Why governance style matters
The governance crisis at Places for People Group could have happened to any number of other social landlords, the group's chair has told Inside Housing.Speaking following the Housing Corporation's decision to remove PfP from supervision (Inside Housing, 23 July), Zenna Atkins says similar difficulties could still occur elsewhere. The rapid growth experienced by many housing associations over recent years means governance procedures have not always kept pace.PfP's difficulties hit the headlines in September 2003 when five board members were facing expulsion following a row over the relationship between then chair Sebert Cox and chief executive David Cowans. At the time, Inside Housing reported the split focused on a transfer deal and a pay rise handed to Mr Cowans.Today, Ms Atkins is keen to focus on the changes that have taken place since then. And, while PfP may be the most high-profile case, she does not believe it is unique.She says: ‘The organisation had grown up and grown enormously and some of the governance pressures and governance styles hadn't accelerated at the same speed.'I actually believe it happens in most fast-growing organisations in the public sector. Fortunately for other associations they have been able to look and learn. Hopefully, they won't have to go through what we went through.'The issues at PfP, she says, ‘centred around a high-level board disagreement and that disagreement, as I understand it, really focused on styles'.She adds: ‘Because it broke very publicly the Housing Corporation were left with very little option but to come in with the full weight of the sanctions that they hold.'That meant some serious soul searching at PfP, which faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Consultants from the Office for Public Management and Institute of Directors were also involved.The corporation's sanctions formally came to an end last week, when the corporation removed PfP from supervision. The change in status means PfP now has shadow partnering status.While not immediately able to join the corporation's list of 71 partnering associations, PfP will get the chance to pick up the baton if any of the 71 slip up or find they have overcommitted themselves.Not gaining partnering status immediately is no surprise to Ms Atkins.‘I wouldn't expect them to change the rules simply because we are out of supervision,' she says. But she adds that it is simply a question of time.‘My feeling is the Housing Corporation would want the big players in there. I think it's unlikely someone will trip up. I think what will happen is that some of the organisations will realise they have overcommitted.'Ms Atkins also plays down the effect that it has had on the organisation, which still managed to come second in the league of top housing association developers earlier this year.She is keen to stress that PfP remains pioneering. The organisation is developing an arm called Renovate, which aims to develop the skills needed by the group.It also has a partnership with Training for Life, which runs projects to provide work and training opportunities.So will PfP be back at the top of the development table next year? Ms Atkins claims it doesn't matter and that what counts is that PfP is able to create sustainable communities in places where people want to live.She says: ‘For me none of this is about building the size of the organisation.'And the difficulties have had their positive side. ‘Although this has been bloody painful it's also been a fantastic learning opportunity.‘In some ways Places for People has done the sector a great service.'