Two decades ago, 67 staff sharing two computers embarked on the first ever stock transfer from Chiltern Council to a newly formed housing association. Today a handful of the original team still work for the same landlord. Emily Twinch meets some of them to reminisce.
They were reluctantly thrown into the media spotlight two decades ago, and here they are again. In December, Paradigm Housing Association staff celebrated the 20th anniversary of becoming the first ever large-scale voluntary transfer in the country.
Much has changed since 1988, when the organisation had a staff of 67 and two computers. Then it began life as Chiltern Hundreds Housing Association with a transfer of 4,650 homes from Chiltern Council - and soon attracted attention from national newspapers and television.
What do the 11 original staff members who still work for the landlord today remember about the transfer, and what have they learned? Over a buffet lunch at the landlord’s Amersham office, executive director of operations David Smith recalls suddenly being propelled into the limelight.
‘I will never forget it,’ he says. ‘It was surreal. Suddenly the media focus was on us. Instead of getting calls from tenants we were getting calls from The Guardian or The Daily Mail. Or someone asking: “Can you do a piece to camera with a digger behind you?”’
For two years afterwards, Chiltern Hundreds would get a couple of calls a week from other local authorities wanting to know about its stock transfer.
Large scale voluntary transfer has been a controversial policy since it began. It was introduced by the Conservative government as a way to take housing out of the hands of councils and to encourage private investment in the sector. Critics said that it removed democracy from the landlord-tenant relationship and would mean worse services for tenants.
The stock transfer programme has seen 1.1 million council homes switched to independent housing association management since 1988.
After the initial furore at Chiltern, the landlord managed to keep away from the media. Another original staff member, Andy Nichol, executive director of finance, says: ‘We have always been good at keeping our heads down.’
During the last 20 years, the organisation has changed the way it works and structure to keep up to date. As well as recently employing professional communications staff, it now has a disabled facilities officer and increasingly provides training for staff. And love has flourished. Mr Smith is married to Wendy Smith, now an excellence ambassador, who was also there at the start.
Mrs Smith says: ‘There are challenges but it makes it more interesting. People have stuck around because there’s [always] another way to find a solution. In all my years here, it’s never felt the same.’
Mr Smith adds: ‘You can do your choice-based lettings and the environmental stuff but the model is always the same - providing decent homes and services.’
One obvious thing that has changed is the name. In 1999, it formed a group structure, which meant the organisation needed a new name. But Paradigm was not the first choice - ‘Partnership’ was the preferred option.
Mr Nichol explains: ‘We had paid someone thousands of pounds to do a design - the logo and the stationery were all ready to go.’
The logo was a decorated ‘P’. But the team was new to the rules of setting up a company. Mrs Smith continues: ‘At the last minute, it was realised that Partnership had already been taken [at Companies House]. It was a lovely logo - we needed another P word.’
So, in the interests of not wasting money, a floor of housing association staff diverted their attention from their housing duties for a couple of hours to scan the ‘P’ section of the dictionary. Chair Andrew Ketteringham came up with Paradigm, which means an example or model.
Mrs Smith remembers the time before everyone had computers. For a moment she can’t remember if there was any internet. IT development and support manager Carol Brewer, also a member of the old guard, laughs and puts her straight. Mr Nichol and Mr Smith remember when housing professionals would dress in jumpers and jeans. Stock transfer changed that and people started wearing suits, they explain.
Mr Smith talks about the lead up to the stock transfer and his days at Chiltern Council. ‘We were young and radical. We thought: “There must be other ways of doing this”’
As district housing officer he was one of the people in the council’s housing department charged with finding an alternative way to run the service. The council was looking for ways to find upgrades to tenants homes and build extra housing.
He remembers the support the department got from the government and regular faxes from the Department of the Environment offering advice. The council was the first of three to hold ballots and the first to get a ‘yes’ vote. For the first year, the association’s staff had to work in a corner of the council offices before moving to their current home in Amersham.
Mr Smith also remembers that the team started out with some trepidation. ‘It was like taking a baby home for the first time and thinking: “What do I do with it now?” All of us who had put our names forward to deliver it had put our jobs on the line.’
