Tag Archives: Housing

Right to transfer offers written by councils that oppose them? This is illogical.

The current statutory guidance on consulting tenants about a housing transfer was published in July 2009 and takes no account of tenant led schemes under the Right to Transfer (RTT) which had been enacted in 2008 but not implemented by regulation until December 2013. This means that the Offer Document to tenants is the responsibility of the very council that opposes the tenants’ wishes which is illogical.

The 2009 guidance states:

Tenants need to understand why the local authority is proposing to transfer their housing (Annex 1, Para.9)

However in RTT cases the council is not proposing the transfer, in fact they are opposed to it. This internal contradiction demonstrates why it makes no sense for the Offer to come from the council.

Just as the housing transfer manual has been re-written to acknowledge the tensions inherent in RTT and transfer some responsibilities from councils to the tenant group, the guidance on tenant consultation similarly needs to be updated.

RTT is a tenant led process, the proposal to transfer is that of the tenants, not the council and so the Offer should be produced by and from the tenant group. To get to offer stage the tenants have already complied with a regulatory framework and the RTT statutory guidance, they can just as well comply with the guidance at consultation stage.

The substance of 2009 guidance is still sound, I don’t think it would take much to update it to include tenant led transfers and make it clear that the offer belongs to and comes from the tenants with the accompanying duty to take proper account of the guidance.

Being a trailblazer means having to work with the existing structures, even if they are no longer quite fit for purpose. Whilst this is not always easy, it does flag up those issues that need to be addressed so that RTT can work properly. So let’s hope that future RTT have a new version of the guidance that empowers tenants.

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Housing transfer manual 2015/16

100 million) for the next transfer programme and the publication of the stock transfer manual for 2015/16.  Their press release takes an interesting angle, promoting it as an opportunity for tenant empowerment through the Right to Transfer (RTT).  The first Para reads:

Council tenants wanting more influence and control over their homes will have access to a share of £100 million.

Council tenants wanting more influence and control over their homes will have access to a share of £100 million to do just that, Housing Minister Kris Hopkins announced today (14 July 2014).

Mr Hopkins said the fund will help unlock further investment in maintaining and building social homes across the country.

Since November 2013, tenants living in council housing have had a right to request that the management of their homes be transferred to a housing association – and that the council cooperate in that process.

From today, tenant groups wanting to exercise this Right to Transfer will be able to bid for a share of this £100 million fund to help that process, with the money becoming available from next year.

The £100 million fund is also available for councils wishing to transfer their stock, with proposals that provide good value for money and have the support of residents.

In my view it is a good thing that the RTT is being promoted in this way and crucially that the stock transfer programme remains open for business with funding available to support it.  I led a workshop on RTT at the recent National Federation of TMOs (NFTMO) and it was full, so there is definitely the appetite for RTT within the TMO world.

Whilst I welcome the push behind RTT there is no prospect of TMOs making much of a dent in £100 million, even if debt relief is needed.  So I can only assume that the Government also expects some local authorities to be making applications for this round.

Speaking of applications, the 2015/16 transfer manual now includes two versions of the application for transfer (Annex A) to be submitted to HCA as referred to in my previous post.  This recognises that it makes no sense for applications for tenant led transfers to come from the local authority.

When choosing a partner, choose a good ‘un

I reported earlier that the tenants in Bushbury Hill had chosen Wrekin Housing Trust as their proposed transfer partner.  Is it serendipity or good judgement that their choice has just won a best landlord award at the recent UK Housing Awards? They won in the Large social landlord of the year category. My boss doesn’t like this picture but as she didn’t blag me an invite…

Wrekin Housing Group at the UK Housing Awards

Wrekin Housing Group at the UK Housing Awards

I’m not suggesting that tenant groups looking for a transfer partner base their invitations on the shortlist of various awards, this certainly wasn’t a factor our Board were even aware of when selecting potential partners.  However performance, regulatory rating, financial stability and reputation are all relevant factors.  We asked Wrekin to take part in our selection process based on our good experience of working with them over a number of years.

The alternative to invitation is to have a completely open process and run it more like a tender, this has merits as you will reach a wider pool of potential partners and may unearth a hidden gem.  I know that LATMOS (in Lambeth, London) ran an open beauty contest and this generated considerable interest.  They chose to join WATMOS who are based in Walsall, so this shows that the best fit is not always on the doorstep.  The beauty contest has merits, but does require more time than Bushbury Hill had available.

However tenants make their choice my advice to groups using the Right to Transfer who want to transfer to a partner to be clear about their long term objectives and priorities and make this the basis on which they shortlist potential partners.  Tenants are not beholden to choose the highest bidder, finding the best fit for your group involves more than looking at the bottom line.

 

Feasibility Study stage completed

The irony of being in the middle of the first Right to Transfer (RTT) process is that I have little time to blog about the first Right to Transfer.  Anyway there is much to update on where we have got to.

Following the vote by the members of the EMB to pursue transfer to an existing Registered Provider at their EGM, all tenants were consulted to gather their views.  The RTT regulations require the tenant group to confirm that there is no groundswell of opposition to the proposal.  In Bushbury Hill there certainly appears to be no such majority against the suggestion – in fact no tenants said they were opposed.  This comes as little surprise to me; we’ve been talking to tenants about exploring the benefits of transfer for the last 10 years and as far as I can tell, the mood is very much “Get on with it”.

