Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The state of social housing

There are many things I’d like to blog about at the moment: Donald Trump, how my work-life balance went kaput thanks to the Curse of THE, the City of Edinburgh Local Development Plan… but right now I want to talk about the state of social housing, in Scotland and the UK.

In half an hour I’ll be leaving my office to head to the monthly Committee meeting of Prospect Community Housing Association. I’ve been on the committee since 2008 and we manage around 900 homes, very well, in Wester Hailes in west Edinburgh. I love being on the Committee – it’s one of the most rewarding things I do. But I head off with a heavy-heart because a long standing committee member has resigned citing the fact that they struggled to keep up with the changes buffeting the social housing sector in Scotland and therefore to provide the governance and oversight needed.

So what is happening exactly? Well, we have the good old Bedroom Tax and benefit changes that are going to screw-us all over mightily from April. I note the Scottish Government is now expecting Council and RSLs to absorb the costs of tenants getting into arrears and not evict them. I’m sorry, but if that is going to result in our housing association going bust in a couple of year, it is not going to happen. Yes, we will do everything we can to support tenants and prevent arrears, but we cannot absorb costs.

But the key thing in Scotland does seem to be the massive over-regulation of the sector. To give a bit of background, in 1988 we had the Scottish Special Housing Association and the Housing Corporation in Scotland. In 1989 they became Scottish Homes, the regulator and funder. In 2003 they combined with the regeneration arm of the then Scottish Executive to become Communities Scotland (heady days…). In 2007 as part of their bonfire of the QUANGOs the Scottish Government axed Communities Scotland and brought regulation in house. It then realised you couldn’t have a regulator as part of the Government, so it created a new QUANGO (or possibly an NDPB) the Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR), which is now getting stuck into its job with a zealousness that is quite staggering.

This is going hand-in-hand with the new performance and management regime the “Scottish Housing Charter” with enormous reporting requirements for housing associations and a whole new jargon of “ARCs” and “outcomes” to learn. 

We also have:
  • Endless consultation documents from the Scottish Government and the SHR on: Right-To-Buy, the Charter, the regulatory standards in the Charter, Stage 3 Adaptations, about four consultations on funding in five years, Wider Role, to name but a few;
  • New “incidents” we have to report to the SHR, with guidance so unclear it could include anything from opening and envelope to a house collapsing;
  • A new complaints regime from the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman that’s required massive amounts of staff time and investment to create new systems;
  • And we have basically no funding for new development (unless you want to be indebted up to your eyeballs and charge non-affordable rents).
As you can probably tell from the tone of this blog post all this tires me out and makes me angry as well. And the real kick in the teeth is when the SHR and bodies like the CIH then have the cheek to turn around to us as voluntary committee members and question our commitment, expertise and abilities. They challenge us that we don’t provide sufficient strategic oversight – is it any wonder when we’re having to fire-fight so many issues just to stand still?

Prospect’s Committee is a truly amazing body of people – I think the regulator would struggle to find fault with us. But I’m realistic and I know some housing associations do not have the same skills or capacity. But really, the regime is awful.

And what makes me really angry is this – as a housing association we moved to component accounting because the regulator made us. This resulted in a material change to our accounting position. This meant the banks are now pulling us up on our loan covenants even though they knew about this, which may mean higher rent increases from our tenants who are being screwed over by the posh t**ts in Westminster. These are the same banks that went spectacularly bust, bringing down the global economy with them because of poor strategic governance and oversight. And it’s the model of big business that the regulator seems to want us to follow.

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