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January 16, 2024

Regulator needs regulating

‘Local by default’ is the idea that there should be a presumption in favour of seeking local solutions to society’s challenges and it’s a principle that the Scottish Government seems to be partly embracing with policies such as community wealth building. However, one part of the Scottish Government that has consistently turned a deaf ear to the ‘local by default’ messaging is the Housing Regulator. Years of criticising community based housing associations has resulted in a succession of mergers and takeovers by national housing bodies. Reidvale Housing Association the most recent to fall victim. Why is no one regulating the Regulator?

Chris Clements, Social affairs correspondent, BBC Scotland

It was set up to face down the bulldozers of the old Glasgow Corporation – and became a blueprint for community ownership in Scotland.

But the famed Reidvale Housing Association looks set to be taken out of local hands.

After nearly 50 years of community stewardship in the city’s east end, it is likely to transfer its stock to a nationwide housing group.

Its governing body said an uncertain financial future means it has no choice but to hand over control to Places for People Scotland.

The plan was narrowly backed by a tenants’ vote. Reidvale’s shareholders will now meet on Monday to decide its future.

But amid claims of “dirty tactics”, local campaigners backed by MSPs seek to scupper the deal.

“Before the housing association came on the scene it was pretty dire,” said Denise Dempsey.

When she met with BBC Scotland News, she was handing out leaflets urging neighbours to vote against the proposed transfer.

She continued: “Even still to this day, people still know you from being a wee girl here.

“This was home for us.”

Denise, 54, lived on the neighbourhood’s Bellfield Street when Reidvale Housing Association was established.

Her family lived in the surrounding streets but she had to leave her home as a child when her block was condemned by local authorities.

It was part of a city-wide project in the 1970s to modernise housing and get rid of crumbling tenement blocks linked to poverty.

She returned to the area as a Reidvale tenant 30 years ago and still has family in the neighbourhood.

She said: “The whole thing was a foregone conclusion from the minute Places For People put their motif on the Reidvale website.

“They promise a rent freeze but when that finishes, what will rents go up to?

“I’ll be devastated. The whole heart of this community will be ripped out.”

‘We decided to put up the fight’

Reidvale Housing Association was born out of a battle to protect homes from demolition.

The city authorities planned to tear down tenements in the Dennistoun neighbourhood and move families to new homes in the growing schemes on the outskirts of Glasgow.

A group of residents – led by John Butterly and dubbed the ‘Bathgate Street Mafia’ – banded together to fight the proposals.

“John went absolutely mental and said, ‘In your dreams, not going to happen,'” said Irene McInnes, 75.

“It was either do something or the place was getting demolished.

“So we decided to put up the fight.”

The first committee met in 1972 and Reidvale became one of Scotland’s first community-owned housing associations three years later.

Irene was an owner-occupier but became heavily involved in the establishment of the association.

She went on to run groups for local children and served on the management committee for three decades.

She said: “At the beginning, I went round chapping doors asking people to sell their house to us.

“Asking that is quite a big thing. It was either that or the community was going to flattened.”

Tenements were protected after Reidvale Housing Association was established

That battle against demolition was remembered in a BBC documentary a decade ago.

Most of the tenement blocks were saved John Butterly was awarded an MBE in 1984 for his work. He died in 2001.

Nearly 900 homes are owned by Reidvale Housing Association.

Last year, the average weekly rent for a three-apartment flat was nearly 13% below the Scottish average.

However, in recent years, questions have been raised about its governance and its long-term financial sustainability.

Irene told BBC Scotland News that the committee had struggled to attract new members but had nearly £3m in reserves after paying off its debt.

In 2020, the Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) warned of “very serious weaknesses in the organisation’s governance, financial management and condition of the homes it provides for tenants”.

The watchdog said: “Following an independent review, the management committee of Reidvale decided that the best way for it to address these serious weaknesses was to transfer its homes to another Registered Social Landlord.”

Meanwhile, Reidvale told residents last month that its finances were “not viable” or “adequate to maintain a functioning, ongoing business that can meet its governance and regulatory requirements”.

Rent freeze promised

A new management team was installed in 2021.

After consultation, Places for People Scotland was chosen as a candidate in a potential transfer.

The Edinburgh-based organisation runs more than 7,700 homes. It is part of the larger Places for People Ltd, a Manchester-based association that owns more than 69,000 homes UK-wide.

While its average weekly rates for a three-apartment flat are 18% higher than the Scottish average, it has promised Reidvale a rent freeze until 2029.

It also plans to invest £13.7m improving homes in the neighbourhood.

Last month, 61.8% of tenants voted to approve the deal.

Reidvale’s shareholders will now vote on Monday on whether to proceed.

Katie Smart, Places for People Scotland director, said: “We are a Scottish charity and registered Scottish landlord and have been managing homes in Scotland for over 50 years.

“We are community-focused regardless of whether tenants are in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or elsewhere.

“We work closely with local people and partners to deliver what they need, and where they need it.”

Former committee member Christine Hadden has been a tenant since 1998 and voted for the transfer.

“You could see the area was slowly but surely going downhill,” she said.

“A lot of people are looking for different things. New windows that aren’t draughty. Closes that are more secure.

“It won’t be a wish list. But at least they are attempting to bring these flats up to the 21st century.

“It should’ve been done years ago.”

When asked about concerns raised by local MSPs about the transfer, she replied: “If they can’t bring the money, shut up.

“It’s not them who live here. It’s me and every other tenant.”

‘Dirty tactics’

Labour MSP Paul Sweeney has written to the SHR taking issue with the transfer. He has previously written to the Scottish government alongside Conservative MSP Annie Wells and SNP MSP Ivan McKie.

He called the process “cynical” and involved “dirty tactics” and called on the regulator to intervene.

He told BBC Scotland News: “Just 45% of the total sitting tenants eligible to vote, cast a vote in favour of the transfer.

“It is completely unprecedented for a housing association to attempt to force through a takeover without the overwhelming backing of the tenants.”

He added: “Looking at other housing association takeovers that have happened in Scotland in recent years, the support from tenants has always been over 90% – in this instance, there is no such support.”

The Reidvale management deny regulatory breaches and said it already engages with the SHR.

It said: “It is disappointing that a member of public office continues to make such damaging and unfounded allegations and especially those of a personal nature.

“We remain confident that Reidvale has complied with all legal and regulatory requirements on all transfer matters.”

The SHR said it has “no legislative power to suspend the transfer process” and has offered to meet Mr Sweeney.