Monthly Archives: February 2014

Stand alone or choose a partner housing association, what’s best for tenant managers?

Tenants using the Right to Transfer have many decisions to make, but perhaps none is more important than who the landlord will be.  In essence it is a choice between setting up a new stand alone landlord of their own, or joining an existing housing association.  Both have pros and cons, tenants in Bushbury Hill have made their decision and in this post I examine the reasons behind this.

Tenants vote to pursue transfer and look for a partner housing association

Council tenants in Bushbury Hill EMB have decided to press on with the Right to Transfer and choose a new landlord.  On 13th February 2014 an Extra Ordinary General meeting voted by a very large margin – 40 in favour, 7 against – to pursue the Right to Transfer and look for a partnership with an existing housing association.  Tenants are now being advised about this decision and have their opportunity to give their views.

Unless there is a groundswell of opposition to the democratic decision taken by the mass membership then Bushbury Hill will produce and send a Feasibility Statement to the Council.  This is the final part of the Feasibility stage of the Right to Transfer.

Governance and tenant control

It may seem counter intuitive for a tenant led organisation to pursue transfer in conjunction with an existing housing association, but there are clear benefits.  If Bushbury Hill EMB were to become a landlord in its own right, this would actually be the most disruptive option.  At present the board is 100% tenants, this gives tenants maximum control of their EMB.  A housing association board would have to contain independents and quite possibly council nominees as well.  Even with a tenant majority, there would be fewer places available for tenants to become board members.

No less control than now

Tenant empowerment will be maintained by entering into a partnership with the new landlord on the basis that Bushbury Hill EMB continues to manage the estate and provide services to tenants with a high degree of local autonomy.  In fact this is a pre-requisite for any agreement.  The Board will only agree to a deal that delivers the same or greater local autonomy than they enjoy now.

The EMB is used to having working with a landlord who retains some responsibilities and has a measure of control.  At present the Council decides issues such as the tenancy agreement, tenure, rent increases and overarching allocations policy and Bushbury Hill has worked within this framework for nearly 16 years.  The Council is also responsible to the regulator.  There is no reason why a similar relationship cannot work equally well with a different landlord.

Managing risk

One of the key reasons to look for a partnership rather than going it alone is to manage financial risk.  There are many very successful small housing associations but size is not a key factor in the Bushbury Hill decision.  The factors which increase perceived financial risk for Bushbury Hill are:

As part of a larger organisation there is more capacity to spread risk across the whole organisation.  We would also expect a larger landlord to have more capacity to absorb financial shocks (cases such as Cosmopolitan Housing Group are notable for their rarity).

Consequences in a worst case scenario

If Bushbury Hill EMB was standalone and got into serious financial or governance difficulties, then they would be forced to look at a merger or potentially the HCA would step in and take measures such as replacing the board or ultimately have another landlord take over.  In such a situation, tenants would no longer be in a position to negotiate an advantageous deal.  It would be highly likely that tenant management would not survive in such circumstances.

On balance it makes sense for tenants to make the best possible deal up front whilst able to choose the landlord and in the best position to reach a mutually beneficial arrangement that enshrines tenant control.

Lack of interest

The cost of borrowing is directly linked to the perceived risk and if Bushbury Hill were to stand alone, lenders would take into account all the risk factors listed above and price them into their lending.  This would inevitably mean that more of tenants rent money would have to be committed to repay the debt and nothing is less productive (for the borrower) than money spent on interest.

Choosing the right partner should give comfort to lenders and lead to lower borrowing costs.  Over 30 years this will save significant amounts, allowing more money to be spent on tenants and get the debt repaid sooner.

So now to choose

For all of these reasons, the tenants have decided that finding a partner landlord with a complementary ethos and willingness to support tenant management offers the best chance to achieve their long term objectives.  It will be interesting to see what is on offer from potential partners.

Could housing associations proactively use the Right to Transfer?

