Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ministerial mission

Keith Brown has been in charge of Scottish social housing for less than 12 months but in that time he has helped shape the sector for years to come. Martin Hilditch finds out how

Keith Brown is about to stamp his mark on Scottish housing. We meet in a plush (if cosy) boardroom in a corner of the Scottish Parliament just days before the government publishes the Scottish social housing charter - setting out the precise standards and outcomes that landlords must meet and deliver.

It’s a big moment for the sector - and Mr Brown too. After all, his fingerprints are all over the document that will influence social housing in Scotland for years to come. Quite apart from the charter, 1 April also marked the launch of the new social housing regulatory regime in Scotland.

All in all, it’s not a bad return from the 11 months since he took on the role vacated by his popular predecessor Alex Neil, who was promoted to cabinet secretary for infrastructure and investment following the Scottish National Party’s landslide victory in the Scottish election last May.

Big shoes to fill
Mr Brown acknowledges he had a tough act to follow. ‘He had done a very good job,’ he says of Mr Neil. ‘At every engagement I went to after I got the job everyone told me how good Alex Neil was.’ He grins. ‘It got a bit tedious.’

While Mr Brown is clearly relaxed about this there is obviously an element of truth to it. When asked what Mr Brown’s major challenges were on taking the risk, David Bookbinder, head of policy with the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, states simply: ‘One was that his name wasn’t Alex Neil.’

Surely though, the publication of the charter marks the moment he emerges once and for all from Mr Neil’s shadow. So what kind of influence does he want the charter to have? And what other plans does he have for the Scottish housing sector?

The charter has certainly changed dramatically from an initial draft which was published last summer. That set out more than 70 outcomes and standards that landlords would have to meet - a prospect that filled most with horror. Even the Scottish Housing Regulator suggested that the vast number of proposed outcomes would ‘make it very challenging to develop a meaningful and manageable regulatory assessment and reporting framework’ in its consultation response.

The final charter takes a dramatically different approach - slashing the number of outcomes to just 16.

‘I think we have got it right [now],’ Mr Brown states ‘There was a duty to boil it down into its essentials.’

One requirement that remains in the final charter is that landlords must meet the Scottish housing quality standard by April 2015. By coincidence on the day we meet, the Scottish Housing Regulator publishes a report which suggests that more than 24,000 homes in Scotland will not be up to standard by the deadline.

So are some landlords bound to fail this requirement? Mr Brown is adamant not.

‘All landlords should be meeting this target,’ he states categorically. After this rather direct start, however, Mr Brown’s tone softens. ‘To be fair they have made great progress at a time of financial constraint,’ he adds quickly. When pushed he gives a half acknowledgement that some landlords ‘are further ahead than others’. But he makes it clear that the plan is not simply to snipe at the worst performing landlords from the sidelines.

‘It often comes down to resource allocation,’ he adds. ‘We will work with them on their strategic housing investment plans.’

Hard on homelessness
He takes an even harder line on the country’s commitment to end homelessness this year. Despite evidence that a few councils are struggling he will not entertain the idea of failure.

‘I am not willing to accept that one or two won’t get there,’ he states. He adds that the government will look at what might be holding some authorities back and look at ‘what we can do to help them with that’.

Social tenants will be particularly interested in the charter’s approach to rents and service charges. The final version insists a ‘balance is struck’ between service levels, cost and affordability. Gone is a line that rents and service charges should be kept as low as possible.

The change, according to Mr Brown, was made because of a fear that sticking rigidly to low rents and charges could result in a correspondingly poor level of service.

‘I think most tenants recognise the correlation between the two [rents and standards],’ he adds.

Our interview nears its end but there is still time to discuss one of the biggest issues on the horizon for Scotland - independence.

Mr Brown is at pains to point out that this is an issue that anyone who cares about housing in the country should have an opinion on. He hints that giving Holyrood more control over borrowing could see more homes built. ‘[At the minute] Clackmannanshire Council can borrow more money than the government.’

For now though the government has pledged to deliver 30,000 new affordable homes over the course of the parliament. Housing providers had questioned whether this would be possible given the planned 30 per cent cut to the housing and regeneration budget from £389 million in 2011/12.In February £87 million of this was restored. So would 30,000 homes have been achieved if the full cut had been carried out - and what will happen now?

‘We would have been able to make it without that [the £87 million],’ Mr Brown states. ‘It does beg the question of how much more we can do.’

Mr Brown’s busy week then moves on once more and he is ushered out of the door to field questions from the Scottish media about an empty homes initiative it has launched. Our time might be up but for Scottish landlords the hard work is about to begin.

New rules: the Scottish social housing charter

  • Every tenant should have their individual needs recognised and be treated fairly and with respect and receive fair access to housing
  • Tenants and customers should find it easy to participate in and influence their landlord’s decisions
  • Tenants’ homes must meet the Scottish housing quality standard by April 2015
  • Social landlords must manage their businesses so tenants’ homes are well maintained and repair work is carried out when required
  • Landlords must ensure that their tenants live in well-maintained neighbourhoods in which they feel safe

 

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