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August 11, 2009

GHA Board must come clear

Wendy Alexander was one of the champions of the original vision of Glasgow Housing Association and in her letter to the Herald last week she makes it clear that it was based on moving homes into the local ownership of housing associations. She calls on the present GHA board to make it clear if it still favours the original decentralised vision

Wendy Alexander, Labour MSP

Gerry Braiden’s analysis of Glasgow Housing Association rightly points to the complexities involved in assessing its performance (” GHA has taken on a life of its own … it must return to the original vision’ “, The Herald, August 4). Rising tenant satisfaction on the one hand, but slow progress in delivering local community ownership on the other.

There is little doubt GHA’s first chief executive saw his role as moving the homes into the local ownership of other organisations; some were pre-existing housing associations, others were new associations. What is the GHA board’s current vision? Is it still that or a continuation of a “DIY” approach by GHA itself to both investment and management?

The new investment programme was always timetabled to take a decade as rents increasingly funded repairs and improvements, not historic debt. But the ambition was for local community ownership and involvement to lead to rapid management improvements. An old damp house is made infinitely worse by anti-social neighbours, no cleaning of the close, faulty door-entry systems and tardy minor repairs.

GHA argues convincingly that it is better than what went before and so, by implication, its “DIY” approach is the right one. But it was not set up for this purpose. The vision was not one dominant landlord. By choosing to retain so much stock, one monopoly landlord has been traded for another. Sadly, in doing so, it has forfeited the goodwill of many and emboldened its enemies.

Financial circumstances past or present are not an adequate explanation for the emerging ownership pattern. GHA, despite its uniquely challenging stock, has benefited from complete historic debt write-off, a large asset base and more than 70% of its rental income coming from UK taxpayers through housing benefit.

GHA’s mission was to move the houses into local community ownership with a diversity of providers improving management and delivering sustainable investment which avoided mistakes of the past. With that mission largely unrealised, the GHA board appears to be attempting to fulfil a function for which it was not established: long-term, large-scale management and investment. Regulatory concerns were inevitable.

This was never a Treasury-inspired project. It was “made in Scotland”, championed by Donald Dewar, Calum McDonald (then Housing Minister) and, later, myself and others. Donald Dewar was impressed by the achievements of local housing associations in his constituency. The critical figure influencing him was a visionary civil servant, Peter McKinlay, who, as chief executive of Scottish Homes, had overseen the large-scale transfer of its stock to a range of local landlords. If Scottish Homes could move management to local organisations, so could Glasgow.

Critically, Scottish Homes had a leadership committed to moving management to local communities. Can the same be said in Glasgow today?

On financing, the Treasury’s hand was forced by its own previous public commitment in parliamentary answers to Birmingham to full debt write-off following transfer.

There was no case for denying Glasgow the same terms, even if the price tag was unusually high.

The issue now is the best way forward. Welcome new investment has been made possible, as have some important transfers. But “better than the past” is not enough. The board must be clear if it favours the decentralised vision at the outset – or wishes the DIY of recent years to continue.

The scale of Glasgow’s housing challenge means the Scottish Housing Minister should take an interest. I counsel Alex Neil against a partisan approach. Glasgow’s housing was, and is, too big a responsibility for point-scoring. Ten years ago, the weekly steering group I chaired had, at my insistence, known SNP supporters on it. Similarly, the original GHA leadership team seconded the brother of one SNP minister and the husband of another SNP minister, based on their housing expertise. The team was stronger for it.

Such non-partisanship is too rare these days. Ten years ago, it helped build a coalition that commanded tenant confidence. Significant improvements have been made. But management issues must also be addressed. Glasgow deserves better than leaving a tough task half done.