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One Housing Group makes final bid to kill off Island Homes

ELN Exclusive: In a shock move on 31st January, Island Homes Housing Association announced that its proposal to “integrate Island Homes full into One Housing Group”. A letter to partner organisations from Managing Director Catherine Kyne explained “This means that Island Homes would no longer exist as a separate legal entity and the name of the landlord would change to One Housing Group.  It is proposed to bring in these changes in the summer of 2012.”

The letter goes on: “Resident views are important to us and we have put in place a full range of consultation processes to ensure we hear residents’ thoughts about the proposed changes, as well as answer any questions or concerns they may have.”  The use of the word “consultation” is imaginative: the decision has already been taken, so although residents can give their views, it is not intended that they should influence what will happen to them.

Island Homes is currently comprised of four former Council estates on the Isle of Dogs: the Barkantine, Kingsbridge, Saint John’s and Samuda. Residents voted to transfer to Island Homes Housing Association in early 2005.  On 5th December that year, Tower Hamlets Council sold the four estates to Toynbee Housing Association on the basis that the estates would be owned and managed by a new housing association – Island Homes.  Toynbee was to have three seats on the Island Homes board to help the new housing association get up and running. The Island Homes Board was, however, to have a majority of residents, who were to be elected by residents on each of the estates.  These conditions were all set out in the Council’s “offer documents”, which were sent to all residents just before the vote and were the basis on which residents voted in favour of transfer.

Tower Hamlets Council made two mistakes in the transfer process, which many residents consider are tantamount to negligence and/or maladministration. First, legal officers failed to include the conditions set out in the offer document in the transfer document (the deed of sale) – rendering the conditions of transfer virtually unenforceable in law.  Second, between the vote to transfer and the actual sale, Toynbee Housing Association had received an “orange light” report from the Audit Commission: this meant that it was judged not capable of managing itself, let alone assist a fledgling housing association to grow.

Toynbee was advised to merge with a better performing housing association to bring its management standards up to scratch.  It came together with Community Housing Association, which had a recent history of shutting down independent resident forums and replacing these structures by hand-picking residents to sit on new committees.  The two housing associations formed a group structure – One Housing Group. Island Homes joined One Housing Group as a third independent housing association in the group.  The Toynbee representatives on Island Homes’ Board were replaced by representatives from One Housing Group.

The One Housing Group representatives asked the Island Homes Board to change its structures.  In particular, they asked that the system of residents electing a majority of the Island Homes Board be replaced with a system in which residents became a minority on the Board – and the residents were to be chosen by One Housing Group itself.  One Housing Group also asked the Board to surrender its ability to decide what services it provided and introduce a new system, in which One Housing Group would decide what services it provided.  The Board refused to abandon the conditions set out in the Council’s offer document – whereupon One Housing Group sacked the Board and took over running Island Homes itself.

Island Homes residents had discovered a loophole in the stock transfer legislation: although tenants had to be consulted over stock transfer and to vote in favour before it could take place, there was no requirement for tenants to be consulted if all the conditions of transfer were overturned as soon as it had taken place.

Residents received the unanimous backing of all councillors at a full meeting of Tower Hamlets Council in their campaign to have the Island Homes Board reinstated. The Labour administration secured the assistance of the then Labour Housing Minister, Margaret Beckett, who asked the Tenants Services Authority (TSA) to negotiate with One Housing Group and ensure that the conditions of the offer document were upheld.

It was at this point that Tower Hamlets Council committed its third act of what many residents see as negligence and/or administration.  Council officers were present at negotiations between the TSA and One Housing Group, but they only ensured that One Housing Group kept to the condition that there should be a majority of residents on the Board.  They abandoned the conditions that these reps should be elected by residents and the condition that Island Homes should decide its own policies and be in control of running its own services.  One Housing Group put some more residents of its own choosing on the Island Homes Board, and the Board dutifully agreed to all One Housing Group’s other requests.

The letter residents have now received from Island Homes states that the Board is to be downgraded to an “Area Board” which would be “responsible for monitoring the quality of services provided to all homes on the Isle of Dogs.” In other words, the offer document would be completely abandoned.  The fact that the new area board would have a resident majority – even, the proposal states, a resident chair – would be entirely immaterial as it would have no power as an area board to do anything other than what One Housing Group told it to do, because Island Homes would no longer be an independent housing association.  Whereas the current Island Homes Board is only responsible for the Island Homes estates (the ones sold by the Council), the new area board would oversee all homes on the Isle of Dogs (thus including former Toynbee properties too).

Island Homes claims that the justification for the change is financial.  It says that One Housing Group has been subsidising Island Homes for the last few years.  Residents point out that Island Homes has been making a loss, this has been while One Housing has been in charge – which doesn’t bode well for future financial management.  Residents cite various odd One Housing Group practices, such as employing a seemingly endless stream of consultants in a top-heavy Island Homes management structure, as possible causes of financial problems – which the Island Homes Board would never have done before One Housing Group took over.  Residents are also up in arms about the hugely expensive Major Works programme, which has left precious little to see for the vast sums of money spent.  Before transfer, Island Homes had a 45 year business plan which was agreed by Tower Hamlets Council and by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: what, residents want to know, has gone wrong while One Housing Group has been in charge?

Island Homes’ Managing Director (employed by One Housing Group) explains to residents that doing away with Island Homes will save money on duplication of structures.  Residents answer that funding separate structures is a necessary evil in order to secure a truly responsive, local housing association of the kind they were promised and voted for – rather than the unresponsive white elephant they have been saddled with.

Resident activists tell ELN that there would be attractions for them in being a full part of One Housing Group.  Residents elsewhere in the group (which stretches from Newham to Berkshire) are also very dissatisfied with their landlord.  For example, when a group-wide residents meeting was held as part of the TSA’s “big conversation”, those attending spontaneously passed a vote of no confidence in One Housing Group at the start of the meeting (an element of the meeting which One Housing Group chose not to report to the TSA in their account of the meeting).  However, such attractions are not strong enough to outweigh the commitment of residents to see that the promises in the original offer document are upheld.

A residents’ campaign against dissolving Island Homes has swung into action and is calling on residents to return the Island Homes “consultation” postcards indicating that they do not wish Island Homes to be dissolved.

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