It's 25 years since Scottish Homes began implementing their policy of transferring housing to housing associations. So far I haven't seen any appetite for reflection as part of the anniversary celebrations. So, as a veteran tenant and committee member, I have taken it on myself to get the ball rolling.
I lived in Merkins Avenue, Bellsmyre, Dumbarton. The rents were steep and the maintenance was poor. We thought our fortunes were changing when Scottish Homes, our landlord, spent a lot of money renovating one of the buildings. It looked very impressive. We waited for our turn only to be informed that there was no more money left. Scottish Homes told us that if we formed a housing association, they would give us the houses in Merkins Avenue for £1, and a housing association grant to renovate them. We went along with this and in a few years' time the street was transformed. It was like moving to a better neighbourhood without having to move at all.
We only owned one street to begin with but had a plan to gradually take over the rest of the scheme. This would help us to effectively learn on the job and build up experience. Scottish Homes agreed to this – they understood that it was a huge step for us to take on the responsibility of employing their staff and a mortgage of a million pounds. I don't know what happened to that agreement because I wasn't on the committee by the time the refurbishments in Merkins Avenue were completed.
I waited for the next step of the plan to take shape but nothing happened and it all went quiet for a year or two. Then, out of the blue, we heard that all the Scottish Homes housing in Bellsmyre was up for sale to any housing association that could afford to buy them. This put Bellsmyre Housing Association (BHA) in a difficult position because they still only owned one street and this was not economically viable. Therefore, they needed to win this auction or go out of business. Cube Housing Association entered the competition and BHA outbid them. It was strange to see Cube HA competing in this way as its original role was to provide support services to locally-owned housing associations.
At first it seemed that the new agreement was good for tenants as BHA was limited as to how much they could increase rents over the next 10 years. However, it soon became clear that they had made an agreement they couldn't afford. The early signs were additional service charges for close lights and door entry systems, previously included in the rent. It was obvious that this was BHA's way of getting around the rent agreement they had made with Scottish Homes.
didn't understand that a service charge meant you had to provide that service, and didn't like it when some tenants deducted the door entry charge from their monthly payment when the service was out of action. It was then wrongly referred to as 'rent arrears' on tenants' accounts. When the 10-year rule came to an end, BHA recouped more money by having two rent increases in the one year. My rent went up about 12% that year. BHA didn't call the second increase a rent increase – they said it was to standardise rents. I never heard of anyone who got their rent standardised down the way.
Things settled down for a while apart from the odd rumour here and there. Everything was hunky dory, their quarterly newsletters told us. Then we noticed the senior officers didn't seem to be around any more and we heard that most of the committee had resigned. The Christmas 2012 newsletter wished us season's greetings and gave us phone numbers to call for emergency repairs over the holidays. It also included a list of present staff and committee that didn't resemble the staff and committee they had three months earlier. There was no accompanying explanation.
Six months passed before we were told there had been a problem and that it would be solved if we agreed to become part of a big housing association from Perth. They then made up for their lack of communication by showering us with leaflet after glossy leaflet, telling us how good things were going to be if we voted to go along with their proposal. The only time I saw them get a bit agitated was when they were asked if there were any disadvantages to the proposal. Not an unreasonable request before we made our decision how to vote.
BHA is now a subsidiary of Caledonia Housing Association. It's early days yet so we'll have to wait a while to see how it goes. They've put up big billboards telling us about the new bathrooms and kitchens we're going to get, and they've installed a lot of them already. They're keen to please at the moment and are offering new kitchens to tenants whose kitchens aren't old. I guess it'll take a bit of time before they know what's what. They've already said that they expect to to know the state of the houses they took on by some time next year. Rent increases are capped for a couple of years and their 'investments' are costing £5 million over the next five years.
You never know what the future is going to hold. However, if it's anything like the past 25 years, in Bellsmyre it will be mostly quiet and reassuring, with sudden bursts of unexpected drama.