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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Involving easy to ignore groups in housing policy and strategy in NI

Dr Jenny Muir is a Lecturer in the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast. Below she introduces findings from her latest research on involving easy to ignore groups , carried out with funding provided by Housing Rights. 

At a time of great change for housing policy and practice in Northern Ireland, it is important that the widest possible range of current and potential service users are involved in discussion about the planning and delivery of housing services. It has long been recognised that some groups have been excluded, either through discrimination, lack of opportunity, or because the opportunities available are unsuitable. These groups have become known as ‘hard to reach’.

Hard to reach or easy to ignore?

Recently it has become better understood that such groups are not actually ‘hard to reach’ if organisations make appropriate efforts to include them; therefore in this report we have chosen to use the alternative term ‘easy to ignore’. Our research project assessed and made recommendations for the greater involvement of ‘easy to ignore’ groups in housing policy and strategy development in Northern Ireland, with particular emphasis on engagement with the Social Housing Reform Programme. We reviewed some of the literature on participation, and interviewed people from a range of statutory and voluntary sector projects, from housing and other services.

Who are the most commonly excluded groups?

We found that the most commonly excluded groups were:

  • Some ‘equality’ groups: Black and minority ethnic groups including Roma and Travellers; young people; asylum seekers; refugees; children; people with mental ill-health; people with learning difficulties.
  • Linked to where people live: homeless people; private rented sector tenants. Many of these groups have other needs and belong to equalities groups.
  • Linked to communication issues: poor literacy and numeracy; poor social and interpersonal skills; lack of internet access; English as a second language.
  • Linked to the nature of impairments and people identified as ‘unwanted voices’: exclusion of emotionally vulnerable people and those with complex needs; ex-offenders.

Poverty was also a unifying factor in all these groups.

What are the common barriers to involvement?

  • Methodological barriers – how participation is organised: lack of information provision, lack of definition of the scope of the involvement;
  • Physical barriers – access issues: location of meetings for dispersed groups;
  • Attitudinal barriers – the way organisers respond to service users’ needs: regarded as the most serious obstacle, centred around power imbalances and lack of trust;
  • Financial and resource problems – providing practical support: lack of provision of practical help such as travel costs and lunch, plus staff shortages;
  • Timing – planning events around users’ ability to attend: failing to acknowledge the chaotic lives lived by some service users
  • Consultation/ participation fatigue – respect everyone’s time and energy.

How to ‘make it work’

Many good ideas were put forward about how to ‘make it work’, which we divided into five categories:

  • Values and rights: establishing a philosophical basis for working together
  • Co-production and capacity release: a methodological framework for working together
  • Creating an appropriate environment and use of involvement techniques: a process for working together
  • The role of advocacy groups: working with allies; and
  • Making an impact: achieving outcomes, for example through ensuring continuity, visible benefits, good working relationships and responding to incentives.

The most common specific point made was that it was essential to really listen to service users – this was said by almost everyone. Involvement in policy and strategy was acknowledged to be particularly difficult. Avoiding jargon was important, but connecting lived experience to policy change was considered to be the best way to make policy and strategy relevant to service users.

A new integrated model for service user involvement in housing

The research concluded by recommending a new integrated model for service user involvement in housing, for all participants including ‘easy to ignore’ groups. The model is in three parts: Philosophy, Process and Resources:

The recommended philosophy of service user involvement is based on the rights of the service user and a co-production approach to the development of policy and strategy, which values lived experience alongside professional expertise. Together these factors are intended to instigate a culture of mutual respect and partnership.

Good intentions are meaningless without a process that works. We propose three stages: finding the right structures; facilitating engagement; and promoting capacity release.

At a time of public sector cuts it is important to re-state that good quality service user involvement costs money, and involving easy to ignore groups can cost more. It is important to share and develop good practice, therefore the establishment of a small regional centre to promote excellence in user involvement in housing services is proposed.

We have uncovered a great commitment to service user involvement on the ground, including elements of good practice and a general wish to establish a culture that respects lived experience. A new approach to involvement will benefit everyone, whether or not they are currently considered to be ‘easy to ignore’.

Involving Everyone - Executive Summary

Involving Everyone - Full Report

Housing Rights and Supporting Communities Conference

Delivering on Tenant Participation: From Strategy to Implementation is taking place on 11 April 2016With an overarching focus on the key themes of the Strategy, the conference will examine both the strategic and operational perspectives relating to leading, supporting and delivering tenant participation. By focussing on best practice examples, delegates will gain valuable insights into building the business case for tenant involvement and the tools by which the principles become practice. 

Tagged In

Minority Groups, Research, Policy

This article was written on 24 June 2015. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.