MSP voices fears over SBHA governance

Scottish Borders Housing Association in Selkirk.
Scottish Borders Housing Association in Selkirk.

Scottish Borders Council (SBC) will be urged today (Thursday) to approve changes to the governance arrangements of the region’s largest social landlord.

The local authority is being asked to waive the longstanding requirement for a set level of council and tenant representation on the board of management of the Selkirk-based Scottish Borders Housing Association (SBHA).

That organisation, with 5,600 rented properties and annual income of around £22m, says it wants a more streamlined “skill-based” system of governance which will “demonstrate enhanced customer focus”.

When, in 2003, SBC agreed to transfer nearly 7,000 homes to SBHA – a number since diminished by right-to-buy – it was the largest housing stock transfer in Scotland.

The association’s first 18-strong board of management comprised five tenant representatives, five independent members, five SBC councillors and three co-optees. In 2014, SBHA reduced the size of its board to 15, with SBC approving a reduction in its representation to three.

Under the transfer agreement, SBHA is not permitted to “reduce the level of local authority or tenant representation or the ability of tenants to participate in the running of the association … without the council’s prior written consent”.

The association is now seeking that consent to cut the membership of its board to a maximum of 13 and remove minimum quotas for tenants and councillors.

Councillor Simon Mountford (Con, Kelso), one of the three SBC representatives and current chairman of the SBHA board of management, told us: “Compulsory council representation on the board of a £22m business which must be versatile and responsive to new opportunities and challenges has become an anachronism,” said Mr Mountford.

“It is also a requirement not imposed on any of the other registered social landlords [Berwickshire, Waverley and Eildon] in the Borders.

“I can give a categorical assurance that tenants will still be represented on the board – there may even be more than the current limit of five – and their role will be further enhanced through the establishment of a new customer board which will liaise directly with the independent Scottish Borders Tenants’ Organisation (SBTO].

However, regardless of today’s decision, local SNP MSP Christine Grahame says she intends raising the issue with housing minister Kevin Stewart.

“I have a number of concerns,” said Ms Grahame, “not least that abolishing guaranteed places for councillors and tenants will reduce the demoncratic accountability of this key provider of social housing.

“I am worried, too, that under the proposed new set-up, tenants may only have a consultative role in governance which I consider a retrograde step.”

SBHA says that if consent for the changes is granted, a “full tenant consultation” will take place, with the association’s shareholding members having a final vote at a special general meeting this summer.

Ms Grahame ran a public survey for SBHA residents on her website throughout February, and she says the conclusion was that it needs to improve its customer service in all areas.

She said: “I’d like to thank those constituents who took the time to fill in my survey about their experiences of SBHA. The contributions to the survey have been compiled to produce a report which I have sent to SBHA. I am now arranging a meeting with the chief executive, Julia Mulloy, to discuss my findings in more detail.

“My aim now is to work with SBHA to identify practical ways to resolve the complaints I have received from constituents.

“At the same time I would hope that SBHA will improve their procedures to minimise the number of complaints arising in the first place.”

The report on Ms Grahame’s survey findings is available on her website – 
www.christinegrahame.com