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July 1, 2015

Emperor’s new clothes

In response to my musings on community empowerment in the last edition, supporter Tommy Lusk from West Dunbartonshire offers an intriguing, albeit somewhat more jaundiced perspective, on the same theme. To illustrate his point he cites a series of internal shenanigans that have recently afflicted his housing association, and concludes that the language of community empowerment is being used to obscure the same old, top down, centralist attitudes and behaviour. Unless those with the power are prepared to step aside and allow communities to get on with empowering themselves, he thinks it’s nothing more than emperors donning new clothes.

Tommy Lusk

Dear Angus,

I like what you say in the introduction to the newsletter.

However, “Empowerment”, I believe, is an outdated term that has been high jacked by the powers that be and is, in practice, viewed as paternalistic by many these days. A colleague who studied Community Development at Glasgow Uni made some sense of it to me. Empowering is what authorities want to give to communities; which means they can also take it back.

Communities don’t need anyone to empower them. What they need is for centralised and incorporated institutions to get out of their way.

For example:

My particular interest at the moment is my landlord, Bellsmyre Housing Association in Dumbarton. A couple of years ago the Director was replaced by an Interim Director. Tenants and members weren’t informed and it was back page news on their newsletter 3 months later.

6 months after that,  we were told there were problems and that the best solution was a partnership with a much bigger Housing Association based in Dundee, who had recently taken over our neighbours in Renton. Caledonia Housing Association has itself only existed for a few years as it is the product of an amalgamation of Housing Associations in Perth and Dundee.

All of the above happened in between AGM’s, and no one on the Committee stopped and thought that maybe this was an issue where they needed to consult with members. I have to say that I am a Member but one who hasn’t attended AGM’s for a number of years, because it feels like a waste of my time and I’d be endorsing the lip service involved.

The Government recently introduced a requirement that tenants have to be balloted on partnership proposals.

Over the past 6 months we have been inundated with information on how this is a good thing for tenants and therefore we should vote in favour of it.

With more time on my hands than I have had for years I decided to take an interest.

I have asked for information that would help me understand what the problems were and why this is the best solution. They tell us problems were highlighted in a report, an options appraisal was carried out, and an action plan was written, but none of it is available to Tenants or Members because of confidentialities.

Neither The Housing Association nor The Housing Regulator seems to understand or is prepared to acknowledge that this might be an issue.

They point to the “independent advisor” who Bellsmyre HA has appointed to hold meetings and send us newsletters. The advisor is paid for by Bellsmyre HA and says pretty much the same as the two HA’s. There is no sense of weighing up the pro’s and cons, for example.

They also make a big deal about HA staff visiting every household and answering questions, because it demonstrates that they are listening. They don’t seem to understand it can also be construed as cold calling and canvasing (canvasing for an election in a one party system). People can’t ask questions about the problems because they have no information beyond, ironically, they’re Governance issues. Apparently, nowadays, Governance only relates to service provision, it doesn’t have anything to do with fair representation.

The pattern of events whereby a Director is replaced by an Interim because of problems is not unusual. It has been happening across HA’s for a few years.

The Scottish Housing Regulator, who oversees these changes, has been consistently telling us since the first day they were formed that their objective is to safeguard and promote the interest of tenants.

I might have some sympathy for them if it was an aspiration, but no, they have been doing it from day one allegedly. I don’t know anyone who has even seen a SH Regulator never mind be represented by one. I doubt if they have the resources to take on such a responsibility.

For me, the most telling aspect of my example is this; For years tenants of our Housing Association were told that everything was tickety boo. Then, out of the blue, it turns out that they haven’t been. However, no one above ordinary tenant level seems to understand that this may cause a credibility and confidence issue. If we were not getting the full truth before, why should we believe we’re getting the full truth now?

Surely the new regime should be falling over themselves to be transparent, in order to regain the confidence of their tenants? Surely such a thing would be a priority for The Scottish Housing Regulator?

This is my experience. Most of it may be particular to our locality. However, there is a National Regulator backing it. 

Personally I believe it is replicated throughout many of our “democratic” institutions.

Marketing is the thing now. If authorities say something often enough many people will get tired of pointing out to them that they don’t actually do what they say they do. Indeed, I suspect an inverse correlation between the number of times an organisation says it does something and its actual track record.

So, for example, our independent advisor used the word “independent” 4 times within the first four paragraphs of their first newsletter.

For a country whose aspirations towards independence has exploded over recent months, it concerns me that the independence movement is dominated by an independence party that doesn’t yet seem to have any new ideas for local and community independence.

Maybe they will come in time. I liked the document that accompanied the Common Weal, Red Lines Campaign, Return Power To People.

We think we are democratic, but when we compare ourselves to many examples from Europe, it doesn’t look so good.


Tommy Lusk