Housing Associations: More From The Dark Side

My previous post drew a number of comments and provided some interesting feedback via other media. It also inspired Councillor Neil McEvoy of Cardiff to make enquiries with housing associations in the south east. (Click panel to enlarge.) One who answered to the rattling cage was Hefina Rendle, Communications and Neil McEvoyPublic Relations Manager at Tai Calon. (Some will remember that before joining Tai Calon in January 2012 Ms Rendle was a broadcast journalist with the BBC.)

I hadn’t previously heard of Tai Calon, it doesn’t appear among the housing associations I dealt with in my previous post, those listed as being in receipt of the Social Housing Grant (see table from previous post). Tai Calon was formed in July 2010 from Blaenau Gwent’s council housing stock, and cheerfully admits to receiving £19.67 million from the ‘Welsh’ Government, with more promised – until 2041!  But if this money is not coming via the SHG, which funding stream is coughing up? Or perhaps the question should be – just how many funding streams are there for housing associations (and not just from the ‘Welsh’ Government)?

What I assume to be Tai Calon’s mission statement reads: “We have about 300 members of staff … from building trades to administrators and neighbourhood managers.  We are committed to creating as many job and work opportunities as possible.  We also aim to recruit locally as possibly.  We try to use firms and suppliers from the area, keeping as much of the income we generate within Blaenau Gwent for the benefit of everyone who lives and works in the county”. “We aim to recruit locally as possibly”! Apart from the obvious error, Blaenau Gwent is the poorest area in the poorest country in Europe, it should be mandatory to recruit locals.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now, so let me return to the McEvoy – Rendle dialogue. A few tweets passed between them, I chipped in, drew a Christmas cracker aporhism from Ms Rendle, and we didn’t really get anywhere. But seeing as Neil McEvoy had asked about the CEO’s salary, I made a bee-line for the ‘Meet the Executive Team‘ page on the Tai Calon website.

The Chief ExecutiveTai Calon Exec Team is Jen Barfoot, who is of course English (this being the Third Sector in Wales). In fact, of the four listed on the Executive Board (click to enlarge), three are English . . . so much for the promise of local recruitment. It often seems that the Third Sector in Wales exists for no better reason than to provide sinecures for thousands of English people who can’t cut it in the world of real business. Because wherever you look, from housing associations to health boards, from higher education to Tony Payne, the custodian of Caerffili Castle – who so clearly identifies with those who built the castle rather than with the horrid and inferior “Welshmen” beyond its walls – all you find are English third-raters clinging to the pendulous mammaries of Welsh public funding.

Tai Calon’s Board is rather more representative of the community of Blaenau Gwent, but scrolling down past Fred Davies, and Shirley, who lives in the house in which she was born in Nantyglo, we come to yet more teat tuggers. First, Debbie Green, Group Chief Executive at the Coastal Housing Group in Swansea, who “obtained a history degree from Cambridge and moved to Cardiff in 1988 to start her accountancy training with Deloittes and subsequently PWC. Since qualifying as a Chartered Accountant she has worked in finance roles connected with Lottery grant Steve Porterfunding in the Arts Council of Wales, before moving to Chwarae Teg in 2001 as Director of Finance and Resources”. There, laid out for you, is the perfect Third Sector career path. But of more interest is the man we find at the bottom of the column, Steve Porter, co-opted onto the Board. Steve tells us he “enjoys living locally with his family in the South valleys”. Condescending crap that could only be written by another English immigrant with free Welsh milk all over his face.

The reason I find Steve Porter interesting is that he works for that behemoth in the world of Welsh social housing, the Wales and West Housing Association Ltd which, curiously, also receives funding from the English government. Between 2008 and 2013 Wales and West received a whopping £63 million in Social Housing Grant alone from the ‘Welsh’ Government. Alarming though that is, the real reason I homed in on smiling Steve is that his Tai Calon bio credits him with setting up ‘Cambria Maintenance Services Ltd’, described as a “subsidiary building company”. Subsidiary, that is, to Wales and West.

