Monday, 31 December 2012

Chickens Coming Home to Roost Over Cosmopolitan Housing?

I understand that Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Housing Group have “experienced significant challenges” recently, so much so that they may only be rescued by a takeover by Riverside - another Registered Social Landlord (RSL), though this takeover is in itself now doubtful (see Inside Housing 7 December, 2012) . 

I believe that a certain Bill Snell recently resigned as Chair “for personal reasons”. I happen to have a letter from him which included a threat of legal action if I didn’t desist from making “spurious and false” allegations about impropriety in Cosmo, and suggesting that their board were less than perfect in their duty of scrutinising the staff’s activities. I had written to Mr. Snell in the hope that he as a new broom would sweep cleaner than his predecessors who had refused to deal with a complaint I had brought to them several years earlier. Their imperviousness had caused me to write a blog in frustration in 2009, one line of which now seems prescient: “...With scrutiny of this level of intensity, would it be unreasonable to fear that if one searches behind Marybone House's clean facades, one might find festering there much more malignant malpractice?“ I had written to every member of the board individually, suggesting that “ and your Board colleagues may want to satisfy yourselves that CHA’s “normal procedure” does not consist of intentionally sabotaging - without justification - the innocent and best intentioned efforts of ordinary professionals to provide decent affordable housing to the people of Sefton, while earning a decent return in the process.” I know the board never discussed the matter, and I never once received a response, until Mr. Snell’s dismissive letter, several years later.

An HCA official is quoted as suggesting that poor governance may have a part to play in Cosmo’s current troubles. I felt a long-overdue vindication for my lonely campaign when I read that, because it had long been clear to me that governance appeared to be a problem within the organisation. It is however also troubling to see how far this appears to extend beyond Cosmo into the regulatory sector. Having had no satisfaction from Cosmopolitan’s board, I appealed to the Housing Corporation and found them wanting. They were replaced by the Tenant Services Authority who were no more helpful. I am doubtful about at least certain sections and/or individuals within the current regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency, because as recently as this August, despite the proverbial brown matter hitting the fan at Cosmopolitan, someone from their regulatory department could write to me stating with apparent confidence that “... there was no evidence of a breach of regulatory standards in relation to the matters raised...”

This suggests that today, all these years later, there are several individuals and organisations who may have serious questions to answer about how effectively they have been regulating Cosmopolitan, and probably other RSLs. We have enough recent examples of victims of crime and malpractice being ignored by those whose duty is to protect the public and ensure justice for the maligned, oppressed and abused – the Hillsborough Disaster and Jimmy Savile Scandal revelations are just two. My own cries for help fell on deaf ears, and I now feel that I was a potential proverbial canary in the coal mine that was ignored right from the start. 

Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale and sing a different song, but I still consider it a shame that we are now watching the chickens coming home to roost for Cosmopolitan, when good governance within the group and in the regulatory system could have prevented this. I also read somewhere the HCA’s director of regulation is quoted as referring to Cosmpolitan’s troubles as a “one-off”. Let’s hope, for the sake of the social housing sector and their tenants in Merseyside and elsewhere, that he is right. 

Update: Podcast of BBC Radio 4 Programme, File on 4, "What Price Social Housing?" Broadcast 27 October. Puts Cosmopolitan's demise in a very worrying, larger context.