The push for the creation of a statutory Right to Transfer (RTT) undoubtedly came from tenant management organisations (TMOs) stymied by uncooperative local authorities.  It is no surprise therefore that it is TMOs in the vanguard of the first wave of RTTs. However there is nothing in the RTT regulations that requires tenants to be part of a TMO, all council tenants in England have the right.

What do you need to get started?

All you need is a “Tenant Group” with a written constitution and a membership of 20% of the tenants in the area concerned.  The area in question must be “geographically coherent” (no pepper potting allowed) and contain at least 100 secure tenancies.  This is hardly an onerous starting position, particularly as many areas will have a tenants & residents association that may already meet the requirements or be able to do so with a bit of a membership drive.  So there are hundreds of tenant groups who could potentially avail themselves of the RTT.

Fine in theory, but it’s going to cost you

Having the RTT is great, but in practice it requires quite a lot of money to go through the process.  If there are hundreds of homes involved then something as simple as a mail-out to every tenant will cost hundreds of pounds. If professional advice is taken – and it is almost certainly needed then this will cost thousands.  Tenants may be able to obtain Tenant Empowerment Programme funding from DCLG and which is very helpful, but is won’t cover all of the costs.

In Bushbury Hill, being a well established TMO we have a lot more resources in terms of staff, equipment, access to information, office space, and money than a  tenant & residents group would have.  We are in a position to commission a stock condition survey and structural survey, which would be impossible for other tenant groups.  It is very unlikely that a council that is not keen to transfer its stock is going to start paying for anything it is not required to.

So who else will pay?

Who has both the operational expertise and financial clout to be able to help tenants make their vision a reality?  This seems an ideal opportunity for enterprising housing associations to get in on the ground floor and help tenants drive RTT proposals.  There is nothing in the regulations to stop a tenant group making its proposed new landlord choice up front and then using the resources of that landlord to get through the RTT process.  The housing association would be operating at risk, but then that is always the case with stock transfers and the sums involved, whilst out of the question for tenants, are not huge for a housing association.  There are clearly advantages to both tenants and the new landlord in going through the process together – it allows for the building of relationships and trust prior to the all important transfer ballot.

Have we been here before?

Those with long memories will note the similarities with “Tenants Choice” brought in by the Housing Act 1988 which allowed tenants to pick a landlord.  At the time this created a lot of fear amongst local authorities that housing associations were going to cherry pick their best stock.  In reality very few transfers ever took place in the seven years it was active – in England & Wales it amounted to five transfers involving only 1470 homes (Derrick Tulloch, 2000).  However it did indirectly lead to a massive increase in  whole stock voluntary transfers, as well as an increase in tenant activism and the Right to Manage.  The threat of losing their stock to other landlords also acted as an stimulus for some council’s to raise their game and engage with tenants seriously.

Opportunities for enterprising housing associations

Unfortunately, 18 years after Tenants Choice was killed, there are still council landlords who provide rotten service and allow tenants’ homes to remain non-Decent (a scandal in itself).  Not only does this give tenants every reason to look for a better landlord, but surely provides opportunities for enterprising housing associations to offer to partner with tenants to use the Right to Transfer to deliver proper investment in their homes and a high performance housing management service.

No doubt there are housing associations out there with a good reputation with tenants, operating in localities where council tenants are putting up with a third rate service from their council.  RTT opens the way for them to approach tenants direct and proactively make a pitch.  The housing association could offer to support a tenant group to build up membership, campaign for support from their community and support tenants through the RTT process.

The tenants may have everything to gain and the housing association can achieve growth with relatively little risk.  Local authorities may still view it as cherry picking, but they’ve had a couple of decades to get their own house in order, if some have failed tenants in this time then shame on them.

PS this blog is written from a personal perspective and is entirely unofficial, albeit that I work for an organisation that is currently going through the RTT process.  What I write is opinion and I make no apology for having a pro-tenant slant, working directly for tenants will do that. I do however aim to be factually accurate, so if you do come across any mistakes in my posts, please let me know and I’ll check and update as necessary.  All comments and feedback and are welcome.