So we have got on with it.  On Friday 7th March 2014 Bushbury Hill EMB became the first tenant group to provide a Feasibility Study Statement under the RTT regulations.  This provided the Council with our assessment that tenant led stock transfer is financially possible and advantageous to the tenants.  The Council now has 28 days to accept or reject the Feasibility Study Statement as valid under the regulations or to go to the Secretary of State for determination against the RTT proposal.

Time is of the essence so while we wait for the response we have started the process of choosing a partner housing association.  The tenants overwhelmingly support the EMB’s management of the estate, so whoever is chosen must guarantee the long term continuity of tenant control in Bushbury Hill.  They also need to deliver the capital investment that tenants want and deserve.  There are risks in everything, but the Board have approached potential partners that they believe can offer a good fit in terms of reputation, ethos and investment.  The outcome of this process should be known later in March.

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.

Bushbury Hill is(n’t) Falling Down

We like a challenge at Bushbury Hill, so not only are we trying to be the first tenant led organisation to use the Right to Transfer but to do so with an estate comprising mostly of “designated defective” properties as defined by Part XVI of the Housing Act 1985.

What’s a Boswell?

683 of the 847 homes in Bushbury Hill are of a non-traditional construction type known as “Boswell” (named after the developer that built them) made of concrete cast in-situ.

The Boswell system of house construction was developed by M. A. Boswell and Co Ltd of Wolverhampton during the late 1920s, and was used by Birmingham Corporation, Liverpool Corporation and Wolverhampton Corporation Housing Authorities to provide 1370, 1500 and 1050 dwellings respectively. All these dwellings are believed to have been completed prior to 1928.

By the 1990s the Bushbury Hill Boswells were showing severe signs of distress and the Council hatched a secret plan to demolish the whole estate.   The tenants discovered this and appealed directly to the Government for funding to reject the redevelopment and renovate the existing properties. The Boswell houses had the corner pillars replaced and were clad externally with insulation and render to protect the structure from the weather and help make the properties warm.

It was the fight to save their homes and community that lit the fire of tenant activism in Bushbury Hill which eventually led to tenants exercising their Right to Manage and setting up Bushbury Hill EMB in 1998.  The Boswells were given a new lease of life and so was the community and in many ways the destiny and health of the community is still bound to the condition of these defective dwellings.

I think all the Birmingham Boswells have now been demolished, but some of the Liverpool Boswells still have a future – thanks to a tenant led stock transfer.  The Pinehurst Estate Tenants & Residents Association (PETRA) in Anfield led the campaign to save their homes and in their case the funding and investment was secured in part through a stock transfer in 1999 to CDS Housing (now merged into Plus Dane Group).  The Pinehurst Boswells were made structurally sound and improved with the help of external cladding.  As with Bushbury Hill the preservation of the Boswells went hand in had with the preservation of the community.

You want to borrow how much?

Clearly there is a slight issue when it comes to borrowing money against a housing asset that is condemned by statute as no good.  Historically levels of Right to Buy in Bushbury Hill have been lower than typical because tenants have been wary of buying a Boswell, or have not been able to obtain a mortgage to do so.

The same apply with regards to stock transfer.  In order to buy the estate and invest in tenants homes, a new landlord will need to borrow money, secured against the homes and the rental income they provide.  Understandably this is a bit of problem if potential lenders can’t be sure the properties they are lending against will still be there in 30 years time.

Stock condition

As part of the Feasibility Stage of the Right to Transfer we have commissioned a stock condition survey, which will inform the financial modelling that will determine the viability of various options under the Right to Transfer.  In addition we have also had specialist structural surveys carried out on a sample of the Boswell houses.

A particular concern was the concrete foundations of the Boswells which suffered some of the same issues as the walls, but could not be remedied in the same way.   It is fair to say that without solid foundations, tenants’ dreams of transfer would be sunk.

But if they were going to fall over, wouldn’t there be signs?

Whilst it was a worry, my personal view was that there was plenty of life in the Boswells yet.  I confess I have no technical qualifications, but it just seemed highly unlikely that the houses were going to go from sound to collapse in the next 20 years.  My reasoning was that with the houses coming up to 90 years old, if the foundations were going to fail, statistically some of them already would have done so.  To date none of the Boswell houses we manage have had structural problems, if they were really towards the end of their lives, we would be seeing evidence already.

Ironically, we have had more issues with the structure of some of the brick houses than with any of the Boswells and yet because these are of traditional construction, lenders would be quite comfortable with lending against these properties.

The man from Del Monte, he say “Yes”

In spite of my confidence, the wait for the consulting engineers to dig their holes and give their verdict was a little tense.  It was a great relief when their summary report came back and they confirmed that the Boswells will still be standing in 2044.  They will require some work over the 30 years but this amounts to a mere £100 per property per year, so nothing major to be worried about.

Naturally there are caveats and they say the Boswells won’t live for ever, but I suspect you could say the same for most of the housing stock in the UK.  Many houses over 150 years old have no foundations at all and they are still standing, so my instinct is that the Boswells will keep confounding those  who write them off.