SBC and SBHA ‘didn’t talk for seven years’

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BACK in 2003, the transfer of around 7,000 council homes in the Borders to a new housing association was the largest ever undertaken in Scotland, writes Andrew Keddie.

The £24million which Scottish Borders Council (SBC) received from the Scottish Borders Housing Association (SBHA) went straight to the Scottish Executive, as it was then known, which, in turn, agreed to write off the historical debt on the properties – worth three times as much.

But within a year the stock transfer had turned sour.

SBHA, which had undertaken, before a ballot of tenants, to invest around £10million a year on its new acquisitions – in contrast to the £3million which SBC could afford – claimed it had paid £19million over the odds for the houses. It cited omissions and inaccuracies in the information, particularly about undisclosed assets such as streetlighting and car parks, the council had supplied to the independent valuer and it wanted its money back.

As reported in these columns last month, that long-standing legal claim, which had twice been reduced – to £15.23million in 2008 and to £8.53million latterly – has been settled for a mere £250,000 with SBC leader David Parker declaring the agreement “a new dawn”.

He revealed yesterday that Scotland’s new housing minister will, after the May 5 election dust settles, be invited to the Borders in June to launch a new partnership agreement between the erstwhile protagonists,

“One of the saddest aspects of the legal wrangle was that no discussions at any meaningful level have taken place between the council and SBHA since 2004,” said Councillor Parker.

“Given that the council is responsible for housing the homeless and is committed to stimulating an economy in desperate need of more affordable housing and that SBHA is by far the biggest registered social landlord (RSL) in the Borders, this was a highly frustrating and unsatisfactory situation.”

Both councillors and board members of SBHA have now been briefed on the partnership arrangement, known simply as the Scottish Borders Housing Concordat, which Mr Parker believes will deliver huge benefits.

The concordat, though not explicit in the legal settlement signed last month, identifies key actions and outlines projects which will bring them to fruition, including opportunities for both organisations, working together, to:

z Identify a funding solution to the regeneration of Hawick’s Stonefield estate and the development of new affordable housing in the Borders; options will be identified within six months and a loan facility of up to £10million could be made available by SBC, via the Public Loans Board, to fund the work;

z Develop a joint land and property investment vehicle to create an ongoing supply of land and property assets for a range of regeneration projects;

z Create a common housing register to replace the two currently maintained by the four RSLs (SBHA, Waverley, Eildon and Berwickshire);

z Identify options for SBHA to develop and manage affordable housing, by taking part in the National Housing Trust initiative or managing SBC’s temporary accommodation units;

z Improve the support given to SBHA tenants experiencing rent arrears to avoid eviction and to those aged under 19 who are in danger of losing their tenancies; methods will include SBC offering respite accommodation for young tenants and SBHA targeting groups of youngsters under threat of eviction to improve “tenancy sustainment”;

z Rationalise the services of both organisations to provide improved repairs and maintenance services for the council’s temporary homeless units;

z Establish a project group to look at alternative uses for non-lettable SBHA properties and create a joint working group to deliver apprenticeships which are cost-effective to SBHA and provide better outcomes for the council.