Thursday, 3 December 2009

Transfers Of Housing Stock

In October this year I posted on the subject of a quango's responsibility and mentioned the sale by English Churches Housing Association (ECHG), part of Riverside Housing Group (RHA), of their stock in West Oxfordshire.

For those unaware of what is involved in the process of 'stock rationalisation' by a Registered Social Landlord (RSL) - otherwise known as a 'sale' - invitations are issued to other RSLs and those expressing an interest are invited to tender. Part of the tender process involves them also submitting an 'Offer Document to Residents' setting out why they should be chosen. Another part of the process involves what is quaintly termed 'consultation' with residents, who may if they wish sit on an 'oversight panel'. Invariably this 'consultation' process results in RSLs being able to sell to the highest bidder, regardless of that bidder's 'track record', or their 'expertise' in managing the type of social housing involved. Also, because of age and lack of knowledge of the process and their lack of knowledge with regard to the law coupled with the statutory duties with which RSLs must comply , most tenants 'roll over' and accept the outcome.

In the particular case of ECHG and their stock located in West Oxfordshire, the sale involved 179 properties and a building plot in Witney, the properties comprising a sheltered housing unit with the remainder classified as General Needs. Of all RSLs initially expressing an interest only four submitted bids - Cottsway Housing Association, Sovereign Vale Housing Association, Oxford Citizens Housing Association and Catalyst Housing Association. ECHG appointed some consultants to 'manage' the process on their behalf, namely Ark Housing Consultancy. All bidders were subject to an interview, by the panel, which comprised three tenant representatives, a West Oxfordshire District Councillor and the Head of Housing for West Oxfordshire District Council (WODC), plus obviously the Project Manager from Ark Consultancy. Prior to the interviews visits were arranged to a scheme nominated by each individual bidder.

From the outset it became obvious to the tenant representives and the District Councillor that the preferred bidder by ECHG/RHA was Cottsway (who in fact made the highest bid) and are the 'Preferred Provider' of WODC. In fact, to show one element of 'bias', during the visit to a Cottsway scheme, the Project Manager of Ark Consultancy began to answer questions on behalf of Cottsway employees - which was hardly surprising as she, the Project Manager, was an ex-employee of Cottsway! Another example of the 'bias' it was felt was being exhibited was that, prior to interview, the panel were instructed to submit, in advance, the questions they wished to pose to the RSLs. This, needless to say, was refused most vehemently.

At interview all RSLs were subjected to detailed questioning on the Annual Accounts, their Offer Documents, their methods of dealing with repairs, complaints, management structures etc etc. In some instances, most noticably that of Cottsway, the 'presentation' made was abysmal and the CEO was unable to even satisfactorily answer questions on his RSL's balance sheet and accounts. The sale of the sheltered housing unit - with which I was most concerned and involved with - was compounded by the fact that presently there is a full-time Warden, or Scheme Manager in place. Warden's remuneration is, generally, funded by a central government grant, Supporting People (SP) with the bulk being paid by SP and the remainder by the residents. This subject, together with the 'presence' that a Warden provides residents was covered here.

Yet another example of the 'bias' it was felt was being shown was the 'Pass/Fail' questionnaire that the panel were requested to complete, following the interviews. A covering e-mail stated that we could not 'rate' the bidders, only that we had to 'satisfy' ourselves that each bidder could provide 'an acceptable level of service provision', thus enabling RHA to secure the best offer, in view of their 'charitable obligations'. Incidentally, neither ECHG nor RHA are yet registered 'charities', but I digress.

Of all the bidders one RSL (Catalyst) stood 'head & shoulders' above the rest in that they had, as far as the sheltered housing unit was concerned, expressed a commitment in the belief of wardens and that they would, if funding was not forthcoming, fund the provision of a full-time warden; whose 'Neighbourhood Inclusion' plans, repair services, finances and general management structure could not be faulted. This RSL was the lowest bidder and whilst the preferred choice of the residents, it is understandable that the residents were not hopeful their voice would be listened to.

I do not know whether it was the fact that I involved our MP, David Cameron; whether it was the fact that RHA, in a written document stated that: "In the end, any new landlord's proposals must satisfy residents"; whether it was through research that the tenant's representatives on the panel were able to highlight the inadequacies of three of the RSLs, or whether it was a subtle admission by me that should the RSL selected not be the tenants choice then, to coin a phrase, 'the excrement will hit the ceiling-mounted air circulation device' and that an Injunction would be sought to halt any sale pending a judicial review, it is impossible to tell however it is pleasing to report that the tenants voice has been heard!

Hopefully this shows that, with will and determination, the 'bureaucratic automaton' can be defeated!

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