Substantial taxpayer funding for social housing is being redirected from spending of practical benefit and passed instead to an organisation called the Tenant Participation Advisory Service. I couldn't find its accounts on its website but it has 23 full time paid staff which implies its budget is substantial. Funding would also seem to come overwhelmingly from the taxpayer – via housing associations and assorted council housing departments and "arms length" bodies.
Spending transparency data shows the TPAS is paid thousands by, for example, Salix Homes, who manage Salford Council properties, for "customer involvement." Taunton Deane Borough Council has paid it £2,440.80 for "supervision and management." Hounslow Council has paid it £16,000 in a single month. Lambeth and Luton are among other coucils that splash out a lot of their residents money. North Lincolnshire Homes paid the TPAS for a report – which praised North Lincolnshire Homes for giving £500 to Unison for CRB Checks.
Membership rates for TPAs are up to £3,100 for larger organisations.
TPAS held its annual conference last month charging delegates £599 each to attend the two day event at the Hilton Metropole, Birmingham. It was from July 16th-18th, a Monday to Wednesday. Nice work if you can get it. I say "charging delegates" but let's take a wild guess as to how many of the "over 500" delegates paid with their own money. How about none? What seems more plausible is that the taxpayer will have funded the great majority of these fees. Amidst the dinners and networking there were workshops on equality and diversity, assertiveness, opposing welfare reform, and, oh yes, "value for money." There was a session on "tenant-led scrutiny" – the best strategy for avoiding it evidently being to zip off to a conference.
Here was the "key message" from the conference by the TPAS chief executive Michelle Reid:
Michelle recognised that most people at the conference will have never used Twitter, but Housing Minister Grant Shapps does use Twitter, and has said that he reads every single “tweet” he is sent (though he doesn’t always reply!). In an effort to ensure that he hears the views of tenants we’ll be asking people to create their perfect “tweet” to Grant Shapps, using only 140 letters, writing it on a wipeboard, and then taking a photo of them next to our life-size (ish) pop-up of Grant Shapps. Michelle will then be tweeting a selection of the photos to @grantshapps throughout the conference. To do this, please visit the TPAS stand.
What did this farce cost us? 500 people costing £600 each comes to £300,000. Add nearly the same again for the cost of staff time and travel expenses and we could be looking at more than half a million pounds of taxpayers money spent on swamping Mr Shapps with hostile tweets demanding the spending of still more taxpayers' money.
If you didn't feel that the session on "How to be an effective chair" was quite enough then why not take another day's paid leave and return to Birmingham on August 30th for a training conference on "Comfy Chair and Cushions – Expanding your chairing skills." A mere £265 plus VAT.
TPAS employs "policy officers" to lobby against Government housing policy. It opposes affordable rent and is also against offering new tenancies for fixed terms – even though this change is to ensure that help goes to those when they need it, rather than continuing for life regardless of whether circumstances change.
Then there are the award ceremonies. There are categories such as "Excellence in Equality and Diversity" and "Excellence in Annual Reports." To win an award it seems to help if your organisation pays to send lots of staff along to the dinner. Tables of ten are available for £1,795 plus VAT including two bottles of Champagne. Just the place to discuss equality while sneering at the economy £1,450 plus VAT tables.
I am all in favour of Champagne when the taxpayer isn't picking up the bill. Naturally those attending, being on the Left, have less sensitivity about the level of public spending.
Yet I wonder if some of them feel uncomfortable for a moment or two at the cynical extravagance of these occasions. My instinct is not to ascribe base motives to those with a different political view. Surely some of those who set out on a career in the social housing "sector" must have done so with the sincere and worthy aim of helping the poor. Wasn't Champagne quaffing at black tie dinners, while others experienced hardship, the sort of thing that used to fill them with resentment?
As George Orwell said:
"No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
I suppose that in opposing TPAS and all its excesses I will be presented as opposing tenant participation. So here is a challenge to TPAS members, both housing associations and council housing sections. Why don't they let their tenants decide the following:
Do you agree that we should cease spending money attending award ceremonies and conferences, end our membership of political lobbying groups, and end further self congratulatory advertising? The money saved would go on repairs while the staff time freed up would be used for staff to go and visit ordinary tenants to ask about how we can improve the service we provide.