Bruce Forbes: Time for SHR to end the ‘toxic’ atmosphere around regulation

Last week’s article in Scottish Housing News highlighting the lack of adequate governance at the Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) will be of concern to many in the sector. Effectively, we have a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”, writes Bruce Forbes.

Bruce Forbes: Time for SHR to end the 'toxic' atmosphere around regulation

Bruce Forbes

There are serious issues at play here. The response from the SHR confirming that 11 out of 12 of their statutory interventions were taken without SHR Board approval and that only verbal reports were made at Board level beggars belief.

The statement in response to the issues raised by Scottish Housing News that “Our decision-making in each case has been consistent with our standing orders and operation of delegation agreed by our Board” made me laugh out loud. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious and had major implications for thousands of Housing Association and Co-operative tenants. Yes - the same tenants that the SHR keeps reminding everyone it is their duty to protect.

If this response had been made by an organisation regulated by the SHR, I am certain that the first thing that would need to be reviewed would be the standing orders and delegated authority of that Housing Association as these procedures would clearly not be considered by the SHR as fit for purpose.

Prior to my retirement in September, the grapevine was buzzing with rumours about SHR staff, Board appointees and Special Managers involved in tearing apart some Housing Associations for relatively minor errors or indiscretions that could have been easily resolved by constructive dialogue.

There were also rumours of the SHR itself becoming confused as to the extent of its regulatory role and powers, with indirect SHR involvement prompting action which led to staff members not only having their reputation ruined, but in some cases, being sacked by Boards made up of SHR appointees. Worryingly, it was believed that many of these cases started with vindictive whistle-blowing by former Association staff and tenants with less than honourable intentions.

Put simply, the atmosphere was toxic. To then discover that nearly all of these interventions had been taken by third-tier SHR staff without SHR Board approval or written reports, seems to confirm just how much is at stake here and how broken the relationship between the Regulator and the regulated is.

In the 30 years that I worked for Housing Associations and Co-operatives, it was always a badge of honour and a reassurance that we were subject to a regulatory regime. For most of that time, the relationship between the Regulator and the regulated was respectful and constructive. This is clearly no longer the case when critics of any aspect of the regulatory regime are now only heard “off the record” for fear of retribution by a Regulator for speaking out.

This cannot continue. Regardless of individual errors or some Housing Associations failing to change quickly enough in a different environment, the vast majority of Housing Association staff and voluntary Committee Members over the last 40 years have improved social housing in Scotland beyond recognition while some other public services have failed miserably, despite the allocation of much more plentiful public funding.

So come on SHR, come on the SFHA, let’s get it together and return to a situation where the regulatory regime is respected and the relationship is constructive. 

And finally, if necessary, come on the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament - make sure they do in order that the focus is on the big issue - continuing the fight against homelessness and delivering safe, secure and affordable homes for the poorest families in Scotland.

  • Bruce Forbes was director of Ormiston People’s Housing Co-operative for six years and director of Angus Housing Association for 24 years
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