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Mr Big

As chief executive of Wheatley Group, Martin Armstrong leads one of the UK’s largest social landlords. He tells Stuart Macdonald how he turned around the struggling Glasgow Housing Association and why his work is far from over

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Mr Big

Martin Armstrong is standing in the middle of a grey Argyle Street in early September and hundreds of Glaswegian shoppers are doing their best to avoid the big man in the suit with the camera pointed in his face.

The photographer is getting edgy as he wants people to walk by to add movement to the picture. The 47-year-old chief executive of 50,000-home Wheatley Housing Group is smiling but, after 10 minutes, his grin is looking a little strained. Finally help arrives from an unlikely quarter: a group of Belgian football fans, in town for that night’s World Cup qualifying match with Scotland, bound over and embrace Mr Armstrong, flags flying and black, red and gold face paint smudging. Once they have left he quips: ‘Do you think they thought I was the Scotland manager?’

Now the invisible forcefield surrounding Mr Armstrong has been breached the locals eventually get the idea. Soon the genial Mr Armstrong is deftly negotiating questions on the bedroom tax - ‘We are opposed to the government’s welfare reforms due to high levels of deprivation in Glasgow,’ he says - and dodging removal vans and flocks of pigeons.

Although he is a reluctant interview subject, for Mr Armstrong, a positive result against the odds is familiar territory. He has been spinning numerous plates ever since he arrived on the west coast in 2008 as director of housing and customer services at Wheatley subsidiary Glasgow Housing Association, fresh from a similar role at one of the most decorated local authorities in the UK. During his 11 years in Livingston at West Lothian Council - where he began as a housing manager and progressed to director of customer services - the authority won Council of the Year in 2006 and was the first Scottish authority to receive the prestigious Charter Mark for excellent customer service.

Speaking of that time, Bill Plummer, a former chief architect for the central belt council, says: ‘He was simply a breath of fresh air. He had an amazing way with people and communicating what he wanted and why. He was especially good with old ladies - which was very helpful on some of the estate decanting projects we had to do.’

Safe pair of hands
In the past five years, Mr Armstrong has continued to display this Midas touch. When he took the decision to come to Glasgow, GHA was on its second chief executive in five years. The group was lurching from one PR crisis to the next with Glasgow Council, GHA tenants, the Scottish Housing Regulator and even the Scottish Government lining up to take turns in pummelling the unfortunate landlord. As Jim Strang, chief executive of Parkhead Housing Association in the city says, the situation at GHA was ‘dire’, with some partners being ‘openly derogatory about GHA’s performance’.

Mr Armstrong says his decision to join at this low ebb in the landlord’s brief 10-year history was not masochistic; rather he was enthralled by the opportunity to ‘make a difference’ to communities like Drumchapel that he had experienced when on a project as a housing student at the University of Ulster.

When Taroub Zahran left in August 2009, GHA’s board turned to the relative newcomer it hoped would be a safe pair of hands. As Mr Armstrong says: ‘If I’d said at that point in four years GHA would be in Vienna up against BMW and some of the top companies in Europe for a EFQM [pan-EU business excellence scheme] award, you’d have been forgiven for walking out of the door thinking “they’ve got a right one there”.’

Yet that is where GHA finds itself and the safe pair of hands has taken Scotland’s largest social landlord from troubled case to showcase quicker than you can say ‘God Help us All’ - as GHA used to be known by dark-humoured staff.

So how has the gently-spoken, six foot three Northern Irishman done it? ‘There was no one silver bullet,’ he says, with what it quickly becomes clear is characteristic understatement. In fact Mr Armstrong embarked on a year or so of small, often evening, meetings around Glasgow - a schedule a senior colleague refers to as ‘punishing’ and one Mr Armstrong undertook with a broken leg from a car crash - in an attempt to win hearts and minds of sceptical tenants, councillors, suppliers and community groups alike.

‘People were very open,’ he recalls. ‘In Glasgow people like you to be direct with them and have an honest conversation.’ Although he admits: ‘Those conversations were slow to start at times.’

Fresh approach
Mr Armstrong’s formula for keeping people talking and not walking away was simple, but high risk: ‘I wanted to do something that’s different than just asset-led, housing regeneration - I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to look at social regeneration. Yes, I was exhausted, but energised too. I knew we had to get this right first time. If I did get it right it meant there was an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before.’

