Shown the door

Shown the door
The Herald Scotland, Stephen Naysmith
28.10.11

Volunteers with local social housing providrs are angry at a proposal to limit their service on boards and committees.

Anger and dismay across Scotland’s housing association sector over plans to insist volunteer organisers move on after six years has been highlighted by a new survey.

The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) is currently consulting on a range of proposals to change the way social landlords in Scotland are monitored and encouraged to improve.

However, one element of the approach being suggested has dominated discussion: The suggestion that all board and committee members should be obliged to seek re-election after three years and should not continue to serve for more than six, except in very exceptional circumstances. In such cases an absolute maximum of nine years is likely to be enforced.

Overnight, board members who have given their local social housing provider a decade, or two, or even more years of service have been outraged to discover their loyalty may now be seen as undesirable. Meanwhile, “new” volunteers who have spent years getting to grips with their role and learning the ropes have been upset to learn their involvement might be short-lived.

In a survey carried out by Employers in Voluntary Housing (EVH), which provides services to the sector and boasts 138 Scottish social housing providers as members, 96% of respondents rejected the regulator’s proposal to limit tenure on boards.

Chief executives and directors of housing associations slammed the plan, variously describing it as ridiculous, insulting, unnecessary and ill-thought out.

Key objections include the fact that many existing board members are already beyond the time limit, while others see the idea as incompatible with the ethos of community-based housing associations and the involvement of local residents and tenants.

Critics say the plan will result in a dramatic loss of expertise and committed volunteers in the sector. Some housing associations and co-ops insist they will be forced to close if volunteers cannot continue to serve for more than six years.

Among the critics was Ian McLean, director of Bridgewater Housing Association in Erskine. He told the EVH survey team: “It is a ridiculous proposal and an insult to the many people who have governed these organisations effectively for many years.”

Kenny Mollins, Chief Executive of Govan Housing Association, added: “There is much to learn for committee members who act in a voluntary capacity and by the time they are experienced they will be required to stand down. This will have a significant impact on stability in the sector.”

Meanwhile, Brenda Tonner, director of Muirhouse Housing Association, warned: “This could potentially mean the end of the organisation. Long-standing members have experience which takes at least five years to develop. Why would a member attend crucial training and development when they know that they are not going to be able to serve the following year?”

While three survey respondents backed some form of time limit, none supported the six-year proposal. EVH asked its members how many members of their boards would be affected by the measure if it were introduced tomorrow – the average was 6.4.

With most housing associations having between seven and 15 members on their boards, the impact was clear to Linda Reid, director of Glasgow West Housing Association, who commented: “Limiting service to two consecutive three-year terms has the potential to wipe out a wealth of expertise and understanding of the association, the community and the sector, bringing significant risk to our governance and ultimately our services.”

Individual board members have also been shocked by the SHR’s approach. Helen Moore, 32, is a relative newcomer to the sector, having served for five years on the board of Glasgow’s Reidvale Housing Assocation. She said: “I still feel I’m getting to grips with policy and legislation. We have members who have served for between 10 and 25 years. To think we could lose that pool of knowledge is quite frightening.

“I can understand they might want to keep things fresh but I don’t believe people would stay involved in the meetings and everything else that is involved unless they were keen and committed.”

Foster Evans, director of EVH, said a key concern expressed in the survey was about the motivation for the changes. “They appear to many of [our survey] respondents to be a blunt instrument to resolve a problem that no-one has yet identified,” he said.

The rules being proposed are adopted from the UK Corporate Governance Code, intended for private sector boards where members are paid, he added, but not suitable for social housing.

“The fact that every type of housing association and cooperative opposes the proposals is particularly important. Some feel it is naiive and others see some kind of hidden agenda to change the character of the housing associations.”

The irony, he claims, is that other proposals SHR is making for changing the regulation of the sector are worthy of debate, but anger over board tenure is overshadowing discussion of them. EVH is calling on the regulator to drop or shelve the time limit, until concerns can be fully explored.

Kay Blair, chair of the new Scottish Housing Regulator, said: “We are consulting on the future approach to regulating social housing. We have set out a wide range of proposals, all of which are geared to meeting our objective. It is essential Registered Social Landlords are well-governed, especially given the increasing complexity of their businesses and the substantial sums of public and private money invested in them. Accountability is critical.

“One of our many proposals is to introduce a maximum period that a person can serve on an RSL’s governing body, and we would give RSLs a number of years to plan for this. Continually refreshing boards is a recognised principle of good governance. What we are proposing would align practice in RSLs with what normally happens in other organisations across the public, voluntary and private sectors.

“This is a consultation. We are actively seeking views and I can assure all respondents that we will consider their responses fully as we finalise our policy.”