Organisation: Rochdale Boroughwide Housing
Sector: Social housing
Country/region: Greater Manchester
Annual turnover: Approximately £52m
Number of members: 2,300 tenant members, 500 employee members
Number of homes managed: Around 13,750
Campaign name: Our Place and Our Choice
Target audience: Tenant members
Campaign objective: Involving tenant members in decision making and funds allocation
Delivery/implementation: Meetings with tenants, communication with residents associations and community groups, leaflets, events, local media
Budget: £37,530 in 2013
Contact: John Romans, communications officer, [email protected] or 01706 273831
Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) has been on a journey which has seen it progress from being part of Rochdale Council to an Arms Length Management Organisation and then the country’s first social housing provider to be co-owned by tenants and employees.
To celebrate its mutual status and show how co-operative principles are as relevant today as they were at the time of the Rochdale Pioneers, it has launched Our Place and Our Choice, two closely related projects that encapsulate mutual and democratic values, and give residents the chance to shape the future of their communities.
Our Place and Our Choice are ongoing projects which bring funding decisions into the heart of neighbourhoods. Our Place sees RBH colleagues working with residents to develop three-year action plans to address issues in their communities. Our Choice gives residents the chance to begin implementing their plan by addressing immediate priorities, from activities for youngsters and IT classes to sports clubs, community gardens and luncheon clubs.
RBH communications officer John Romans expains: “Residents know best what the priorities for their neighbourhoods should be, and we have worked in partnership with them throughout both these projects.”
In line with mutual principles, Our Place and Our Choice strengthen the bond between RBH and its tenants for the benefit of all, and enable residents to help achieve value for money by directing funds to where they are most needed. Our Choice also aims to increase social cohesion by bringing together a range of communities at the voting event and providing activities where residents can interact.
“By taking participatory budgeting (PB) further than any other housing provider through Our Choice, we’re aiming to reflect our pioneering ethos and create a template for other providers to follow,” says Mr Romans.
“The main challenges we faced were persuading the community to get involved and convincing them that they were being given ownership of the funding allocation process rather than simply rubber-stamping decisions taken by RBH. We worked closely with tenant representatives from each neighbourhood to design the decision-making process and with other local groups and the media to publicise the project.”
An officer from the Participatory Budget Unit, the national body which oversees PB projects, attended meetings, ensuring guidance was neutral. This reinforced the message that the residents panel had the final say on the process.
The action plan
As part of Our Place, RBH carried out surveys and consultations with residents across neighbourhoods to establish their priorities for their communities. The feedback they provided was developed through further consultation into a three-year action plan.
Our Choice provides residents with a pot of money to address immediate priorities. Residents set the criteria for applications, approve the application process, organise the selection event (Decision Day) and design the voting process.
Individuals, community groups and statutory organisations can bid for funding and all residents in each neighbourhood are able to vote at Decision Day.
A crucial part of the strategy was ensuing that residents had sufficient information to enable them to play a full part in the process. They were told about Decision Day, how to submit bids and vote via a leaflet campaign as well as through residents associations and local media. Members of the RBH engagement team were available to answer queries via phone or email. All residents attending Decision Day also received a detailed explanation of how the voting system worked.
Seven members of the RBH engagement team worked on the development process of the project and the organisation of the voting system. Seven tenants, one from each neighbourhood, met with RBH officers and the Participatory Budgeting Unit officer over a three-month period to develop and design the process, criteria, application forms and shortlisting.
RBH employees also provided support at two fun days as part of their annual volunteering commitments while between one and three volunteers helped during a summer activities programme for youngsters.
Our Place and Our Choice have brought major benefits to communities by providing events and activities which meet their priorities. Less tangible but equally important is the sense of community it has brought to residents by giving them a major say on what happens in their neighbourhoods, now and in the future. At Decision Day in 2013, a total of £37,530 was awarded to 22 projects across seven neighbourhoods.
“Our Choice has encapsulated RBH’s vision, as a mutual organisation, of working closely with residents to develop further ways of strengthening their communities,” says Mr Romans. “By actively engaging with residents we believe the projects have helped residents to move from a reactive to a proactive way of viewing themselves.
“The projects are proving successful in building community capacity with Our Choice’s use of participatory budgeting proving particularly effective. Where we have run Our Choice, residents have developed costed proposals, presented them to a room of people and are now delivering their projects. The money provided might be relatively small, but it has engendered a sense of ownership and community pride.”
RBH has also set up internal processes to support groups, such as providing qualified officers to carry out DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks and putting financial systems in place to enable individuals and new/emerging groups without bank accounts to apply, while the application form has been updated for 2014 to ensure that applicants are aware of exactly what is needed for a successful project. This includes details on policies and legislation.
“Through putting communities at the heart of the decision-making process we believe that our ground-breaking Our Place and Our Choice projects symbolise our status as a mutual housing provider and empower residents to show that they are the modern day Rochdale Pioneers,” says Mr Romans.
“The main lesson we have learned is to trust the residents to know what is best for their neighbourhood. Given the right information they will engage and make informed decisions.”