Small is beautiful

I was born in private rented rooms. Since then, I have lived in
almost every kind of housing tenure. Appropriately, the view
outside our present back window is of the housing office. As a
child, the place I disliked most had one outside tap and a
non-flush toilet. I don’t need research to tell me that housing
conditions affect your health.

Today the housing market is dominated by home ownership and a
smaller social rented sector. Conservative and Labour governments
are determined to reduce council involvement and to promote housing
associations. In Glasgow, the Scottish executive – this article
will focus on Scotland – agreed to wipe out the city’s housing debt
if its 81,800 residential properties were transferred to a housing
association. I was uneasy because I know that, in the last century,
it was democratically controlled local authorities that did most to
replace slums by good housing. Nonetheless, I want housing
associations to provide the best possible accommodation for their

The Thatcher right-to-buy policy is still in force. Tenants of
former council property taken over by housing associations have
continued to buy, to the extent that housing associations have lost
20 per cent of their stock.

The new threat is the right to buy for all housing association
tenants by 2012. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations
(SFHA) is alarmed. Once again, it foresees that the more affluent
tenants will buy the best houses – helped by a discount which is
really a grant from public money. Not least, the standards expected
for housing are being jacked up, – a measure that increases costs
and makes it more difficult to supply new stock. No wonder that
most local authorities are seriously concerned about the future
supply of social housing.

A worrying aspect is the reinforcement of the gap between house
owners and others. Tenants are more inclined to buy their homes
because they are now seen as an investment for old age. House
prices are expected to rise and owners, with some exceptions, have
an economic asset.

Tenants who cannot afford, or have no wish, to be owners are the
very people most likely to be on the lowest pensions. Yet they will
have no economic cushion on which to fall. Two nations in

The SFHA believes the situation is so serious that some members
want the right to buy to stop for new tenants. My view is that if
it is to continue then government has an obligation to finance
housing associations so that they can quickly replace the stock
they lose. But there is more. People who do continue to rent, and
so do not have the asset of property, require compensation in the
form of a supplement to their pension.

Good housing is necessary but not sufficient. Housing associations
are well placed to contribute to the facilities that enhance
deprived communities. I was associated with a locally run project
in Easterhouse, Glasgow, which paid a low rent to the council for
its six old flats. When the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) took
over, there were fears that it would increase the rents. The new
chief executive of the GHA, Bob Allan, promptly visited our project
and assured its committee that the GHA would back local groups and
not increase rents.

Years later, there are positive developments, especially among the
smaller associations which have a close identification with their

The Ruchazie housing association in Greater Easterhouse has a
director, Bill Nichol, who has long been community-minded. For
instance, the council made some land available cheaply and the
association then worked closely with a voluntary society to launch
the Quarriers Family Resource Centre, which undertakes impressive
work with local families. In conjunction with the local social
inclusion partnership and other agencies, it has played an
important part in establishing a well-used multi-games court,
supported youth activities in the local church, and helped the
survival of the area’s only food shop.

One of the failures of central government is that it gives priority
to large-scale regeneration agencies. The significance of the
Ruchazie approach is that it recognises the value of small, locally
run groups. If housing associations as a whole follow this example,
they will be providing both the kind of homes and the kind of
facilities that residents want.

Bob Holman is retired and is a former community worker in
Easterhouse, Glasgow

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