But fears were unfounded and the organisation has grown to a 262-staff operation and expanded from the Chiltern area to across west London and the home counties, managing a total of 11,000 homes.
When it started out the organisation had to go to French bank Paribas to raise the £30 million it needed to take on the council’s properties, because British banks were wary of lending it money. Three years later, Mr Nichol says, lenders were scrambling to get its business.
Mr Smith adds: ‘One of the greatest joys is being able to say “yes” to people. I used to spend my life at the council, 99 times out of a 100, telling people there was not a lot we could do about it.’
Mr Nichol says: ‘There was a different culture and reasons for stock transfer than later. It was never about money to invest in stock. The issue was about how to provide housing better.’
Mr Smith adds: ‘The original passion, the original motivation for providing housing and services that people enjoy has never dimmed.’
Chiltern Hundreds Housing Association was born on 15 December 1988, when it took over 4,650 homes from Chiltern Council. At the time the Conservative administration in Westminster was pushing to move services out of the hands of local government.
There were rising numbers of people on the Buckinghamshire district’s housing waiting list and the 1980 Housing Act meant stock was being depleted through the right to buy.
The council considered various options but finally decided the best was a wholesale transfer of stock to a new housing association. After canvassing tenants, a ballot was held in September 1988, with 3,840 tenants voting in favour of the move and 743 voting against.
On 29 September, the council met and all-party support was given to the proposal. The transfer was made under the terms of the Housing Act 1985 so tenants would retain secure tenancies and existing rights.
One of Chiltern Hundreds’ first tasks was to repair 80 prefabricated, concrete ‘Cornish’ properties in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Windows, kitchens, bathrooms and central heating systems were refitted and the prefabricated concrete walls were replaced with brick.
In 1999, Paradigm Housing Group was formed, making it a housing company. The association now owns and manages more than 11,000 properties across west London and the Home Counties including the 7,500 homes it has for social rent.
It has built 4,800 homes since it started and aims to build 600 each year for the next three years.
Before stock transfer happened several tenants were opposed to it, frightened about what it might mean.
They were worried their rents would go sky-high and there were rumours they would not be able to put up pictures on the wall or decorate.
But when the housing association took over many were pleased with the results.
Julie Smith, 41, was 22 and living with her parents in their Chesham home at the time. ‘My mother went to the meetings,’ she explains. ‘The main concern was the rents. In those days, [people thought that] when housing associations took over, the rents went up,’ she explains.
But Ms Smith says the promise of new kitchens, bathrooms, windows and central heating was attractive.
‘You went to bed with a hot water bottle and there was ice on the windows,’ she says.
‘Most people didn’t have central heating in council housing. It was a joke.’
She remembers towels being kept at the bottom of windows to stop the condensation. ‘For the first year the rents were kept the same,’ she recalls. ‘The promise was to have new kitchens and windows, which was done, and my mother says the houses are better maintained than they ever have been.’
Mother-of-five and grandmother-of-nine Sharon McEwan, 50, was living in Old Amersham in 1988 and did not want stock transfer. She claims she was not even notified about the plans.
‘We received the letter from Chiltern Hundreds Housing Association saying it had bought the stock and we were no longer tenants of the council,’ she says. ‘There was no consultation. By then, it was a case of it’s done and we have to go along with it.’
But she admits the transfer has had its advantages. ‘We were worried about rents going up but we were also informed we could claim things like housing benefit. That was something a lot of people didn’t know about.’
She also believes tenants have more of a voice now. But she would still prefer the council. ‘You knew all the staff at the council,’ she explains. ‘You knew your housing officer and you went to the one person about everything.
‘With the housing association it can be more stressful. You have to go through customer services [an automated phone system] and you are just a number.’
There were others who hardly noticed transfer was going on. Grandmother Peggy Babbington, 88, was living in Quill Hill Lane. She says: ‘It was nice they did improvements to the house. It was much better - the gas fire warmed up the room and they replaced the windows.’
But she adds: ‘We took [transfer] in our stride. We just took it that it’s going to be changed and that’s that. There was no difference to the services.’