Chief Executive of the Wheatley Group

Source: Gary Doak

This ‘something’ was to raise the expectations of tenants that GHA could be a better landlord and that it could help them to realise their career aspirations - whatever they might be. ‘I was looking tenants and staff in the eye who were exhausted by where they were,’ says Mr Armstrong. ‘They were relying on me to get it right, but were saying ‘please don’t lead us up that hill again to find it’s a cliff edge’. That’s a great driver as you have lots of people’s careers and lives in your hands and that is a huge amount of responsibility.’

The stakes were further raised by Mr Armstrong pressing ahead with an existing plan, with tenant and board backing, to abandon the long-held strategy for GHA to effectively dissolve itself through the process of ‘second-stage transfer’. This pledge that GHA would transfer its 80,500 homes to 62 community-based housing associations throughout the city, was central to tenants voting for the bulk stock transfer from Glasgow Council in 2003. By 2009, however, after a series of valuation and procedural wrangles, it was clear that, although many tenants wanted to continue transferring their homes to CBHAs, most did not.

As a result, instead of disappearing as planned, GHA - which now has 43,000 homes after 19,000 went under SST and the remainder were demolished or sold - became the founding part of the Wheatley Group when it launched in September last year, incorporating Cube Housing Association, Lowther Homes and West Lothian Housing Partnership.

On the front line
In addition to a £1.2 billion programme to improve GHA’s homes (see box: In numbers), Mr Armstrong’s plan to improve the ‘C’, or ‘fair’, rating GHA was awarded by the Scottish Housing Regulator’s predecessor, Communities Scotland, in September 2007 centred on his scheme for front line housing staff to ‘think yes’ when dealing with tenants.

He says the idea - which he describes as the ‘biggest challenge of my career’ - came from his ‘invaluable’ time spent as a front line housing officer in Huddersfield on the ‘tough’ Brackenhall estate in 1989. He realised ‘the complexity of people’s situations and lifestyles that you see as an officer make you understand very quickly this can’t be a housing solution’.

‘It’s not just about housing. You also have to be a link for people - who have certainly lost a bit of hope and a bit of self-esteem - into other solutions’.

Mr Armstrong says that when he first mooted the idea of trialling the scheme at four GHA estate offices where front line officers would be given complete responsibility for deciding what resources were needed to best meet a tenant’s needs, people ‘thought I had lost the plot’.

Pauline McGonagle, a GHA housing officer in Govan, says: ‘We had some reservations at first. It was difficult doing something we hadn’t done before. But we were trusted to make decisions and staff have more power and more control over what they do. As a result, tenants are delighted.’

Illustrating this point, Mr Armstrong recounts the tale of a 50-something housing veteran telling him how he had ‘made an old woman cry’ by offering to decorate her front room, which hadn’t been done in years. ‘It only cost £200 to do it, but the man said “I think it’s the best £200 I’ve spent in 20 years of housing. I felt brilliant”. That’s when I knew we had something really powerful.’

When faced with something equally powerful in the shape of welfare reform, Mr Armstrong was bold once more. He decided to focus resources on the front line and reduce housing officer patch sizes from 500 to 200 homes and also cut middle management. This resulted in 600 net job losses, but the number of housing officers rose from 181 to 241.

‘We looked down the line at all the things that were coming that would put pressure on our communities and decided we needed to get closer to our customers and remove the bureaucracy,’ he adds. ‘We knew there wouldn’t just be a housing solution - it might be a financial solution, a bank account, [involving] some very personal information.’

Influential position
This chutzpah has again been rewarded with an initial ‘spike’ in rent arrears being arrested, following the introduction of the bedroom tax in April. Some further good may also come from welfare reform. Although the renaissance at GHA has been welcome news for Glasgow, the fact that Scotland is home to one of the UK’s largest social landlords has barely registered beyond Clydeside. That situation is now changing as Wheatley Group flexes its muscles to secure hearings to lobby on behalf of Scottish social landlords with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

For Mr Armstrong, however, his desired legacy (despite the fact he swears the ‘job is not done’ and he’ll be there for the ‘next few years at least’) is clear: ‘If I am lying on my professional deathbed and thinking what I’ve achieved, I want to be able to say “I did really help people realise their aspirations”. That’s when you say all the pain and all the tears were worth it.’

In numbers

£1.2 billion
amount invested by Glasgow Housing Association in improving its homes

£1,500
bursary for 200 young Glaswegians every year to go to university or college course of their choice

£500 million
bond-issue plan to build ‘thousands of affordable homes’

£196,000
Martin Armstrong’s pay in 2012/13 - or £2.76 a home. The lowest of any large British landlord

£2 million
annual Wheatley Group discretionary housing fund to help tenants in arrears ‘who engage with us’

 

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