Attention to local needs at the heart of social housing success

Calum Macaulay worked in housing associations and co-operatives for 37 years, latterly as Housing Manager and then Chief Executive for the largest housing association in the Highlands – Albyn Housing. He was also one of the founders of what is now Highland Homeless Trust and of TIGHRA – a tenant participation organisation for the Highlands, Islands and other parts of the north of Scotland (now part of TPAS Scotland).  

On Scottish Housing Day Calum discusses how social housing remains vital to the lives of individuals and communities and looks at the challenges faced when trying to translate national policy into local solutions that work for real people.

There have been three incidents in recent weeks that have made me think a bit more about social housing in rural areas than I have done for a while.  

Firstly, on a short break near Aviemore I came across a new house development, that had (I think) just started it’s build phase before I left my previous role as Chief Executive of Albyn Housing.  I remember the long, drawn-out process of getting the project off of the ground with colleagues having seemingly endless back and forth with the Planners in the Cairngorm National Park Authority and then procuring what was needed for the intended pilot of modular construction in a small scale development.  

The two bungalows and two houses which now stand on this site look great, and I am sure are lovely homes for the four families lucky enough to be allocated them.  These are four brand new, well designed, energy efficient, social rented homes – permanently available to a community in which second homes and holiday homes dominate and distort the local housing market and the economy is primarily tourism and hospitality driven, meaning low pay is common.  I have since congratulated the Development Officer who oversaw the project from start to completion.  It is a development she should be proud of.

The second thing relates to my sister, who has had moderate learning disabilities and was looking to relocate to be near family after taking early retirement on health grounds. Whilst she has lived all her life in the same town, latterly in the council flat she bought under the Right to Buy scheme, the family has passed on or moved on and she was looking to move closer to them in retirement.

She was lucky to get an offer of a local authority owned sheltered cottage close by to family, with solar panels providing free day-time electricity, and the local authority she has just moved from has expressed an interest in buying back her first floor flat in line with local housing demand. The council freely told me that they are a long way behind on their ‘buy back’ target for the first half of the year, so they have an incentives to acquire the flat and return it to the affordable rental market for less than the price of a timber kit for a small, new house, never mind all of the other development costs.

The third event was a visit from my daughter for the first time since lockdown (it was bloody lovely to see her again after such a long time!) She is in her late 20s and has Down Syndrome, epilepsy and is diagnosed as being autistic, so lives with 24-hour support in the flat she rents from a special needs housing association.  Her flat is on the very north coast, you can see the Orkney Islands from just outside.  She moved there nearly 10 years ago, after other residential settings failed to meet her needs.  

Because her move there happened in such a hurry and followed on from the previous service failures it took her quite a few years to settle down and become more relaxed about her surroundings and with her carers.  Nevertheless, that housing association’s support service has stuck with the task and has managed, over time, to reshape its approach to better meet her needs.  In more recent years, the windows and heating system have been replaced with new components which have higher energy efficient performance ratings too.  I know that the housing association will continue to be there to maintain the standard of her home.

Balancing act

So, what do those personal stories say about social housing in rural areas?  I feel that the key issue is the balance between having an understanding of and commitment to small-scale local community growth, and having business of a scale big enough to deliver not just one 4-house project once, but many small scale projects across multiple locations.  There is a real-life conflict in this balance.

For a while Albyn Housing was able to put the resources and effort into working with several communities (more or less simultaneously) to help them get to the detail of what was really needed to sustain their village and look at how this either impacted on, or was impacted by, the needs and opportunities in neighbouring villages.  

There was some absolutely brilliant work carried out by staff from both the tenant engagement and new build development teams.  Working with communities they were able to negotiate what was socially desirable and what was practically deliverable, and offer those communities a sense of ownership over the completed investments without having to carry the burden of a complex regulatory framework.  Then there came along a policy fashion for shared waiting lists and a single allocation policy.  

In aggregating with several other providers, the nuance and some important detail of the picture were lost, often under political pressure to be seen to sign-up to the policy rather than take a person-centred or community focussed approach.  Similarly, the introduction of new national, build targets meant that there was a rush to make sure ‘we were delivering our part of the target’ and being recognised for doing so.  In most if not all rural areas of Scotland, the presence of larger towns (for example, Inverness or Ayr) make it very tempting to achieve the region’s contribution to national targets mostly through larger scale housing projects built there, rather than more remote villages with apparently lower needs that would only deliver much smaller contributions to the targets for much the same effort.  

For social housing providers it is really important that they don’t get stuck on policy tramlines.  When that happens the capacity to respond to the world changing around you is greatly diminished.

Effectively serving individuals

Everyone’s life is complicated with few periods of utter certainty and quiet.  People are messy, and this means housing associations have to be able to respond positively and creatively when people around us hit the skids and not fall for ’the computer says no’ business culture.  Housing associations’ origins are in a voluntary movement that wanted to offer values-driven housing, that recognised and cherished the distinguishing features of communities.  As they grew in size they have been able to apply scale to resolve (in a respectful way) some of the problems that exist in distinctive, rural communities.  Specialist associations working with adults with learning disabilities are necessary to provide the support structures required to meet those tenants’ needs.  

It is important that rural housing continues to be delivered in that resourceful and positive way.

Calum Macaulay – Wednesday 16th September, 2020.