Blog: The good old days of municipal housing – thanks but no

An article painting a bleak picture of housing associations in Scotland appeared recently in Bella Caledonia and was republished on the Scottish Community Alliance website. Here the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations offers a defence of local community-controlled housing associations and co-operatives.

As the leading membership and campaigning body for local community-controlled housing associations and co-operatives (CCHAs), the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF) was extremely disappointed about both the article itself and the fact that the Scottish Community Alliance (SCA) felt it appropriate to post it on its website. The Forum (along with EVH) has since withdrawn from SCA.

The article includes a poorly evidenced depiction of CCHAs and shows a complete lack of understanding of the contribution that CCHAs have made to their communities over the last 40 years, both as good landlords and as community anchors.

The claim that the ‘community-based housing association movement is something of a misnomer’ is especially galling. This is ill-informed and extremely disrespectful to local people who have previously served on, and currently sit on, CCHA management committees.

“Our sector isn’t perfect but no-one can argue with the high standards of service tenants enjoy.”

GWSF’s 66 members have democratic constitutions and are governed by around 1,000 management committee members, the majority of whom are local residents, and who control assets of over £7,000 million and employ over 2,000 staff. How can the article claim that committees are ‘largely toothless’?

Voluntary committee members would not recognise the version of community ownership ‘more akin to incorporation, regulation, de-politicisation and governmental responsibilisation’ described in the article. The reality is that these are local people dedicated to making a difference in their communities.

What’s really behind this article is that anachronistic ‘socialist’ belief that there was never anything as good as municipal housing. Try telling that to tenants in areas like Easterhouse and Castlemilk, where associations came into being to put right the long-standing failings of ‘public housing’.

Quite how the author equates the old municipal world with tenant participation and tenants’ rights is beyond us: councils and councillors of the 1980s and before knew exactly what was best for tenants and didn’t need to waste time asking them.

Our sector isn’t perfect. There have been governance-related failings in a small minority of associations, and GWSF and its partners are working hard to try to ensure problems are addressed and avoided in the future. But no-one can argue with the high standards of service tenants enjoy. The average 2.3 hours it takes CCHAs to carry out emergency repairs is a far cry from the dark days of unresponsive municipal landlords.

“On top of providing high quality affordable homes and highly responsive housing management services, CCHAs’ contribution has always extended beyond the bricks and mortar. “

One of the article’s many failings is its mixing up of the English and Scottish housing association sectors. Down south, associations have historically competed against each other to drive down grant rates, leading to significant rent increases. Here this has largely been avoided because the sector – and successive governments – have believed in keeping social housing genuinely affordable to people on low incomes. Challenges remain if we’re to keep things that way, but the will is there to do it.

And it really would be good if the author could get at least some of his facts right. Second stage transfer in Glasgow saw 20,000 homes go not to local housing organisations but to existing community controlled housing associations.

On top of providing high quality affordable homes and highly responsive housing management services, CCHAs’ contribution has always extended beyond the bricks and mortar.  With local people leading, CCHAs have been involved in myriad wider role activities as they have sought to enhance physical regeneration with social and economic regeneration, making their communities stronger and better places to live in.

Community ownership means that our members re-invest rental income locally in their housing and communities. Total turnover is more than £300 million each year – and this is used by most CCHAs to buy services as locally as possible.

The development of the CCHA movement is a fantastic and unique Scottish success story. It’s a pity that the author of this article didn’t take the time to uncover that story and has instead relied on glib soundbites dressed up as evidence-based research.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has offered its own response to the article here.

This blog was originally published on the GWSF website.