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Are residents bored with boards – or do they just not get a look in?

Board_w270x250On Wednesday evening, I listened while seven white British local estate board members and four white British members of EeH’ staff expressed or condoned/did not challenge views concerning the undesirability of encouraging the participation on the local estate board of residents from minority ethnic groups.

This was on the grounds that anyone with limited English was incapable of contributing appropriately to estate board meetings and decisions about the estate and residents’ homes and neighbourhood.

The comments arose from discussion about the wording of the notice of the upcoming AGM of the local Estate Management Board, when all estate residents are entitled to attend and vote in the elections for places on the estate board.

My fellow white British Board members, who currently outnumber BME members by 9 to 3, dismissed the idea of

distributing information other than entirely in English, on the grounds that, if residents didn’t understand the notice, they would be unable to contribute adequately or appropriately to meetings. One BME Board member, whose first language is English, agreed with this. The two for whom English is a second language remained silent. The fact that residents might just want the opportunity to vote for their choice of resident representative to attend meetings somehow got forgotten.

When I suggested it was important to provide some kind of ‘bridge’ for residents, from current levels of exclusion to initial stages of involvement, in line with EeH’ equalities duties, this was dismissed out of hand by white Board members, whose remarks were not challenged by EeH staff. There appeared to be a view that no-one was interested in ‘all that equalities stuff’ and one board member asked me why I kept ‘bringing up such stupid ideas’. This is how the reality of EeH’ expressed aim of working particularly to engage hard to reach groups translates into reality on this Estate, at least as far as resident participation in formal local governance, consultation and decision-making is concerned.

Earlier in the week, on Monday, I attended EeH’ AGM, which, in some gesture that appeared entirely tokenistic in view of the non-inclusive way in which the proceedings were conducted, had been belatedly advertised for the first time as being open to EeH residents. Curiously, given that this was an obvious opportunity for residents to meet and talk to Resident Board Members, often again for the very first time, only two of the current 7 residents on EeH’ Board put in an appearance. There was a fair cross-section of residents from EeH estates -tenants and leaseholders; older Tower Hamlets residents well into retirement, with a long history of living in the Borough; younger residents, including Bengali parents with young families; white, Asian and black British men and women from the Borough’s local diverse communities.

EeH’ Board of Directors, some of whom attended this AGM, are a rather different group of people. For residents, election to the Main Board means reaching the pinnacle of EeH’ formal resident representative structures. The Resident Members of EeH Main Board thus provide a useful means of assessing EeH’ success in engaging a broad cross-section of its residents at the highest level within its governance framework.

There is currently a vacancy for a Resident Member on the Board but before this,

25% of EeH Resident Board Members were aged over 70
25% were aged over 80.
25% of members were under 50 years old.
25% were female and of these both were White British
25% were from BME communities and of these both were male.

50% of the Resident Members of EeH Board were thus White British/Irish and male.
Since the recent resignation of one of this group, the average age of these board members is 79.

There are no female resident board members from BME groups.
Three of the current Resident Board Members come from just one of the eight EeH estate areas, leaving two estates with no Resident Board Member.

The group of Independent Board Members breaks down as follows:
25% are local BME residents
50% are White British/European and female, one of whom now lives in the Borough but who is a European financier.
25% are white British and male, including the Chair, who is a local resident and has been in post since 2004.

There are no female Independent Board Members from BME groups.
37.5% of members have close established links with Tower Hamlets local residents and communities.

This is the composition of the Board controlling a Council sponsored RSL, which was described to residents in the stock transfer consultation as a new organisation, the shape and direction of which would be ‘formed through its close involvement with the local community’. It should surely be of some concern that the Board so little reflects the make-up of Tower Hamlets’ diverse communities and the younger age groups that predominate.

The composition of the Executive of EeH, Chief Executive, Senior Directors and Company Secretary, is 100% white British and male. It is surely a moot point whether EeH Resident Board Members can present a robust, well-informed and independent challenge to the policy recommendations of an Executive with this sort of bias. This is of all the more concern as these policy decisions will have far-reaching implications for the homes and lives of local people, who have no other representatives on which to rely in influencing decision-making than these Resident Board Members.

EeH’ chosen governance code is the National Housing Federation Code of Governance, which includes a requirement that Board members do not remain in post for longer than 3 consecutive terms of 3 years. At the AGM, 4 Resident and Independent Board members were due to stand down from the Board under the ‘nine year rule’, including the Chair. One of these stood down under the terms of EeH’ own rotation arrangements for the retirement of Board Members, only to be immediately reappointed for another three year term. He is 82 years of age, not in the best of health, and admitted to me in conversation that he had no idea what was happening on the Board, as ‘they’ didn’t tell him anything……

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