It’s hard to keep a secret in Tower Hamlets – so all credit to East End Homes for keeping the outcome of their meeting last week totally under wraps.
By way of context, you should know that when Labour Councillors decided to package up the borough’s Council housing estates and (in effect) auction them of to housing associations, they drew up a shortlist of social landlords who could bid for the estates. This included standards housing associations, both local and national, and the then Labour Council decided to vary the list of potential bidders by setting up East End Homes as something different.
What was different about East End Homes was that it was a housing association set up on the “community gateway” model. The three shareholders in East End Homes included the Council. Some sales to standard housing associations were, later, to go pear-shaped when the housing associations reneged on their pre-purchase promises, leaving the Council unable to bring them into line. The Council remaining as a shareholder of East End Homes gave the public a guarantee that East End Homes would stay true to the model the Council had set up.
Another shareholder was “residents”: that is, residents who chose to become members of the East End Homes company would, collectively, have a third of the vote at meetings of the East End Homes company. There was similar provision for members of the community who were not actually residents also to become community members of the company and participate. The point about having resident and local members was that we, the real stakeholders in what had been public stock, would continue to play a part in setting the strategic direction of East End Homes and, in particular, what East End Homes contributed to the borough as a whole. This made it different from other housing associations (where, most often, the shareholders are just the members of the board) and it was, and is, Council policy that East End Homes be run in this way so tenants had a choice.
Unfortunately, virtually from the outset East End Homes did not operate in the way it had been set up – and, therefore, fully in accordance with its own rules and governing documents. In particular, although East End Homes was supposed to have distinct shareholders – the Council, residents, the community – it operated in practice just like any other housing association. Standard housing associations have AGMs of their boards, as their board members are its shareholders. East End Homes had AGMs of its board – though its board members where not its shareholders, it treated them as if they were. Although residents were supposed to be able to join East End Homes and become part of the resident shareholder section, East End Homes refused for a long time to set up any membership scheme. When it finally did so, it put a procedure on its website which referred to how residents could fill in a form to become members: but it did not supply the form. It later supplied a form to the Council, but when residents started to fill these in and return them, East End Homes refused to process them – an interesting course of action, to which we shall return below.
And this brings us pretty much up to date, with the secretive meeting last week. About a year ago (OK: not quite up to date yet, then), East End Homes management announced that it was going to change its structure (by changing the company documents called the Memorandum and Articles) – to abolish the shareholders and turn East End Homes into your common or garden standard housing association again.
The Council said it didn’t want to be abolished, but also asked what consultation East End Homes had conducted with residents over whether they wanted to be abolished. There had been a little token consultation, but nothing meaningful – even though East End Homes signed the Tower Hamlets Federation’s Residents Charter, which committed it to meaningful consultation. The first time round, faced with this opposition, East End Homes withdrew its proposed changes and went off, ostensibly, to undertake further consultation – though no further consultation has really been seen.
And that does bring us up to date. There was a further meeting last week, allegedly called to abolish the shareholders, but East End Homes ain’t telling no one what happened there – and we have tried to find out.
We asked a source in the Council what happened. They couldn’t tell us – as it was not at all clear the Council knew what had happened, even though it is a shareholder.
We asked some residents what had happened, but they didn’t know. There were no resident shareholders at the meeting as East End Homes has refused to process any applications, as explained above. It is a deep irony, though not unique among housing associations, that East End Homes has refused to process membership applications essentially on the grounds that resident shareholders are to be abolished, so there is no point processing the forms for a short period – a period only long enough for resident shareholders to participate in the vote over whether they are to be abolished.
We asked a person who knows a lot of people what had happened there, but even that person couldn’t dig out the truth.
Finally, it dawned on us: why don’t we ask East End Homes? They should know! No, dear readers, it is not that simple. East End Homes has no telephone number or email address for its press office on its website, so we rang the general number. We were given the name of an officer who, we were told, deals with press inquiries, but he was off work today (22nd July) and no one covers his press responsibility when he is not in. His personal email address could not be given out and we were asked to email the general email address: we were assured an email would be passed on and dealt with and replied to. And we have not had a reply.
So, if anyone sees East End Homes over the next couple of days, would you kindly turn yourself into a citizen journalist and ask it what happened at its meeting? Has it abolished its residents? Has it abolished the community? Has it (succeeded where others have failed to have) abolished the Council? Do tell. And if anyone from East End Homes ever fesses up to us about what it’s doing, you, dear readers, will be the first to know.
•East End Homes has been asked to comment on what happened at its meeting last week and on its failure to be able to respond to the press on the day questions are put to it. We await their reply.