Joint approach can knock GHA into shape
Douglas Robertson, The Herald
Glasgow Housing Association for a long time has failed to meet the objectives set by governments and in recent weeks ministers have come out quite strongly about its business plan and failure to deliver what the people of Glasgow voted for.
It is no surprise that the government has decided that enough is enough and what we are seeing now with the council and government is a coming together of different views but similar ambitions.
The SNP administration, and its coalition predecessors, thought this was a transitional vehicle which would dismantle itself. It was to be a different type of organisation and not a continuation of the old housing department.
This has been the constant theme for as long as the GHA has been set up. But minister after minister failed to get to grips with it. The last one, Stewart Maxwell, dodged it altogether, until we have now got to the point where the council and government want to draw a line under it.
GHA talks of wanting to be an agency for renewal and regeneration, not what anyone was envisaging, and I do not think anyone expected it to take on so many staff. It is just growing and growing.
The last two chief executives, Michael Lennon and Taroub Zahran, may argue that the failure to break up the GHA is not their fault, that it was not financially possible.
It may be more difficult to argue with allowing it to take on a life of its own, a proposition not acceptable to the council. And despite repeated noises that this is not an acceptable position, GHA has continued to ignore them.
We now appear to have a minister (Alex Neil) willing to take on GHA and to follow through on threats issued last year by Nicola Sturgeon.
I think a joint approach by the council and government can force GHA to achieve what it was set out to do, and give smaller housing organisations a realistic role in renewal and regeneration.
What can the government do? GHA was set up to access private finance but is bank-rolled in part through grants from the Scottish Government. Cutting off that grant income would seriously curtail its development aspirations.
The council can ensure that the regeneration agenda is in keeping with how the government wants it delivered, by local authorities.
Public money is increasingly difficult to come by and Mr Neil now has an opportunity to ensure tenants get what they originally voted for.
Writing might be on the wall for GHA
Gerry Braiden, The Herald
The Scottish Government and Labour-run Glasgow City Council are pulling ranks in a pincer movement to squeeze the country’s largest social landlord out of £1bn of housing development, and dilute any power and ambitions the agency has.
In an attempt to effectively dismantle the very body it created six years ago with the £800m-plus backing of the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the council has secured the support of its Nationalist rivals in government to reduce the role and responsibilities of Glasgow Housing Association.
The Herald can reveal that last night city council leader Steven Purcell and Glasgow’s SNP group leader James Dornan met new housing minister Alex Neil to discuss a document that will be presented to GHA, addressing what one source called the landlord’s ‘dysfunctionality’.
Sources close to both Mr Purcell and Mr Neil have said that if the government accepts what the council is proposing, it would ‘kill off the GHA as we know it’.
The meeting was scheduled to also include representatives of GHA and civil servants but was scaled down to just the politicians at the last minute.
The joint approach comes amid a major debacle over the multimillion-pound contract to run GHA’s maintenance of tens of thousands of homes, with the plans in disarray just days before a ‘repairs revolution’ was to commence.
Ambitions knocked down
Gerry Braiden, The Herald
For the second time in as many weeks, Steven Purcell, the leader of Glasgow City Council, last night sat down with housing minister Alex Neil with only one item on their agenda – Glasgow Housing Association.
At stake in the discussions is not just the influence over potentially £1bn in investment but the homes and well-being of around 50,000 people, as well as how hundreds of millions of public funds is used.
After last night’s talks the next move will be to put that into action and take the GHA to task on its track record and ambitions.
None of the parties scheduled to attend the latest summit at the Scottish Parliament was prepared to discuss their longer-term agendas but sources close to both politicians insist Labour Glasgow and the SNP Government both plan to restrict the quango’s operation so much it will fail to recognise itself.
When as Chancellor he signed the £800m cheque allowing his party to give birth to Europe’s biggest social landlord, who would have thought that six years on Gordon Brown would join forces with his ideological rivals to dismantle it.
So what went wrong?
Although the early years of GHA have been characterised by dispute, this has largely been with smaller housing organisations demanding it break up as part of the promised ‘second stage transfer’.
But in the past 18 months a new wrangle has emerged with Glasgow City Council.
Eager to distance itself from the authority and under pressure to be seen to be taking on board European procurement legislation, the council’s wholly-owned subsidiary, City Building, the former building department, lost the multi-million pound contract to maintain GHA’s homes on Glasgow’s south side.
