and fire the directors. So far a couple of thousand have signed up as members. Clearly that is a small minority. Membership is free but not automatic – you have to fill in a form. I suspect there is already a rather higher level of tenant participation than generally in social housing.
The RBH says:
The change throughout RBH is already much wider than this unique mutual governance. A culture of working with tenants is emerging strongly, reshaping the conversation from “you said – we did” to “what can we do together?”
Let's see. Perhaps the RBH residents will find they have some genuine power rather than just being stuck in a passive role – complaining with ever more frustration while the housing officers ignore them.