Associate feature: SFHA chief executive Sally Thomas looks ahead in housing
New SFHA chief executive Sally Thomas is bringing some fresh ideas but she’s also keen to listen
Sally Thomas, chief executive, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations
Sally Thomas has housing in her blood. Her father was involved in new town development and she herself started off her housing journey setting up a cooperative in London.
This was followed by stints in housing associations in London and the north east of England, as well as working in regulation for the Homes and Communities Agency, private sector consultancy work, a government development corporation in the north east of England and various boards before joining the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) as its chief executive at the end of July.
Thomas says she has a “fundamental belief” that everyone has a right to a safe, warm, affordable, good quality home and that’s what brought her to Scotland.
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“What attracted me about Scotland was that there is a very coherent set of beliefs and values – at a political level, but also at a the levels of housing and social justice – that really accorded with what I believed and seemed to reflect what I believe and value, and it felt to me that there’s an opportunity to bring those two things together and have an impact on the ground, maybe beyond what I could do elsewhere.”
When we meet, Thomas is only eight weeks into the new role and she says she is very aware of having to do a lot of listening and learning.
“I’m very clear that while being a new person is good in the sense that you bring a fresh pair of eyes and thoughts and it’s always good to see things anew and for the first time, and that can be very helpful in informing views and making judgements, but you have to balance that against not rushing to judgement and making assumptions that might not be actually right.”
However, while cautious about jumping to conclusions, there are areas that Thomas has already identified as key concerns: house building, fuel poverty, welfare, and health and wellbeing.
The SFHA has already been clear that it wants to halt the rollout of Universal Credit, at least until issues are ironed out, to prevent tenants being driven into debt through no fault of their own.
On energy efficiency Thomas is concerned that 27 per cent of housing association tenants are living in fuel poverty and “that’s not acceptable”.
But one of the biggest challenges will be achieving the Scottish Government target on house building. That, says Thomas, requires a bit more detail and more flesh on the bones than just the figure of 50,000 new affordable homes in five years, 35,000 of which are to be for social rent.
“I think at a strategic level what is essential is to have a much longer term commitment to social housing development than five years.
“So five years is fantastic, that’s absolutely great, but we need something which is 10, 15, 20 years, in the same way we do for infrastructure.
“So we plan a new crossing across the Forth in advance and we give it years to come to fruition and then we give it years to actually be developed and the funding to be put in place.
“We don’t do that with housing. We limit it to three, five year cycles, or the length of parliament cycles, and what it means it that the industry doesn’t gear up fully, and doesn’t commit its workforce or money or capacity in the way it might if it was a long-term programme and it could plan for the long term.”
She suggests there needs to be a breakdown too of what the affordable homes local government and housing associations are responsible for means on an annual and a geographical basis so that everyone knows what’s expected of them.
She continues: “So, where do we need what kinds of homes? Do we just need 50 new homes for rent on the edge of a village or a town or actually do we need 40 and then five which are for disabled people and five for older people?
“There doesn’t seem to be that level of aligning need and demand by the people who need the housing with the big figures yet.”
Housing associations and local authorities do have these conversations, but she is concerned that without more detailed planning they may get overtaken by “‘oh, we’re going to have to build, let’s just build, because otherwise the government is going to miss its targets’”.
Thomas is pleased that there is cross-party commitment in Scotland to housing, and that action by the Scottish Government has included increasing the grant rate for social housing to 70 per cent and a commitment in the programme for government around homelessness.
“We’re really pleased about housing being given a real profile. And particularly about homelessness in the wider sense.
“It’s not just about rough sleeping, because rough sleeping is the aspect of homelessness people see and associate with it, but it’s about all the homeless families that we don’t see, that are regular families and no different to anybody else’s family, but just happen to get into really difficult situations in terms of housing.
“And I think as part of that I feel strongly also that we need to change the narrative on homelessness…
“We need to start thinking about how we talk about homelessness so we don’t start from the negative, which is ‘those people are homeless therefore there must be something wrong with them’…
“It’s the same with poverty. We sometimes talk about poverty as if people bring it on themselves, but poverty essentially is about the system, is about the structures.
“Mostly it’s not about individuals bringing it on themselves.”
Thomas could have been homeless herself. After university she lived in short-life accommodation in London, temporary homes in council houses that were about to be demolished, but faced with the prospect of becoming homeless she joined with some others to set up a housing co-operative – her first foray into housing.
At the time there was funding for it and she’s keen that options like that are available again.
“I want to see a situation where not only do housing associations and local authorities provide social rented housing, but people are more empowered to solve their own housing needs, where they’re able and capable of doing so, so to set up housing co-ops, to set up co-housing schemes, to set up their own ways of solving their own housing need,” she explains.
Old people of the future, she suggests, are not going to want to live in the kind of institutional care homes and sheltered housing that we have now and housing associations and local authorities need to look ahead and consider what will be needed.
“It’s not about saying ‘throw that out and bring this in’, it’s about taking a more modern view of things, so taking the best of what we do and making that fit for purpose and current, and what can we learn from elsewhere, like Europe, about co-housing for older people in Germany or Scandinavia, what can we do that’s new and different.
“And it’s exciting knowing that young people want something different, knowing that the next generation or older people want something different.”
That involves particularly bringing health and housing together to look after people’s wellbeing, which is a challenge of bringing the very different cultures together, Thomas says.
“It’s hard because it’s about building relationships, but it’s exactly the same thing that we try and do here. As SFHA, we represent housing associations and co-operatives, which are all social purpose organisations who care about housing.
“And we try and enable them to be stronger together than they are separately. It’s as simple as that.”
In the wake of Grenfell one thing Thomas is particularly keen to make sure of is that the structures are in place for residents to be heard.
Housing associations have always had tenant involvement and had structures in place to listen to people, but, says Thomas, they just need to check that it’s working as well as it can and make sure they are doing it in a way that’s going to make sense.
“We can never rest on our laurels,” she says. “We can never just say, ‘it’s fine, we’ve got tenant participation programmes in hand, we’ve got tenant involvement mechanisms, we listen to our customers and tenants’ – and we do as a sector, we really do – but is what we’re doing going to be good enough for the future, that’s the question?”
“So I think that’s a really important issue, because I think the intelligence of the people who live in our homes is critical to how we develop them, what we do with them, where we go from here.”
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