Housing Associations and the Big Society: lessons from Scotland

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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