Nothing wrong with that if Cambria had been set up to maintain Wales and West’s housing stock, that’s no more than a local authority would have done. But if that was the case, why not just call it the Maintenance Department of Wales and West? Why does Cambria need to be a fully commercial operation, registered with Companies House (Company Number 07389484)?

My concerns about Cambria Maintenance Services Ltd are encapsulated in this passage from the JobsinWales.com website (my underlining): “The company, with divisions in Cardiff and Holywell, Flintshire, has established an excellent reputation for its quality of workmanship and service to its customers. Cambria is an independent company run Cambria Maintenanceon a commercial basis and being part of the WWH Group provides it with considerable security as it doesn’t need to repeatedly tender for works and risk losing contracts”. How can Cambria be both “independent” and “part of the WWH group”.

It suggests to me that Cambria is an “independent company” that has its ‘bread and butter’ work guaranteed by publicly funded social housing; but, as a private company, it’s also free to chase the ‘jam’ of outside commercial work. Which gives Cambria the best of both worlds and an unfair advantage over competitors that must survive, without featherbedding, in the normal business environment. Is this how housing associations are supposed to operate? And it may not be confined to Cambria. For in among Wales and West’s ‘Services and Initiatives’ there’s Castell Catering, and Connect 24 Alarms.

Which raises the question of why Steve Porter was co-opted on to the Board of Tai Calon. My guess would be that if Cambria isn’t already working in Blaenau Gwent then it very soon will be. As might Wales and West, and Steve Porter himself. For in the dog-eat-dog world of housing associations Tai Calon is a chihuahua, Wales and West a pit bull. You read it here first, folks.

Cambria Maintenance Services is another example of Wales’ shadowy, almost Soviet-style ‘economy’, which promotes the illusion of a system based on competition and profitability, but at no real risk for many of those participating because they are underwritten by the State.

The social housing sector – and the Third Sector generally – is a monster sucking up funding and damaging our wider economic prospects. It is yet another example of the Labour Party pandering to the effects of poverty rather than tackling its causes. For if Wales had a stronger economy there would be more people buying their own homes and we wouldn’t need to pour such obscene sums into housing associations and their offshoots.

With such easy money to be made, so few questions asked, and with their documented experience in ‘housing’, I’m surprised that Nathan Gill and his brothers-in-law haven’t got involved in the housing association racket. It can only be a matter of time . . .

17 thoughts on “Housing Associations: More From The Dark Side

  1. Brychan

    Back in July of this year, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister announced that over £6million was to be allocated to a ‘Pathway’ project for veterans discharged from the British Armed Forces.

    In the bidding process, £4million was awarded to Haig Housing, based around the garrison town of Colchester in Essex and Riverside Housing based around the two garrison towns of Catterick (sic) and Aldershot. However, both these ‘pathways’ to housing were deficient in their ability to provide housing and support for veterans with “disability and additional complex needs”.

    This requirement was awarded to First Choice Housing Association based in Penarth, South Wales. They will get over £2million from the UK government. First Choice currently provides 158 homes for over 480 tenants across Wales and Shropshire, and will provide support to former soldiers who are sick, injured or homeless to adjust to civilian life and get jobs. A total of £2.2m will be allocated to special needs housing schemes, specifically in Wrexham, Flintshire and Ceredigion through First Choice.

    Stoll will run the housing referral scheme out of their West London headquarters, who will validate service record and housing needs to obtain access to the housing pathway projects,and provide benefit advice and assistance with administration, form-filling etc.

    Is this a case of keeping the fit skilled de-mobs in England and dumping the injured ones in Wales? Will the MoD be handing over the ‘funding follows the patient’ to NHS Wales? Why is it ‘easier’ to find a job in Wrexham and Cerdigion rather than Essex or Hampshire if you are disabled or injured? Just asking.

  2. Brychan

    The HACT100 group.

