The new boss of Scotland’s largest housing association has made a reasonable start during his first couple of months in the job. But can Glasgow Housing Association chief executive Martin Armstrong really succeed where so many before him have failed? Emily Twinch asked him.
At six foot three inches tall, Martin Armstrong is a big man - but then he has had a big job to do.
As chief executive of Glasgow Housing Association, the 44-year-old father of three has taken on what is, arguably, one of the toughest jobs in the sector.
The troubled organisation has gone through five chief executives in 10 years after a series of clashes with the Scottish Government and Glasgow Council. Is Mr Armstrong the answer?
GHA was only ever intended to be a short-lived organisation. When it took over Glasgow Council’s 81,000 homes in a large-scale stock transfer in 2003, its purpose was to look after the properties until they could be transferred for a second time to a group of smaller housing associations.
Despite the fact that some view his role to be a poisoned chalice - essentially heading an organisation he has to break up - in his first interview since taking the job, Mr Armstrong talks with enthusiasm about the role and GHA’s future. ‘It’s a real opportunity to create something in Glasgow that’s unique. I think creating strong vibrant communities that live in good quality accommodation that have a real sense of togetherness will be hugely rewarding.’ His healthy six figure salary will make it doubly so.
Certainly, in the two months since he took the helm Mr Armstrong has achieved what many of his predecessors failed to: taking the long, drawn-out arrangements for second-stage transfer a step forward.
Earlier this month, GHA announced the start of a programme to ballot tenants on the transfer of 16,000 homes, which will leave Scotland’s largest housing association with around 40,000 homes - half the stock it owned at its peak.
Just 2,000 homes have been transferred over the past year, to six housing associations. A further 1,024 homes are due to be handed over to Cernach Housing Association and Queens Cross Housing Association next month.
The man himself argues that one of the keys to his success so far has been rebuilding badly burned bridges between the Scottish government, Glasgow Council and the community based housing associations receiving stock via second-stage transfer.
Since he took over, Mr Armstrong says he’s been involved in ‘a lot of negotiating and dialogue’ with CBHAs and with tenants. ‘It’s important for us to have a strong relationship with the strategic housing authorities to ensure there is a shared agenda,’ he says, in his subtle Northern Irish accent.
Community-based organisations testify to ‘positive’ talks with Mr Armstrong, as he attempts to hammer out second-stage transfer deals with them.
We are no longer fighting with the GHA,’ says a relieved Fraser Stewart, director of CBHA New Gorbals, one of the 20 CBHAs in the second-stage transfer programme.
When talking to CBHAs, one of the main aims is to ensure there is a ‘credible programme of transfer’, says Mr Armstrong. This is in contrast to former GHA chief excecutive, Michael Lennon, who repeatedly talked of a financial ‘black hole’ acting as a barrier to the second-stage transfer.
When Mr Lennon’s GHA commissioned consultancies Deloitte and DTZ to look at how much the transfer programme would cost in 2006, it came up with an estimate of half a billion pounds. When the Scottish Executive produced a similar report in 2008, it put the figure at between £85 million and £195 million.
Mr Armstrong will not talk about this black hole but insists he wants ‘financial neutrality’ for tenants who vote to stay with GHA, meaning they will not be financially penalised through increased rents. How he does this remains to be seen.
He will, though, discuss other thorny topics. In the past GHA has received heavy criticism for not starting the second-stage transfer process earlier. Last summer, the Scottish Housing Regulator blasted the organisation’s lack of direction and poor stakeholder communication. It prompted GHA to spend £1,250 a day on private consultants charged with developing a more viable business plan.
As a result, at the end of last year Mr Armstrong announced a review to ‘create a new GHA that is closer to its communities’. He also proposed that the housing association should create five area boards based on the city’s strategic planning boundaries to which housing management and service delivery would be devolved.
Mr Armstrong emphasises his intention to bring services closer to tenants. ‘There’s an opportunity now for us to have a different type of GHA,’ he says. ‘We really want to create a sense of empowerment for people to get involved in decisions. That allows us to reflect the different needs of our customer base.’
‘Empowering’ and ‘tenants’ are words which echo throughout the interview, but Mr Armstrong’s track record suggests this is more than hollow rhetoric. Throughout his career he has advocated a strong customer focus. During 11 years as director of customer and support services at West Lothian Council the local authority won several accolades, including the Charter Mark, a government award for excellent customer services, in 2007.
Mr Armstrong might be able to inspire the goodwill of tenants but it is not just them he has to keep happy. GHA employs around 2,000 people, but if their boss successfully completes second-stage stock transfer, the organisation will eventually be reduced by half - with obvious consequences for the workforce.
There have been rumours that 200 managers will lose their jobs. GHA denies this, but admits its head office will have to be ‘slimmed down’. Mr Armstrong avoids answering questions on redundancies directly but repeats the standard GHA-line that it has a ‘policy of no compulsory redundancies’.
He states that the organisation will continue to invest in its stock after the second-stage stock transfers have taken place. ‘Our stock will surpass the [Scottish Housing Quality] standard,’ he adds.
But given the high turnover of chief executives in the GHA’s relatively short lifetime, how long will he be sticking around for? ‘I will stay until the job is done,’ he says with certainty. ‘There’s a huge amount to do and we have set good foundations to make that happen.’
As one top civil servant put it, ‘love has broken out at the GHA’. But Mr Armstrong’s success in maintaining the peace will depend on how quickly he fulfils his promise to remove the second-stage transfer-shaped thorn in GHA’s side.
Mr Armstrong began his housing career in 1989 as an estate management officer in Kirklees Council in Yorkshire, and he’s a keen Leeds United fan as a result.
Born and bred in Rosemount in Derry, he listens to Irish music to relax.
A student in the late 80s, he lived for a short period in the Red Road area of Glasgow, infamous for its tower blocks which featured in a film of the same name in 2006. The blocks are due to be demolished by 2016.
His salary is £170,000 with no bonus - a little less than his predecessor Mr Lennon’s £189,875 a year.