Access to Information is (still) nothing to fear

The social housing sector has had a few years now to get used to the idea of increased transparency and better access to information for their tenants. So the proposals in the Government’s consultation should come as no surprise. Nattily named STAIRS (Social Tenant Access to Information Requirements – see what they did there? – but let’s not quibble over the difference between an R and an S), the proposals are likely to be welcomed by many landlords.

Essentially a trimmed-down version of Freedom of Information, at the heart of the proposals lie a few key principles

  1. the requirement to publish and promote a publication scheme, detailing information a housing association will publish as a matter of course
  2. identifying what other information they hold that might be of interest to requesters
  3. the requirement to help the requester to get the information they’re asking for.
  4. access to redress if the housing association refuses to provide it.

As always, of course, the devil is in the detail, and those housing associations who used the last few years to get their file plan in order will be grateful that they’ve done it.

Easy access to accurate information is a starting point. Good minute-taking and record-keeping skills will need to be on the training plan.

But it’s going to take more than a tidy file plan to get you through. A mindset change, where the presumption is to disclose information, rather than control it, will be your biggest asset.

Social housing has been in the spotlight recently, with very public tragedies still fresh in our minds.

While the access to information proposals are more limited than those under the Freedom of Information Act, they allow tenants to request information – or those designated to act on their behalf.

No doubt journalists, lawyers and campaigners already have plans to request information ready to go.

Many housing associations will already be doing what’s required. There are challenges of course: clearly written policies aren’t always readily available, not all housing associations proactively publish their planned maintenance schedules, and the desire to get things legally checked can slow things down. But colleagues in Scotland and ALMOs have been doing this for a while.

Housing associations could see this as an opportunity to clear some cobwebs.

You can download our Hough Bellis easy guide which explains the proposals in more detail and provides top tips on what you should be doing to prepare, here.

Susan Fox is the author of the chapter on housing association communications in the book “Promoting Property”, published by Routledge, and of “Freedom of Information: is it changing the way we do PR?” in Chartered Public Relations: Lessons from Expert Practitioners, published by Kogan Page.

Would you like some help understanding what the access to information scheme might mean for your organisation? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us hello@houghbellis.co.uk.

Bobbie Hough
managing director, Hough Bellis Communications