    This advertises itself as “a network for leading housing associations in the field of community investment and part of an international knowledge-sharing forum, developed in partnership with the University of Birmingham.” One of the products it provides to members is ‘Population Insight’ a database produced by “Oxford Consultants For Social Inclusion” and the “Metropolitan Migration Foundation”. This product is available to all HA members and provides “free instant access to data about who lives in your neighbourhoods”. Essentially it’s a data merge of NHS England, Census2011 and other ‘wellbeing’ data.


    HAs in Wales who are in the HACT100 are North Wales Housing, Bron Afon, Newydd HA and V2C. These HAs have a particularly strong presence in the ‘sheltered housing’ sector for the elderly, ill and infirm.

    On 16th July 2014 a free seminar is available to the HACT100 in Camden, NW1. This event will explore the need for future care pathways that “include housing associations as part of the NHS supply chain and build community based solutions for people with the most complex needs.” Basically a seminar on how to migrate elderly people with dementia identified by English NHS Trusts into sheltered accommodation. In the case of the four Welsh HAs who are members, into their sheltered accommodation portfolio in Wales.

    An alternative playaway for HACT100 members is the “fun-filled, disruptive, participant-led, semi-curated festival and un-conference” branded as ‘House Party’ on 24th June in Manchester.

  3. Robin

    Just to reiterate, I’m not an expert so there may well be flaws in my assertions which may well be too simplistic and banal but this is my understanding of the issues:

    Local authorities who retain their housing stock are constrained financially. They’re not free to seek loans to modernise homes as any borrowing would add to public sector indebtedness (ie increase the national debt).

    If a local authority’s social housing stock is transferred to a housing association, however, the situation is transformed. The HA can approach the loan market knowing it has fixed assets (ie houses) with a market value worth many millions, even billions. These assets can be used as security to attract substantial loans which in turn can be used to modernise the social housing stock. As the HA is not in the public sector, the loans will not increase the national debt and are therefore off the national balance sheet.

    The Housing Association business seems to hinge on two things – lots of fixed assets (ie homes) and substantial debt. So increasing house prices and historically low interest rates provide an ideal commercial operating climate for them. So in a time of austerity it’s a great time to be an executive working for a housing association as all the commercial pressures seem to be working in their favour. It will be interesting nevertheless to see how they cope in the next 5-10 years as interest rates return to normal.

    As to who benefits from the borrowing. It should be the tenants who should be living in well-maintained, modernised houses. But I totally agree with you that the level of transparency and accountability needs to be tightened a notch or two.

    1. Jac

      So, the UK national debt is even worse than is being admitted; and the fact that housing associations are being used in this way might explain their ambivalent status, which in turn results in a lack of transparency.

  4. Robin

    My understanding is that the indebtedness is one of the key attractions of HAs. The debt is off-balance sheet ie not included in the national debt and it allows HAs, in theory at least, to enhance the quality of the housing stock. As a result, the social housing provided by a HA should be demonstrably better than that supplied by a LA. And as house prices and rents increase the capacity to borrow shifts up another gear. While the 2000s was a productive decade in terms of higher house prices/rents, the 2010s have been similarly benign with historically low interest rates. So billions of pounds of fixed assets, manageable debt, unquenchable demand for the product (much of it underwritten by HMG), light regulatory touch(?) and virtually no risk if you’re sensible. Great sector to be in.

    1. Jac

      I’m not as au fait as you with the subtle economics at work here, so I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Could you explain the significance and benefit of the debt being “off-balance” and “not included in the national debt”. And why would it be a “great sector to be in”? Surely, if these are not-for-profit organisations, and executives are on fixed salaries, who benefits from the constant borrowing?

  5. Robin

    Thank you, Jac, for opening up a debate on this. I don’t know much about this sector but my impression is that some local authorities have transferred their housing stock to HAs; HAs, unlike LAs, are able to borrow on these assets; Welsh HAs now have debts of some £2bn; these loans have enabled HAs to upgrade their stock of houses; but also HAs are not short of cash and have an appetite for swank HQ buildings with matching salaries.

    Moving the housing stock from the dead hand of LAs to innovative HAs has a certain attraction but the lack of transparency and accountability is a legitimate cause for concern.

