Glasgow Housing Association.

With two of its top team announcing their departures in recent weeks and constant speculation about its chief executive, the crisis-hit landlord will be scrutinised by the Financial Information Company Ltd after its stinging rebuke by the housing sector’s watchdog over the failure to meet core objectives.

It is understood the firm has been selected and imposed by the Scottish Housing Regulator following the publication of June’s inspection report.

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The £180,000-a-year-plus head of GHA, Taroub Zahran, has come under political fire for her decision to take a second summer holiday in the middle of the biggest crisis faced by the landlord in its seven-year history.

Anniesland MSP Bill Butler said: “I’m very surprised that the chief executive would take such an amount of time off away from the front line at this important time for the organisation, given that she’s paid top dollar.”

But GHA tenant chairwoman, Sandra Forsythe said: “This is not a second holiday. Taroub had to cut short her original holiday because of work commitments – not for the first time.”

Just last week the organisation’s head of strategy, Donna ­Stevenson, declared she was leaving, just weeks after colleague and finance director Robert Flanagan quit on the back of criticism from the Scottish Housing Regulator.

A GHA spokeswoman said: “The review will be carried out by a team of social housing experts and will seek direct input from GHA’s tenants as well as stakeholders including our funders, the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council.”

ANALYSIS

WHEN the £1bn cheque was signed and Wendy Alexander was tasked by Gordon Brown with drawing up the blueprint for a “third way” for Scotland’s largest municipal housing stock, the then Chancellor could never have envisaged that a row with Labour-controlled Glasgow Council would be a catalyst for an enforced overhaul of the shiny new future that was Glasgow Housing Association.

After some very public power struggles between

the local authority and its unlikely allies at the Nationalist Scottish Government on one hand and the landlord on the other, regime change is afoot at GHA, a clear indication that for all its financial clout it picked the wrong fights.

Two of its four top directors have quit in the past month, speculation continues to dog £180,000-plus chief executive Taroub Zahran and long-standing board members and power-brokers are understood to be on the cusp of exiting in the coming months.

Just yesterday it emerged that a team of England-based consultants would be tasked with preparing a strategy for GHA to address failings raised in its recent critical inspection by Scotland’s housing watchdog, amid claims the regulator is insisting upon personnel changes.

When the dust settles, the housing sector and many west of Scotland politicians expect Housing Minister Alex Neil to reduce GHA’s role and remit by handing much of it over to other agencies.

So what went wrong? And how did a bold experiment in empowering tenants and communities and overhauling some of the worst social housing in Britain become so unseemly?

The root of many of the problems can be traced back to the early part of the decade and GHA’s architects: Ms Alexander; her successor as Communities Minister Margaret Curran; and the then leader of Glasgow City Council, Charlie Gordon.

Their intended plan for GHA to be broken up after much of the improvement work had been carried out and the stock passed on to smaller, community-based associations, was not, it would transpire, based on the most robust financial analysis, and the issue of “second stage transfer” continues to significantly dog the agency.

The belief of Alexander, Curran and Gordon that a stand-alone body could continue to hand over all its repairs and maintenance work to the city council, despite European procurement legislation, would also come back to haunt.

However, to blame shaky foundations entirely excuses the landlord, the recipient of £900m in public money in recent years, of culpability.

Internally, GHA was quickly riddled with problems with leadership. The first chief executive was the late Bob Allan, who had to resign due to ill health and personal reasons, followed by Angelina Foster, who lasted six months.

Flamboyant former chief executive Michael Lennon then arrived from Australia but failed to win many friends in the housing sector, his tenure largely characterised by questions about a £200,000-plus salary and public gaffes.

He left before the end of his contract with a massive payout to be followed by internal appointment and present incumbent Taroub Zahran.

Almost from the outset it has also been beset by accusations of an obsession with corporate identity and a reluctance to even begin to dismantle given the generous salaries of many top staff and the empire created for it.

“Bloated” is a word never far away from the vocabulary of its opponents when discussing GHA. Initially there were upwards of 60 small organisations looking to take GHA housing stock. So far just six have had properties transferred in six years.

Under Ms Zahran’s stewardship GHA has shrewdly attempted to rebrand itself a “transformational” agency, suggesting it is a long-term vehicle for change in Glasgow, rather than a “transitional” one whose ultimate aim should be its successful dissolution.

