social housing

Housing Associations and the Big Society: lessons from Scotland

Posted by admin on May 08, 2012
community, housing policy, regeneration, social housing / No Comments

Last week I launched the findings from my Carnegie funded research on housing associations and the big society, which focused on the role of community anchor housing associations in Scotland.  My motivation for the project was two-fold:

1)      It strikes me the policy rhetoric on the Big Society is very English focused, and I was interested in the extent to which these ideas had any relevance north of the border within Scotland’s rich and diverse voluntary and community sector.

2)      The concept of community ‘anchor’ organisations, which first originated in a Home Office report in 2004 has now filtered through to social policy in Scotland through the Scottish Government’s focus on community regeneration and their proposed Community Empowerment Bill.  The recent Christie Commission into the reform of public services in Scotland also called for services to be rebuilt around communities.

Against this policy backdrop, I decided to focus on the community-controlled housing association (CCHA) sector in Scotland, which is one of the strongest examples of community ownership in the UK today.  CCHAs are place-based organisations governed by a committee of local residents.  They are key agencies in Scotland’s low-income neighbourhoods, undertaking an important social role by acting as catalysts for community regeneration and development.  Many are already anchor organisations.

Five key findings emerged from this qualitative study with senior housing association staff and national membership organisations:

  •  Although sceptical of the relevance of the Big Society, interviewees were positive about the potential of housing associations to act as community anchor organisations; with many expressing that they already fulfilled this role.  This suggests there is much the Big Society agenda in England can learn from the Scottish experience, as illustrated by the seven case study profiles featured in the report.
  • Key strengths of CCHAs, which made them ideal anchor organisations, were identified as: community governance structures and being embedded in the local community; housing assets and independent revenue streams; ability to mobilise cross-sector partnerships; strength of relationship with tenants and their credibility in the local community.
  • A number of challenges and barriers to developing associations’ potential as anchor organisations were however also articulated: funding constraints; lack of institutional support from within government (at both the local and national level); and the regulation of social housing.
  • The reality of doing housing in ‘hard times’ meant associations were being forced to think about their future role.  Embracing the community anchor role was identified by some as one avenue of ‘diversification’ that would allow CCHAs to remain true to their core values and ethos.
  • There remained scepticism about why associations needed to adopt a new label for what they did, and also concerns about the level of expectation placed on them by government.  This was linked to an awareness of the limits of area-based approaches to addressing entrenched and persistent structural inequalities.

These findings are important not only in the Scottish context, given their relevance to the proposed Community Empowerment bill and the Scottish Government’s focus on community regeneration.  They also offer important lessons for policy across the UK, given the policy rhetoric around Localism and the Big Society, both of which emphasise devolving decision-making downwards from the state to local people.

Crucially, the project highlighted real concerns about an increasing blurring of the boundaries between the public and voluntary sector, and also the challenges of delivering community projects in hard times (for HAs are also facing cuts to their budgets).  Returning more specifically to the issues for Scotland, whilst the ‘community anchor’ idea clearly has much merit, more definitional clarity is needed if it is to play a significant role in policy terms and a means of accessing public funding.

 

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New Regulatory Framework for Social Housing in Scotland: a mixed bag for HAs?

Posted by admin on April 14, 2012
governance, housing policy, regulation, social housing / No Comments

A few months back I blogged about the consultation on reforming the regulatory framework for social landlords in Scotland (see also the piece in Inside Housing). As I highlighted at the time, two issues in particular caused a ‘stooshie’:

  • Proposals to introduce a mandatory fixed term for housing association committee members (over 90% of associations who responded to the consultation opposed this).
  • Proposals that housing association committee members could be paid for their role (which historically has been voluntary)

The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) has now launched it’s new Framework for Regulation, and I’m pleased to see at least some of the concerns expressed during the consultation period have been heeded. The SHR is no longer proposing mandatory time limits on how long committee members can serve. Rather, it will require members with more than 9 years service to demonstrate their continued effectiveness. The emphasis on refreshing skills and thinking about succession strategies, is overall, much more positive than the very negative tone of the consultation. But it does underline the point that the SHR needs to engage with the sector earlier and (arguably) in a more constructive fashion.

