By Councillor Marc Francis
Marc has been one of the Labour councillors for Bow East ward in Tower Hamlets for the past ten years, serving as the borough’s Lead Member for Housing & Development between 2008 and 2010.
Three years ago I wrote a piece for Red Brick about how one of London’s big G15 housing associations, One Housing Group, had betrayed the promises made to tenants on four Isle of Dogs estates transferred from Tower Hamlets Council, and dissolved their local resident-led subsidiary, Island Homes – ending any meaningful local accountability. Last year, it was revealed that One Housing Group had drawn up “Project Stone” – secret plans to demolish most of the existing 2,000 homes on these riverside estates and replace them with up to 10,000 new flats, only a fraction of which would be genuinely affordable.
When I wrote that piece I already had fears another of the G15, Circle Housing Group, had similar plans for its subsidiary, Old Ford Housing Association. Old Ford was born in the late-1990s out of the Housing Action Trust in Bow, and in its early years, it was one of the best housing associations in Tower Hamlets. Technically, it was a subsidiary of Circle 33 Housing Trust, but had wide-ranging autonomy. With residents at the heart of decision-making, it had transformed three of the borough’s most neglected estates into fantastic neighbourhoods.
As a result, Tower Hamlets Council felt confident in backing the transfer of four more Bow estates in 2005. However, Defend Council Housing set its sights on persuading tenants on these “Parkside” estates to vote against the transfer, and the ballot was only won by the narrowest of margins. It was then challenged vigorously in the courts and the transfer only finally went ahead nearly two years later. As a local councillor, I was determined to ensure Old Ford delivered on the promises it had made, and so I started attending its Board meetings as an observer. Later I joined the Board.
What I didn’t clock at the time of the transfer was that, just as Toynbee Housing had merged with Community to form One Housing Group, at the time the Isle of Dogs estates were being transferred, so Circle 33 had merged with Anglia Housing while the long drawn-out decision to transfer the Parkside estates was being made. To be fair, the potential merger is mentioned in the “Offer Document”. But there was no objective analysis about what that merger might mean or extra safeguards. It was simply assumed Circle Housing Group would take the same approach as Circle 33’s Directors had done – allowing Old Ford to continue as a community-based housing association
That very quickly turned out to be wildly optimistic assumption. And over the past eight years, Old Ford’s Board has been engaged in a constant rear-guard action as Circle has sought to take more and more of Old Ford’s powers to itself. Many battles were eventually lost, but some were won.
In 2013, this centralising agenda forced Old Ford to drop its pretty good repairs contract with Mears and bring in Kier instead. No longer would Old Ford determine the contract and manage it. Circle would do all that. And its own Management Board had responsibility for overseeing it. The contract was an absolute disaster right from the outset. Kier were hopeless. But if anything, Circle’s own team were even worse. Old Ford’s Board rang alarm bells about the appalling service for more than a year, without Circle taking the action necessary to fix it. Eventually, the Homes & Communities Agency regulator investigated and found widespread evidence of “serious detriment” to tenants. As a result, it downgraded Circle’s governance-rating to G3 – one step up from the dustbin.
Circle was required to draw up an action plan to improve its governance. Almost inevitably, Circle chose to identify its current group structure as the problem. Despite the fact that the regulator had not cast any doubt upon the effectiveness of the Board of either Old Ford or Circle 33 (whose residents experienced similar problems), Circle plans now to dissolve all its subsidiaries into a single centralised housing association. It is also lining up a merger with another G15 player to “create the biggest housing association in Europe”, while laying off hundreds of staff and moving others either to its swanky new St Pancras HQ or a call centre in Kent.
Meanwhile in Bow, half the promised Parkside estate improvements remain outstanding three years after the date they were supposed to be completed, and many of our constituents have been left without heating and hot water for weeks on end because Circle still can’t properly manage its gas repairs contract. (In a nice touch, Old Ford residents are themselves having to cover the thousands of pounds being shelled out in compensation payments to those who struggle through the formal complaint’s process, as well as the extra cost of the premium rates being charged by Circle’s interim responsive repairs contractor.)
We still have a two or three good housing associations in Tower Hamlets – organisations that prioritise delivering an efficient, sympathetic and value for money service to existing residents first and think about development opportunities second. But this experience with One Housing Group and now Circle, as well as evidence of the poor quality service provided by other members of the G15 to tenants in Bow, has shaken my faith in the housing association movement to its core. There is no way I would support a stock transfer again. The truth is that the central concerns raised by Defend Council Housing have in these instances been proved to be absolutely right.
That, of course, is scant consolation to Parkside estate residents. Councillors in Tower Hamlets that got our residents into this mess, must now do everything we can to help get them out of it. Fortunately, back in 1998 wise heads insisted on a clause in Old Ford’s founding articles giving it the power to leave Circle 33 if it wanted to. We don’t imagine this Old Ford-exit will be easy. But with the right support or partnership, it is possible. And at a packed public meeting over the weekend we kicked off a campaign to persuade the regulator to allow Old Ford’s Board to properly explore this option without fear of their being removed by Circle, and for residents to be given the final say.
Three years ago, both the regulator and Housing Minister turned a blind eye to One Housing Group’s betrayal on the Isle of Dogs. We are determined to ensure that they don’t let Circle do the same with Old Ford.