Credit, though, where it is due. It has made significant improvements to the services provided to tenants, even if this is from a very low base, a fact recognised recently by the UK Government Cabinet Office, who awarded it accreditation to the Customer Service Excellence Standard and by the Scottish Housing Regulator, who praised it in the recent audit for the great progress it has made on changing the culture of the organisation.

However, many now consider that its mantra of tenants first, last and always is being used to mask other failings.

GHA sees itself as a victim of political interference and has won some support amongst those who see attempts to influence how it is run as symptomatic of the murky world of west of Scotland politics.

Such accusations could not be levelled at Glasgow LibDem MSP Robert

Brown, whose views distil the issue.

He said: “GHA was set up to delivery community empowerment to Glasgow’s council tenants, to revitalise their homes and to transfer ownership to the residents themselves. No-one would have supported the long-term replacement of Glasgow City Council, which at least is elected, by an unelected quango like GHA.

“The objective was to break up the huge monopoly of the council housing department into manageable community-led organisations run by the tenants themselves. The huge success of community-based housing associations shows how dynamic and effective this can be.

“GHA appears to have taken on a life of its own and must return to the original vision of community ownership. It has spent enormous amounts of time and effort trying to avoid second stage transfers going ahead.

“Like many others, I found great difficulty in accepting the financial basis on which they were prepared to agree transfers to local bodies. No-one could have sold houses on the open market on that basis.

“In essence the end result would have been that GHA would still retain a large organisation and substantial cash by the time they reached the point of getting rid of all their houses. This is ludicrous. The whole thing didn’t and doesn’t add up.

“GHA has been rightly and repeatedly criticised by the Housing Regulator. Its business plans have constantly changed. They have lost a number of their top directors and a raft of weaknesses remain. They have been given the spend of a huge amount of public money with little direct accountability to government or the council.

“There are question marks about some of their big IT projects, which have been regularly delayed and cost an arm and a leg.

“I also have concerns about the money spent on public relations, which is an unnecessary burden and seems designed to manipulate the public view of GHA.

“GHA is a transition body. It should have no long-term future.”

KEY PLAYERS

Wendy Alexander’s blueprint for GHA was not the most stable foundation. The maths for the break-up of GHA as originally intended never stacked up, while attempts to keep the unions in the old council housing department happy by promising continuity in repairs and maintenance work later fell under the microscope of Brussels.

Karen Watt, the Scottish Housing Regulator, was until recently disparagingly referred to in some quarters as “GHA ’s only friend”. However, a largely critical follow-up inspection to the much softer-touch report which came out in autumn 2007 is the catalyst for the ongoing personnel changes and speculation engulfing GHA . The Herald understands that just what she has demanded of the landlord will emerge in the coming weeks. Despite the independence of the SHR , many within GHA believe she is being steered by ministers.

Glasgow City Council leader Steven Purcell has been beset by accusations from within GHA that his authority simply wants to take back its

old housing portfolio now that it has been greatly improved. Although Mr Purcell has said the council’s housing stock would not have

been given away on his watch, close colleagues insist a return to council ownership has never been on his agenda. Despite claims he has been “strangely quiet”, Mr Purcell is said to be watching developments with interest.

Nationalist MSP for Central Scotland Alex Neil made it his business to understand GHA and its finances, homework that some say has

landed him his ministerial post. Keen to be seen as the minister who delivers second stage transfer, Mr Neil has fostered some unlikely alliances to achieve the holy grail, even if they have been publicly denied by him. The housing sector and west of Scotland politics awaits his next move.

Taroub Zahran’s future is the subject of almost feverish speculation in some quarters. Her position looks extremely vulnerable on the back of the

departures of half her executive team following what one friend of the agency described as “the regulator’s wrap on the knuckles”. Took over as the

GHA ’s chief executive in 2007, becoming the fourth person to fill the post in just five years.

An invisible figure to the outside world but seen by many in housing and politics as the real powerbroker in the association, GHA vice-chairman Fred Shedden, a retired solicitor specialising in company law, is also the subject of continuing speculation following the Regulator’s

report and accusations of governance weaknesses at board level. If he departs, he has any number of other directorships with which to fill his time.