Other positive shifts in thinking include:

  • Annual reporting requirements around achieving the Social Housing Charter have been reduced and made less onerous. Nonetheless the focus of regulation continues to be underpinned by a consumerist agenda, and doesn’t really consider the wider context in which RSLs work, nor their contribution to community development and regeneration (something that I’ll be blogging on in the future re: my community anchor work).
  • The SHR no longer intends to develop model constitutional clauses, crucial given RSLs are independent organisations with their own democratic processes. However, the insistence that a large number of specific constitutional clauses be included is disappointing

Other elements of the Framework are also frustratingly disappointing:

  • SHR has remained ‘neutral’ on the issue of payment for committee members, thus allowing associations to pay committee members if they wish. This is a significant change, and really undermines the voluntary ethos and traditions of this sector, which is underpinned by place-based social capital and community ownership. As the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, the membership body for community-controlled HAs in Scotland has stated: “changing the voluntary character of housing associations is one of the most fundamental changes in our sector’s history” (2012: 4). Moreover, given many associations are also charities it is also impractical (see, SFHA 2012 briefing note).
  • There is also no indication of how the SHR will vary its approach for different size and type of RSLs, for the sector in Scotland is very diverse, with a lot of small landlords in particular. This is in contrast to the approach that had been previously adopted in England, where smaller landlords were exempt from many regulatory requirements

So it seems the new Framework is a mixed bag. But as I’ll be writing about in a few weeks, there are also somewhat conflicting messages emerging from the SHR and the Scottish Government about what the role of social landlords should be …. something I’ll post about when I launch my report from my community anchor research.

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The End of ‘Social’ Housing in Scotland? Consultation on Allocations Reform

I finally sat down to read the Scottish Government’s consultation on ‘Affordable Housing in Scotland’.  And was very surprised, shocked and angered at some of the proposals being suggested.  Not only do they seem to be informed by quite negative perceptions of social housing, but they also threaten the entire notion of a ‘secure’ social housing tenancy and the future cohesiveness and stability of low-income neighbourhoods.  The entire consultation seems to cherry-pick the worst elements of recent social housing reforms in England, as reflected in the shift in language from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’ housing.  The sub-heading for this consultation is:  “creating flexibility for landlords and better outcomes for communities”.  But my feeling is these proposals would actually do the opposite, and are potentially extremley damaging for low-income neighbourhoods.  The main points I have an issue with include:

1) Whilst I can understand the desire to prioritise those on the lowest-income when demand outstrips supply, introducing an income assessment contradicts other government policies around mixed-communities, and is likely to exacerbate geographical concentrations of poverty.   As research shows there is already a strong correlation betweeen social housing and poverty in Scotland. Not having an income test is a strength not a weakness of our sector.  Instead of creating a new tenure (intermediate rent) we could widen access to ‘social housing’ to include middle income groups.  Everyone should have a right to housing regardless of income.

2)  Introducing a short Scottish Secure Tenancy for all new social housing tenants undermines security of tenure, which is a defining feature of the sector.  Justifying it on the grounds of possible ASB is extremley stigmatising and stereotypical (ASB is not unique to social housing tenants, nor are all social housing tenants anti-social).  Moreover, ASB is not just a housing issue.  More recognition of this and the role of non-housing agencies in tackling  it would be welcome.  It also seems an impractical measure if it is not to apply to existing tenants.

 

3) Allowing intermediate housing to be let using SSTs would seem to be replicating the practices of the private rented sector.  One of the major disadvantages of this tenure from the renters’ perspective is the lack of security of tenure.  How can people make a house their home if they don’t know how long they will be there?  If public money is to be used to fund this then security of tenure should be a cornerstone, especially if these properties are owned and managed by social landlords.

 4) Limiting succession rights where the home would be under-occupied ignores the fact this is the persons’ home, which they may have lived in for years.  A social rented house is more than a housing asset; it is also a home. This measure would also create inequities between social housing tenants.

If like me you are unimpressed by the proposals contained in this consultation, I would encourage you to return a response to the Scottish Government’s consultation, which ends on 30th April.  To my mind the key problem with this paper is that it seems to be underpinned by a very negative view of social (or affordable) housing.  It’s only ever conceived of as a welfare safety-net, for those who lack the material resources to undertake normalised acts of housing consumption (i.e. homeownership).   I would argue we need to recognise social (and affordable) renting as a positive choice; it should not be as the consultation claims, only a sector for “people who cannot afford to rent or buy on the open market” (p8).  If we have learned anything from the credit crunch and resulting global economic downturn it should be that as a nation we need to get over our obsession with homeownership.

