Not waving but drowning: so who’s to blame?


Robert Armour questions whether blame for a housing association's continued governance woes firmly at the door of those running it 

14th March 2018 by Robert Armour 1 Comment

When Brenda Higgins, chairwoman of Wishaw and District Housing Association (WDHA), sent out a letter to stakeholders last week re-confirming (something like) 94% of its tenants were satisfied with its service, you could instantly tell it was a vain attempt to bury bad news in a hastily dug shallow grave in the dead of night.    

The gist of the missive was this: 'The housing regulator has decided for whatever reason it doesn’t think we’re good enough to run our own affairs. Why, we don’t know, but since 2016 it has forcibly installed a manager to run OUR organisation and installed trustees to oversee the running of OUR organisation. And, for whatever misaligned reason, it wants to continue putting its oar into OUR waters.

'But, Faithful Stakeholders, forget about that. The real evidence of success is the fact a hastily prepared survey sometime last year determined for absolute unequivocal fact we’re actually very good because - and here’s all the proof you need - when tenants call up to report a blocked u-bend, we generally turn up on time. And we fix it with a smiley face. So, what does the Scottish Housing Regulator know about anything? It doesn’t fix U-bends. It don’t mow your lawn. And it can’t deal with bad neighbours. Like us.'

Last year I phoned up local MSP Clare Adamson after the latest regulator’s report yet again put the boot into its governance, just like it did three times after this. Being a straight-talking type, I asked if the chief executive Niall Gordon (pictured below) should resign in the off chance new blood could turn the failing, ailing 1,000-homes organisation around. A legitimate question for a journalist I thought. Little did I know that Clare had met with Niall the week before and was perplexed – nay shocked – I should be asking about his resignation.  Apparently he never mentioned any problems as they met in his office. “This wasn’t his doing,” she assured me. “Niall Gordon walked into this mess.”

Niall’s excuse – as communicated via Clare Adamson MSP because he won't respond to my calls – is it all went topsy-turvey in 2010 when the body bought the derelict former Tesco site off the Main Street, about three years before his tenure. WDHA had big plans, so much so £3m of tenants and Scottish Government cash went on the purchase and feasibility of the site. But eight years later – five of which have been in Gordon’s command - that site hasn’t even seen a spade full of topsoil. That ongoing debacle exposed deeper management and financial issues and they show no sign of a quick fix. But it’s no-one’s fault it seems. The bloke in control won’t resign because it’s not his fault. And the woman in control of him won’t resign because his fault is not her fault. That’s what I’m being told.

I went to the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations – the national representative body for Scotland's housing associations and co-operatives – to see what it thought considering the pretty sizable problems. My thinking was at least it’ll give me a line and if not defend the sector in some kind of vague statement we’re all too used to receiving at TFN. But no: it doesn’t comment on members apparently, even when those members aren’t doing what they should be doing.

The bloke in control won’t resign because it’s not his fault and the woman in control of him won’t resign because his fault is not her fault

In desperation I then knocked on the charity regulator’s door who said they were “aware” of the stuff going on. I don’t know what that meant but I think it was saying the other regulator is taking care of this one so we’ll let it get on with that.

Lastly, in search of a bit of condemnation, I called the Scottish Government. It did say it wanted the problems sorted but doesn’t seem too worried £3m of its cash – which is really ours too – seems to have had the same kind of return you’d get if you walked into Ladbrokes and put it on a limbless horse in a race it wasn't running. It has "faith in the housing regulator" it said to take the “appropriate” action.

Call me old fashioned but when the highest power in the sector says you can’t run your own affairs, you have failed in leadership and those who oversee the work – the trustees – are also failing, you might question whether it’s time to bite the bullet for the good of your community and step down.

Robert Armour is a reporter at Third Force News.

27th March 2018 by Tommy Lusk

Come on TFN this is not the first example where The SHR has appointed Directors and Board Members. They do it all the time. They have the power to make Wishaw HA more open and transparent, but it's not their practice anywhere. Look at Ferguslie HA, Bellsmyre HA, and many other HA's where tenants were not only kept in the dark, but were regularly misinformed. That's what their satisfaction surveys are for: They're carried out as part of The Social Housing Charter, and you'll be hard pushed to find a HA that doesn't blow it's own trumpet on the back of huge percentage ratings........including troubled HA's like Wishaw or Ferguslie or Bellsmyre. When will TFN take a look at how HA's under approval of The Regulator keep genuine tenant participation in check? The attempt of Brenda Higgins to hide behind dodgy stats in not isolated. It's systemic. It's in the handbook The Scottish Housing Regulator issues to Interim Directors and Appointed Board Members.