Social Housing

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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‘Mixing it Up’ – Can Tenure-Mix Help Overcome Social Distance?

Posted by admin on December 01, 2011
community, housing policy, housing tenure / 4 Comments

Last week I was teaching my class about mixed communities policy, and in the seminar that followed we were discussing our own attitudes towards living in socially mixed neighbourhoods and how tenure-mix might alleviate poverty. Now, as a housing researcher I am very critical of the evidence base underpinning this idea:

Mixed Communities

  • I find the ‘role model’ idea very patronising (in a nutshell this theory suggests social renters can become better citizens by living next door to home-owners … seriously?!)
  • I don’ think housing policy on its own can address the problems of concentrated poverty (wealth also needs to be redistributed via person centred as well as place-based solutions)
  • Research suggests home-owners and social renters don’t really interact on mixed-tenure estates (there still seems to be segregation within some estates)

Despite all of the above I still find the ideal of social mix an attractive one because of its potential to help overcome social distance.  And here’s why …. one of the things that struck me in the conversations with my students is that social housing is very much an alien concept to them. Few of them know social housing tenants personally, and so are too ready to accept popular stereotypes perpetuated in the tabloids which renders such people and places as ‘problematic’ (see Sean Damer’s class book for example).

This is in stark contrast to my own childhood experience in North Lanarkshire – a local authority dominated by council housing. I grew up in social housing and even now live in an ex-council house. My housing estate (or ‘scheme’ as we would call it in Scotland) is comprised of a mix of renters and owners, and to be honest that’s one of its endearing features. You can’t tell (aesthetically) which homes are bought and which are rented, and both are pepper-potted at the street-level, which allows more social interaction across tenures. Having experienced social mix first-hand I have a very different view of social housing from my students, because I can more easily separate the moral panic about ‘sink estates’ and ‘schemes’ from the reality of life in working class communities.

To me, mixing people of different backgrounds together (whether in the context of housing & neighbourhoods, comprehensive schools, a national health service etc) is key to bridging social distance and emphasising the common bonds that bind us all together.  Physical segregation by contrast reinforces differences.  Arguably one of the strengths of social housing in Scotland in its hey day was that it was home to a broad cross section of the population (it wasn’t just for the ‘poor’).  In a Scottish context tenure-mix has also been really important for social mobility by allowing ‘aspiring’ households to remain in their local community, instead of leaving it in search of better (often private) housing markets elsewhere.  This is probably the bracket I’d put myself in, as where I live now is only a few miles away from where I grew up as a child.  And I have a strong place attachment to the area.

So despite my hostility to the evidence base surrounding ‘tenure-mix’ as a solution to concentrated poverty, I have been pondering that perhaps mixed communities aren’t always a bad thing.  Nor does it always equate with gentrification as some on the left have argued (although in some circumstances it can do – see for example the work of Kirsteen Paton on Partick in Glasgow).  Would be interested in other people’s views on this, as I know many housing researchers are critical of tenure (and social) mix  – often for very good reasons.

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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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