Scotland

Why I’m Voting Yes on September 18th

Posted by admin on August 19, 2014
referendum, scotland, welfare / No Comments

You may have guessed by my Twibbon that I will be voting yes on September the 18th. Inspired by last week’s #bbcindyref debate  I thought it was time for me articulate why I will be doing so. The answer to this one is simple. It’s because I want to live in a fairer, more socially just Scotland, and I believe independence is the best way to achieve it.

For me it’s not a question of nationalism, nor party politics, or even about the oil. Rather it reflects my belief that Scotland will be a better place to live if we are no longer part of the Union. Whilst devolution, and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, has been one of the best things to happen to the country in my lifetime, I don’t think it goes far enough. To address the deep-rooted and persistent inequalities facing our society we need control over the tax and social security system. We don’t have that at the moment. Because of that we’re now witnessing a fundamental dismantling of the British welfare state by the Coalition government. The impact of which has been felt only too keenly by low-income households and communities across the length and breadth of the country. Yet we’re powerless to stop it. This for me is not democracy, nor a union of equals.

In turn, this takes me to the joke about the pandas: a well-rehearsed one in Scottish politics, but pertinent nonetheless. From a Scottish perspective we’re ruled by a Conservative-led coalition government that we didn’t vote for and don’t want. The direction of travel of politics and policy in England truly frightens me. It does not reflect my beliefs, my values or my view of how the United Kingdom needs to move forward. The possible scenario of a government including Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage beggars belief. Yet under the current constitutional set-up that is potentially what we have to look forward too.

The independence referendum however, offers us an opportunity to do things differently; more so than we’ve ever done before. But to achieve this we need to have faith in ourselves as a nation to stand and fall by our own decisions. And we need to also accept the independence is not a one off event; like devolution, it will be a continually evolving process. Much haggling and negotiation would need to be done in the years immediately following a yes vote.

But as Ken Stott quite rightly pointed out on the #bbcindyref panel last week, plenty of other countries have successfully gained independence from the British government. So it can be done if we have patience, faith in ourselves as a people and a nation, and we keep the end goal in sight. That’s not to say it won’t be a bumpy ride.

One final thought. The media and politicians have largely framed the #indyref debate in terms of the economy. But looking only at the economic issues means we may miss the transformative social and political potential of independence. For me that’s where the real prize is. Plus, at any rate we’ll be keeping the pound, currency union or not. It belongs to Scots as much as any other nation of the UK. Given the EU referendum in 2016, I’d say we’ve also more chance of being in Europe as an independent nation than as part of the UK.  The real plan B then isn’t about an alternative economic vision, rather it’s about what will Scotland do if we don’t secure independence, and we face another Conservative-led government in Westminster?

Worth pondering folks.

And time to come off the fence I’d say.

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Consultation on the Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill – a missed opportunity?

Posted by admin on August 21, 2012
community, community assets, governance / 1 Comment

Finally got a chance to sit down and read the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposed Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill. Underwhelmed is the adjective that first springs to mind. Whilst many of the sentiments are in principal fair enough, there is not really any new thinking or innovation on display here (the Community RTB, enforcing sale of empty buildings, community budgeting, asset transfers – have all been talked about, or are already being taken forward elsewhere in the UK). Given Scotland has historically been a leader in thinking about community asset ownership in the UK context (e.g. CLTs, CBHAs), the lack of new thinking is dispiriting.

Worst still, there is a surprising lack of connection being made between community empowerment and other government policy areas. The obvious one being the Scottish Government’s recent Regeneration strategy with its focus on community anchor organisations as key regeneration vehicles, supported by the new People & Communities Fund. Why is there no discussion of community anchors in the consultation document? It’s a very useful concept for talking about community controlled and owned organisations that are committed to transforming their local area for the benefit of the people who live there [see my previous post on this]. And there are already lots of great examples of this across Scotland in a multitude of different sectors that could be drawn on.

But the major problem with this document for me, is that it takes as its starting point Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) which are ultimately local authority vehicles operating at the municipal scale. I would argue if you are genuinely interested in devolving ownership and control to local people then you need to think at a much more local (i.e. neighbourhood) scale, and also give more of a leading role to the voluntary and community sector. Neither of which are common occurrences in CPPs. That’s not to say CPPs don’t have their utility, but promoting grass-roots community engagement doesn’t strike me as one of them.

Another important issue that isn’t picked up in the document is the negative side of the localism agenda. Devolving power downwards may actually exacerbate existing social-spatial inequalities within and between Scotland’s communities. There are several reasons for this, not least the fact that some communities may be more able than others to articulate their needs and command resources (issues such as skills, education, capacity, experience are all relevant here).

Moreover, we should not assume that communities necessarily want to take control – if you look at research in the housing field in many instances local people supported community ownership of social housing as a mean to an end (i.e. to secure investment and improvement in their houses and communities). Where local people are already receiving a good service from public sector providers there may not be any demand for asset transfer -and we should avoid foisting it upon them simply so that assets can be removed from public sector budgets (and thus reduce costs to the public purse).

On a final (slightly left-field) note, I have to say I’m really put off responding to these Scottish Government consultations because of the nature of the respondent form/consultation questions – these are too pre-determined (and often quite technical in focus) and shut off a lot of avenues for debate and discussion…. rather ironic for a consultation on community engagement and empowerment. There is a real need for more open-ended questions that allow some flexibility in how to respond, for responders may wish to respond to different questions to those raised in the document for example.

If you’ve not yet responded to this consultation you still have time to do so. Closes 29th August. (now extended to 26 Sep).

For an alternative analysis of the consultation document see @BaseDrones blog: http://t.co/w37E4VWe and that of @urbaneprofessor: http://t.co/dvWt0JeK

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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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