When the idea that GHA would actively seek another contractor began gathering currency last March, one senior council source told The Herald: ‘If they think they can shaft us on this maintenance contract they are kidding themselves.’
It was a threat GHA believes is being followed through, with the council attempting to curtail the agency’s ambitions to evolve into a major property developer and a landlord on a national footing.
It is not alone in its theory.
One major player in the housing sector said: ‘Of course this is the City Building contracts. This is the council’s baby. It’s their staff and the vehicle for Steven Purcell to deliver his apprenticeships. Mess with that and you’ve got a war on your hands.’
Since then GHA has published drafts of its business plan, making clear its ambitions to get into major regeneration and expand its influence, as well as recruiting a team of experts in the field who are believed to have a combined salary in excess of £2m.
But the council has argued that regeneration was its business and that millions of pounds of public and rent payers’ money was being spent on a team with no remit.
The GHA, in response, has privately said many of its tenants have no faith in the council to deliver transformation and want it to do so instead.
There is a lot to lose.
Under a planned government pilot, GHA and the council were to have a joint role in regenerating three deprived areas of Glasgow, potentially moving onto eight. That could give them influence over as much as £1bn in future investments.
In recent months senior council officials have stormed out of meetings, while senior GHA executives have even refused to attend them.
One senior figure in the Labour administration has gone as far as accusing the agency of ‘building the slums for the future’.
However, a civil war between the two biggest bodies in the nation’s biggest city reached another level in early February when the Scottish Government, via Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, let its views on GHA known.
In a scathing, almost catty, letter to GHA’s chairwoman, Sandra Forsythe, Ms Sturgeon questions the ‘realism’ of the body’s plans to expand into property development across the west of Scotland and doubts GHA’s ability to ‘recognise and acknowledge the environment it operates in’.
Ms Sturgeon’s letter also states: ‘I am concerned that you appear to have developed the plan without being absolutely certain that they (the council) were content with the direction you were setting. This is very unfortunate.
‘While I do not share all the council’s views, I do see a degree of alignment between some of my thinking and theirs, particularly relating to getting the basics right for tenants, completing your investment programme, progressing second stage transfer and generally improving tenants’ lives and opportunities.
‘Those in themselves are huge tasks which will require dedication and focus to deliver well and to realise your ambitions of being an A graded organisation.’
Just yesterday, on the same day the key protagonists were expected to meet at parliament, it emerged that the supposed source of the turbulence, the award of a former City Building maintenance contract to a company known as Connaught, was in chaos.
Heralded as a ‘repairs revolution’, Connaught was to remedy what the GHA has said was countless complaints about the quality of City Building’s work. Days before Monday’s contract was expected to kick in, it emerged that to take on a public contract, Connaught, a private firm, had to underwrite pensions worth up to £20m.
The blow was delivered by the Strathclyde Pension Fund, administered by the city council.
Some in GHA suspect sabotage but the upshot is City Building will continue as was for at least a month.
A GHA spokeswoman said: ‘The contract was due to be provided by two contractors, City Building in the north-east and north-west of the city and Connaught Partnerships Ltd in the south of the city.
‘We have been advised that a pensions issue has arisen between Strathclyde Pension Fund and Connaught Partnerships Ltd which Connaught is working to resolve.
‘In order to guarantee continuity of service for our customers in all parts of the city, and to protect the employment and pension rights of the workers affected, GHA is making arrangements with City Building LLP to provide cover for the south of the city in the interim, if necessary.’
Sources at the council, within the Labour Party and SNP have a different take, that the risk to 250 jobs and the pension rights of the staff reflects on the ineptitude of both the contract provider and awarding body.
If, as sources close to the minister and council leader suggest, the meeting of minds is about to move on to another level the effect could be devastating for GHA.
One thing even GHA admits privately as a potential option is that the government remove the £168m it has to build 2400 new homes on the basis that after six years just 600 completed properties is not progress enough.
Again, the landlord has strong views that the council is partly responsible here by not releasing land quick enough, but any removal of the new-build money would dilute the organisation’s role.
SNP sources say Mr Neil may cut GHA out of the ‘transformation areas’, such as those affected by the Commonwealth Games, and curb any influence it would have on how investment would be spent to transform neighbourhoods.
Ms Sturgeon’s letter also made specific reference to problems with governance and SNP sources have told The Herald that, as difficult as it may be to bring about, a new board of ministerial appointments could be installed, perhaps even a new senior GHA management team.