Comment: Voluntary housing in mid-life crisis?

Housing associations continue to make a key contribution to meeting the nation's housing requirements and individual needs.  'Picture: Getty Images
Housing associations continue to make a key contribution to meeting the nation's housing requirements and individual needs. 'Picture: Getty Images
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THE HOUSING associations which emerged in Scotland in the late 1960s to tackle local housing problems all had in common a strong sense of purpose.

Today they have grown and make a valuable contribution to meeting the nation’s housing requirement and individual needs. As pressure for cuts, efficiencies and mergers increases, and as many of those organisations approach a significant birthday, it is a good time to reflect on what the future may hold.

Recently, the debate has focused too much on the organisational and constitutional arrangements rather than the outcomes that housing associations should be delivering and their role in stimulating economic growth. Currently, housing associations across Scotland provide 280,000 homes, just under a third of the total rental stock available. Local authority housing accounts for just over a third, with the remainder of properties to rent held privately.

The housing association sector in Scotland is often wrongly characterised as being largely community owned and controlled. Today’s housing associations are actually very diverse in size, ranging from 20 homes to over 40,000, and in the services they offer. The sector is becoming increasingly segmented as organisations shape themselves for the future.

My own organisation is already an amalgam of two Edinburgh-based housing associations, both founded with a strong sense of purpose. Castle Rock was formed in 1968 by the Scottish Episcopalian Church to tackle homelessness in the capital and Edinvar Housing Association was established in the 1970s to provide affordable accommodation for the Edinburgh University Settlement. Castle Rock Edinvar is now the fourth-largest housing association in Scotland, providing homes for some 7,000 households.

The social challenges have perhaps changed but they still exist. There is a shortage of housing and an ageing population. Housing affordability is an issue and there are deeper pockets of poverty, not fuelled necessarily by rising unemployment but, as the recent Poverty Truth Commission report highlighted, also caused by poor employment practices which are trapping many working Scots on very low wages. No-one anticipated the explosion of reliance on food banks from workers and unemployed alike.

People still aspire to home ownership, but getting a foot on the ladder requires government support. The average first-time buyer is now well into their 30s. For many, achieving the dream of home ownership would have been impossible without the government’s Help to Buy initiative and the mortgage guarantee element of the scheme.

Forty years on, as the not-for-profit housing organisations leave the exuberance of youth, responsibilities of middle age have come to bear. Housing associations are accountable as landlords, employers and mortgage holders. As the sector struggles to balance budgets and make provisions for the future, how can it retain its pioneering spirit and sense of purpose, whilst meeting future national housing requirements and needs of customers?

One response has been the emergence in recent years of larger housing association groups operating in Scotland and across the UK. As part of Places for People, a UK housing and regeneration group with more than 140,000 customers, Castle Rock Edinvar has access to capital markets and funding to continue to build new homes.

As a result, this year we were able to commit to building 1000 new homes in Edinburgh over the next five years.

Scale also gives us the opportunity to operate efficiently and create surplus to reinvest in developing services for customers. We offer home energy advice, money advice and employability advice to tenants, all aimed at increasing disposable income and creating opportunities.

Financial strength also gives us the opportunity to innovate and re-invest back into the communities in which we operate. We have invested in renewable energy to reduce fuel costs and have been able to focus on helping people in our communities to reach their potential through, for example, pioneering creative arts programmes.

Community-based organisations have a valued role to play servicing their communities. Larger organisations and group structure arrangements will play an increasing role in delivering the government’s policy objectives of 30,000 new homes by 2016. It is the mid-sized organisations which face a challenge in making difficult decisions about how they align purpose and ambition with capability and capacity.

If housing associations are to re-focus on their purpose, we need a regulatory and legislative framework which facilitates constitutional change. The RICS Scottish Housing Commission Report published in July 2014 recommends that the Scottish Government puts in place a Change Fund for the social housing sector and that the Scottish Housing Regulator should take a greater role in effecting system performance knowledge and change in Scotland. This will go some way to support innovation and investment, whilst ensuring that the existing landlord/tenant relationships are protected.

• Alister Steele MBE is the managing director of Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association