One of the strengths of devolution is surely being able to do things differently from the rest of the UK, but these proposals demonstrate a real lack of original thinking on social housing policy.  Yet the social rented sector in Scotland is, and always has been, fundamentally distinct.  It’s a bigger tenure for a start, and historically was much more socially mixed.  This is it’s strength and we should resist attempts to dilute this by making it a ‘tenure of last resort’ for only the most poorest, vulnerable members of society.  Given, as the consultation claims, that 128,000 households are on the social housing waiting list, isn’t the answer to build more social housing, so people have access to the secure, affordable, good quality housing that they clearly want?  I happened to watch Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Cathy Come Home’ last weeked and it underlined to me the importance of having good quality, affordable rental housing, and that social landlords are best placed to provide this.

 

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Housing Association as Community ‘Anchors’

Posted by admin on January 21, 2012
CBHAs, community, housing policy, regeneration, social housing / 1 Comment

Taking advantage of the inter-semester break I’ve been out and about doing fieldwork for my current Carnegie funded project on the contribution of housing associations to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.  One idea that has really taken my interest is that of housing association’s as ‘community anchors‘.  As regulated, financially stable, social businesses with effective local partnerships and a commitment to transforming their communities for the benefit of local people, this ‘anchor’ concept seems a useful one for describing the work of the sector.  It showcases what can be achieved through community asset ownership and community governance, and underlines the importance of connecting housing to other social policy agendas around health, education and so forth.

The idea that housing associations are more than just landlords is not a new one.  Many have long been active in community development and community regeneration projects to tackle the social and economic challenges within their neighbourhoods as well as the physical ones.  But as social housing budgets shrink whilst at the same time the relative poverty experienced by Scotland’s most fragile communities grows, the need for associations to connect the dots between housing and regeneration becomes even more critical.

In our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods housing associations are quite often the only agency with a physical on the ground presence.  The relationship they have with their tenants mean they are often the first port of call when problems arise. Whilst many directly provide support services to local people, they are also enablers working in partnership with other agencies to deliver services such as money and debt advice, childcare, education, employment training, welfare rights etc.

Whilst I have been really impressed at the depth and range of community projects offered by the case study organisations I have been visiting in recent weeks, I was also struck by the sheer scale of the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis.  Whilst they can use their skills and experience to attract funding and work with partners to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty, on their own they cannot address the root cause of the issue.  And for me, this is where Cameron’s Big Society falls down.  I’m all for ‘local’ solutions and decentred decision making, but it is not cost free and it needs resourcing if it is to deliver real change.  The long-standing, entrenched inequalities experienced in many of Scotland’s communities (which are still experiencing the fall-out from de-industrialisation) cannot be effectively tackled by volunteering or philanthropy alone; what is needed is a serious commitment to tackling the growing inequality in this country: and the ever widening gap between rich and poor.  Given the changes afoot in the UK Welfare Reform bill it seems hard to imagine this will be achieved during the lifetime of the current coalition government.

 

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How Much is too Much Regulation?

Posted by admin on November 27, 2011
community, governance, regulation, social housing / 4 Comments

The importance of community

The Scottish Housing Regulator’s current consultation on reforms to the regulation of social landlords in Scotland has sparked controversy within the sector (see for example, recent articles in the Glasgow Herald and Inside Housing, and briefing papers by the community housing sector).

The biggest moot point is over plans to introduce a mandatory fixed-term for committee members (who make up landlords’ governing bodies).  This change is especially problematic for small, community-based housing associations (a dominant governance model in the west of Scotland), because their management committees are drawn from ordinary local residents.  The passion, commitment and local knowledge of these individuals, combined with the partnerships they forge with local housing staff have been central to the success of this governance model; and the skills and experience these community leaders develop over the years is invaluable. That the Regulator wants to consign this to the scrap-heap is sad indeed, especially when most committee members are already subject to regular, open elections.  A second related concern is the proposal to pay governing body members.  This not only contradicts the ethos of volunteering and place based social capital that underpins the community housing sector in Scotland, but seeks to introduce a ‘private sector’ governance model which is inappropriate for community organisations, many of whom are also registered charities.  There seems to be a real tension between the Regulator’s desire for ‘professional’ boards and the benefits of community governance through the community ownership of social housing.

Beyond this immediate issue, the consultation also sparks questions about how much is too much regulation?  There have long been concerns that housing associations are over-regulated compared to other independent, third sector organisations. Whilst housing association do receive financial support from the public purse does that mean the Regulator should be able to dictate the terms of their constitution, or how they govern themselves?  Or would the regulatory gaze not be better directed on the Private Rented Sector which is where the real rogue landlords are to be found?  Answers on a postcard …..

(for further discussion of mandatory terms see the excellent paper by GWSF )

 

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