    1. Jac

      Quite a few of these housing associations are seriously in debt, and you have to wonder why. With guaranteed income from rents (which is all local authorities had), massive grants from the ‘Welsh’ Government and others, why do they need to take out loans? The truth is they’re in an ‘Arms Race’ with each other, forced to grow from fear of being taken over, plus the empire-building of executives, too many of whom shouldn’t be in Wales.

      Accountability I have mentioned elsewhere.

  6. Brychan

    The council housing stock in Rhondda Cynon Taf was hived off to an outfit called RCT Homes. They promote an outfit, and have a financial arrangement with, ‘MoneyLine Cymru’, who flog short term loans to the poorest, at interest rates starting at 160%APR.


    Don’t be fooled by the ‘Cymru’ tag in it’s advertising. It’s a ‘Provident Society’ based in Lancashire.
    Details of this outfit is here…


    You will notice the boast, “Housing Associations in Wales approached us about opening subsidised branches there.” It’s main loan book is actually held by “East Lancashire Moneyline (IPS) Limited”, (FSA-29282R), based on the Greenbank Business Park in Blackburn. The term ‘subsidised branches’ relate to capital funds provided though the DWP’s grant system called “growth fund initiative”, although the only growth appears to be the debt burden of Welsh tenants and plush glass fronted banking palaces in Lancashire.

    1. Jac

      As ever, Brychan, you come up with the goods. Fancy the fluffy, lovable housing associations having their very own Wonga. I though these buggers were pushing credit unions. Hypocrites!

      1. Brychan

        The registered principle of East Lancashire Moneyline (IPS) Limited is Ms Diane Burridge.
        Here is her speech..

        Ever helpful Ms Burridge also sits on the Cabinet Office Affordable Lending Steering Group, a policy body set up by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

        1. Jac

          Interesting that you should mention the Department for Communities and Local Government, which in a big player in Welsh housing. First, because the Planning Inspectorate is an executive agency of the DCLG. Second, because the Housing Directorate, which oversees social housing in Wales is also, I believe, answerable to the DCLG.

          So what we have here with Moneyline is a government department in London using its Welsh branch office to push money towards an English company. As I believe the Housing Directorate has done in other instances; such as getting housing associations to give contracts to English firms or, as is the case with Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd, hand over its entire maintenance programme to the English company Lovell.

  7. adarynefoedd

    Jac – a good point made in the previous post and referred to by Llew is that Councils were not able to borrow or improve their housing stock, they also did not have the capacity to develop specialist provision. The HAs have been pretty good at providing housing for people with a learning disability (Wales led the way in the UK) and also have taken on women’s refuges, projects for care leavers etc. Before you say these projects are for ‘the English’, these problems also occur in the ‘Welsh’ population. I cannot see that an Assembly run housing service would have the flexibility or imagination to meet these needs. It was not a wonderful system before HAs took it on, lots of nepotism in allocations for example.

    Most allocations are via homelessness and unless we are are willing to roll back the legislation, we will not stop the ‘needy’ skipping past the deserving. The allocations to English people with problems is quite a complex problem and I do not know of any recent research on pathways to social housing in Wales.

    1. Jac

      I am not for one minute arguing that domestic violence and other issues are not found in the Welsh population, that would be absurd. My point has always been that England’s problems should not be our problems, and a drain on Welsh public funding, causing further problems in Welsh communities.

      I don’t understand your point about a national body lacking “flexibility or imagination”. A women’s refuge is a women’s refuge, whether it’s in Llandudno or Llanelli; the elderly need special housing all over Wales. Why can’t these and other needs be met by a national organisation with local panels, perhaps according with the new local authorities we’ll have in a few years time?

      Talking of local authorities, it is generally agreed that 22 is too many in a country of 3.1 million people (and I agree) – so why do we have more than double that number of housing associations, and why is that OK? Do you know that there are 14 housing associations operating in RCT? Twelve in Powys? There is massive duplication, competition, and waste of money, much if not most of that money comes from the Welsh public purse.

