How does it feel to leave the sunshine of Australia to solve the problem of Scotland’s worst slums?

How does it feel to leave the sunshine of Australia to solve the problem of Scotland’s worst slums? It helps if you can earn £160,000 in one year

Jean Rafferty

When michael Lennon first came to Glasgow, he and his wife found a beautiful Victorian flat by Kelvingrove Park. It had all the things one looks for in a Glasgow flat – spacious rooms, large windows, fine views. It even had a health club round the corner. Or so they thought – until they went in one day and saw the red curtains of the brothel. It is not a mistake the head of Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) would make now, though he could be forgiven for failing to decipher the nuances of Glasgow’s middle class accommodations. The property Michael Lennon oversees today is not historic or beautiful: it houses some of the most socially deprived people in the developed world.

GHA – the UK’s biggest housing association and Europe’s largest social landlord – faces the monumental task of bringing Glasgow’s crumbling housing up to standard and building 13,000 new homes for rent over the next 10 years. It has also pledged to hand ownership to its tenants , in the biggest and most complex stock transfer ever seen in Britain. Some £360 million will go through the books this year alone, making GHA one of Scotland’s top 10 businesses. Over the next decade the agency expects to invest £1.5 billion.

‘I hope as we go along that we can be seen not just as a good housing association but as an organisation that was brave enough to try new things and set new standards ,’ says Michael Lennon.

In the west of Scotland, the whole issue of housing privatisation is still almost taboo. Many people remain bitterly against the ‘right to buy’ legislation that saw the most desirable council houses go into private hands; many are still protesting that Glasgow City Council was forced by the Scottish Executive to give away its birthright to bankers and businessmen , and had long struggled with the problems of maintaining decent housing without access to its own housing profits; they were forced at one point to suspend all repairs for four years. As well as Executive backing, the new housing association has private sector funding.

Michael Lennon was chief executive of Housing New Zealand Corporation when he got the call to come to Glasgow in 2003. He had intended to return to Melbourne, his wife’s native city, but she knew what his answer would be. He had always had a hankering to come back home to Scotland. When he did he was faced with the Caledonian equivalent of shantytowns – rows of houses in the east end with tin shutters masking the windows and whole floors burnt out by drug addicts; the largest number of high-rise flats in any European city ; homes nobody wanted to live in because they were covered inside with black mould.

Now in the refurbished estates, the houses are all spruced up in those colours that remind you of food – cream, honey, pistachio and gorgeous pale pink like strawberry ice cream. Haghill, once reminiscent of a war-ravaged wasteland, appears transformed and in the past two years, £215 million has been invested in Glasgow properties. But GHA’s recent annual report revealed that not a single new home has yet been built, and Michael Lennon is not short of detractors. ‘They’re queuing up,’ he says cheerfully.

We meet in GHA’s Trongate headquarters. His PR wants to sit in on the interview, just in case she has to kick him under the table. Lennon’s frankness has got him in trouble in the past, most recently when he made a joke about Michael Jackson during a conference address.

More damaging, perhaps, were his comments about Mike Dailly, principal solicitor at Govan Law Centre, whom he dismissed as an ‘ambulance chaser’ after Dailly sought help for tenants in sub-standard multistorey blocks in Ibrox. As GLC is an independent charity, the remark brought condemnation from MSPs of all parties.

Having spent most of his adult life in Australia, Lennon has an Antipodean openness that contrasts with the safe-speak and spin which characterise public life here. His parents emigrated to Adelaide when he was 16.

‘I definitely didn’t want to go to Australia,’ he says. ‘But it brought me out of the Scottish mould of knowing your station and staying in your place. There’s friendliness and frankness about Australians that I really like. I find myself here in the position where people think I’m being almost rude. The style in Australia is in-your-face. People don’t play games. They’ll say, ‘Jeez, you look awful. God, mate, you look crook.’ It’s a really endearing quality.’

Lennon, 49, is unexpectedly dandyish, with a raffish moustache and bouffant white hair. Today, he is wearing a grey checked suit, blue striped shirt and purple tie with yellow dots. He looks a boulevardier, a dilettante, yet his career path from his 20s on involved difficult, challenging jobs. He supervised the labyrinthine finances after the 1979-82 bush fires in the Adelaide Hills when 70 people died and 2000 properties were destroyed. By 35 he was the youngest chief executive officer in south Australia, having laid out a 30-year plan for Adelaide’s infrastructure that covered everything from urban growth patterns to storm water management. As a professor at the universities of Adelaide and South Australia, he restructured the Australian Urban Housing and Research Institute in Melbourne, creating a network of research organisations round Australia and making it into the biggest social science institution in the country.