      On top of which there is the lack of transparancy. Why should organisations receiving so much public funding be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act? And there’s the other point I mentioned to ‘Llew’, which I’ll copy and paste: ‘And what about the issue dealt with in this post of a HA branching out with its own private company or companies, subsidised by the public purse? How would you feel if you if were a small businessman bankrupted by a lower tender from a HA offshoot?’

      The old council system had its flaws, but they were human rather than institutional. A national system along the lines of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will need work to hammer out the details. But to pretend that the mish mash of housing associations we have now, forever merging and re-aligning, swallowing each other up, new ones appearing, is the best of all possible worlds is only possible when that world is viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of socialism.

      Because that is a very important consideration in any discussion of housing associations, as too many socialists will blind themselves to the obvious problems with the current social housing system. Which is little more than a very expensive shambles.

  8. Inthe 1960’s I moved fromGorseinon to Dunvant – the house were buying wasn’t ready so we moved into a maisonette in Derlwyn Dunvant. The Landlords were Cambrian Housing it later became Wales & the West H.A. Thought this information might help you untangle more of the puzzle. Whilst under Cambrian it didn’t appear to be a H.A. We only stayed there for 3 months and neither my then husband nor I were eligible for social housing!!!!!

  9. Llew

    I’m not sure about this to be honest. HAs becoming multi-million pound businesses is a result of the pressure since Thatcher to sell the council housing stock. I am no fan of Thatcher (far from it!) but most councils, and this happened in all of this island, couldn’t maintain their stock very well, didn’t have the resources, etc. There was pressure from central govt to reduce the size of the state. So we have seen the privatisation of social housing. Why woud six figure salaries be a surprise?

    I’m unsure what you’re calling for. HAs to be nationalised? Would WG run it all centrally? The point you make about people owning their homes is waffle sorry jac, you do realise many people can’t afford to and HAs operate in England and Scotland too. Is there a social housing grant in Scotland from the SNP govt? As far as i know Scotland is building alot of social housing through HAs.

    I do get the point you make about local allocation/qualification. That is crucial and that’s where Government control is needed. I also support you scrutinising them generally as they have to be more open, and i genuinely say well done on putting them in the spotlight. I’m open to be persuaded but not 100% convinced HAs themselves have a negative impact. Ideally we would have retained all stock locally.

    1. Jac

      Housing associations are monsters that may have been created (indirectly) by Margaret Thatcher, but in Wales they have developed into a powerful political lobby, a drain on public funding, and a refuge for English public sector professionals who make a mockery of ‘serving the community’ because they don’t know the community. Most of the them don’t care, it’s only a job, a step on the career ladder.

      Despite having received hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) in public funding in Wales HAs are opaque in their structure and difficult to get information about because they are exempt from the Freedom of Information legislation. It is indefensible that bodies getting so much public funding should be able to withhold information from those who subsidise them – the Welsh public.

      Then there is the issue of local allocations . . . or, rather, the problem of non-local allocations. Why the hell is Welsh public funding being used to house drug addicts, problem families and all manner of criminals and undesirables from over the border? People in all parts of Wales can see this happening, but it cannot be debated because there is a policy of blanket denial by both HAs and politicians.

      As for my “waffle” (you swine!) about people being able to buy their own homes, one step in that direction would be to abolish BTL mortgages. If the ‘Welsh’ Government lacks the authority to do this, then why isn’t a ‘socialist’ administration like Carwyn’s gang demanding this power?

      And what about the issue dealt with in this post of a HA branching out with its own private company or companies, subsidised by the public purse? How would you feel if you if were a small businessman bankrupted by a lower tender from a HA offshoot?

      I would have social housing run by a national organisation at arms length from the ‘Welsh’ Government, with input from local authorities and councillors co-opted onto local panels. There would be a five-year Wales residency qualification before anyone was accepted onto the waiting list. Such a structure would be fairer, and much cheaper to run than the current multiplicity of housing associations. If 22 local authorities is too many, how can we justify an even greater number of HAs? Especially when they have no fixed territorial boundaries and often overlap, and come into competition!

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