In New Zealand, he was invited to introduce social housing by prime minister Helen Clark and did so triumphantly, with flats of such a high standard that private developers were copying the specifications. Local people protested beforehand that property values in the area would fall, but the houses were doubling in price as they were being built.

‘The most amazing thing was all the old women who burst into tears when they saw them,’ he says. ‘They said that never in their wildest dreams did they think they would live in places like these. The flats became a huge symbol of what was possible.’

If anything is designed to inspire people to their wildest dreams, it is surely housing . ‘People need a space to sit and reflect in,’ says Lennon. ‘It’s about your heart lifting when you come home, a sense of safety. Your home is a definition of yourself, a place where you feel free to pursue the things that are important to you, a place you spend time with your children, family and friends and have the peace and enjoyment to do that. It’s a place where you can enjoy the outdoors, with a garden or some open space, where you can see the people around you as a pleasure and as a way of protecting yourself. You’d be surprised how much of our housing fails those simple tests.’

Well actually, few Glaswegians would be. Over the past 100 years the city’s housing has been constantly flattened, only to rise again, phoenix-like, if sometimes with decidedly wonky feathers … all those tower blocks that were demolished before the city ever paid for them; all those schemes designed by famous architects who would never dream of living in them.

‘Every 30 or 40 years, Glasgow’s gone through mass clearances and new builds,’ says Lennon. ‘At one point they built flats in the Gorbals that cost more to build than a semi in Bearsden. What were we doing? What were we thinking? There’s an intellectual arrogance to all that, asserting what people will have, asserting standards that you wouldn’t apply to yourself or your own family.’

His family (he has two daughters and a son) have always lived in large houses with bedrooms for everyone and extra rooms for doing things in. That’s what you can afford when you’re paid the kind of salary that caused huge controversy recently, when it was revealed that Lennon had earned £160,000 in a year. The figure included two annual bonuses which were paid in one year.

‘That sort of criticism goes with the territory,’ he says. ‘If you’re in a prominent job and overseeing £700 million of commercial assets you expect that level of scrutiny.’

His own background was very far from the way he lives now. Lennon came from the Ayrshire mining village of Hurlford. There were seven children crammed into a council house – three sisters in one bedroom, four brothers in another. ‘We knew each other very well,’ he says drily.

Theirs was an end-row house with a big garden where Lennon’s father, a shoemaker, grew fruit and vegetables. He says they didn’t grow up feeling they were poor, though laughs when he admits he envied other children having wrapped chocolate biscuits – his mother made fresh apple cake and shortbread. Neither were the other kids’s houses chaotic. They had wardrobes and clothes rails with everything pressed. In the Lennons’ house there was home-brewed beer exploding because his father had kept it too close to the boiler; three sisters squabbling over clothes and fighting for the mirror; and usually fabrics all over one room as his mother did upholstery piecework at home. She was disabled, having had polio as a child, yet she and his father slept on the sofa for years – their bedroom was turned into a study for the children, many of whom went on to university.

His parents’ aspirations were emotional, not material – his father loved poetry and his mother music – but when they went to Australia they were finally able to buy their own house, for $1000. ‘It was their pride and joy ,’ he says. ‘They felt the entire move to Australia was justified because they owned this house.’

Those of us who find the vagaries of individual mortgages baffling can’t understand why tenants would want to take on such a monumental task as owning and running whole estates. The irony of course is that tenants’ choice has been forced on them by years of government legislation, years of governments refusing to allow councils to use the money from selling their housing stock.

Michael Lennon is paid to make big decisions. And while many in the west of Scotland cling to a vanishing dream of public ownership, Lennon is not so timid. He aims to break up GHA ahead of schedule, transferring 50% of the stock by 2007 or 2008. He will, of course, eventually make himself redundant, though that prospect doesn’t worry him. ‘I’m terrified of a job for life,’ he says. ‘I worked in the civil service in my early 20s and thought I was going to die. I used to dream about going to work with a cardigan and slippers on.’

He may not have any choice. Bob Allan, his predecessor in the job, resigned after six months on sick leave amid rumours that he was being forced out of his job by the Executive because the stock transfer was taking longer than expected.

The complexities of Lennon’s role are immense. Transferring Glasgow’s housing stock is like handing over an octopus; just when you think one problem has been solved another tentacle shoots out. It is not enough to assemble boards of committed tenants; there have to be experts from the worlds of finance, architecture, and management to support them. Above all Lennon has to satisfy the stubborn, mouthy, iconoclastic people of Glasgow. One of the many astonishing figures that have emerged from GHA is that only 6% of their tenants are in full-time employment. The problems go beyond just housing.

‘How do we turn these places into homes? How do we dig deeper into transforming the life opportunities of the people who live there?’ asks Lennon. All of Glasgow is waiting to find out.