THE head of Scotland's biggest publicly funded housing association and social landlord has seen his wages soar by 63% in eight years to nearly half a million pounds while rent arrears in the cost of living crisis hit a record high of £169m.

The remuneration package of Martin Armstrong, the chief executive of the Wheatley Group, which owns or manages homes in 19 of Scotland's 32 local authority areas, has been described as "obscene" by housing campaigners and amounts to nearly three times as much as Scotland's First Minister.

His £418,000 salary package, including pension contributions, has soared since 2014 when he got £256,000-a-year and was then responsible for owning and managing around 77,000 homes in 15 local authority areas.

It is 25% more than in 2019 when he was earning £334,000 and a 6.63% increase in a year.

Annemarie O'Donnell, the current chief executive of Glasgow City Council, which controversially transferred its housing stock to the association now owned by Wheatley currently has a salary package for 2020/21 -  less than half that of Mr Armstrong at £192,766.

Glasgow-based Wheatley, the UK’s fourth largest housing group, now owns or manages over 93,600 homes in 19 of Scotland's 32 local authority areas.

It is at the centre of row over a threat to demolish homes - with protesters launching an appeal for volunteers to launch an occupation.

Four tower blocks in the historic Wyndford estate in Glasgow have been earmarked for demolition and tenants are looking for volunteers to squat and occupy the four blocks while also refusing a new tenancy.

HeraldScotland: Four tower blocks in The Wyndford, the former site of Maryhill Barracks are earmarked for demolition. Photograph by Colin Mearns.

It ran an operating surplus of £82.9m in 2021/22 while receiving £86.6m in grants from the Scottish Government and local authorities over the last two years alone for the development of new housing. Its property values increased by £26.9m in a year to £2.617bn in 2021/22.

Its Glasgow social housing operation, registered as a charity, made an operating surplus of £61.2m - which it says is reinvested into services.

They are also joint owners with Glasgow City Council of one of Scotland’s largest repairs and maintenance companies, City Building (Glasgow) which made a £5.6m profit in 2020.

It has further emerged that the five-man executive team within its Glasgow housing operation received collective salaries of £648,212 in 2021. The chief executive got £195,868 while four group directors got £113,086.

Other housing associations; chiefs have also seen pay hikes.

Julia Mulloy, head of the not-for-profit charity, the Scottish Borders Housing Association which manages some 5,614 rented and 145 factored homes as well as 1,262 non-housing units has seen her salary rise by 1% in a year to £111,152 and 7% more than in 2019.

Shona Stephen, chief executive of Queens Cross Housing Association in Glasgow which manages the tenancies for the majority of its 4,346 properties has seen her salary package which includes pension contributions,  rise by 6.5% in a year to £143,245 in 2021/22 and by 18.4% since 2019.

The Scottish Tenants Association said they were shocked by the salary levels calling it "obscene, when tenants are in real financial hardship because of the cost of living crisis."

"These excessive salaries have to be frozen at a time when tenants in Glasgow and beyond are really struggling to pay the rent, feed their children and pay for heating this winter," said an association spokesman.

It comes as emergency legislation to freeze most rents until at least the end of March 2023 was passed by the Scottish Government last month in the cost of living crisis.

The Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill gives ministers temporary powers to cap rents for private and social tenants.

Evictions will only be allowed under certain circumstances.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations said a rent freeze in the social housing sector was unnecessary, likely to be counterproductive and should not continue beyond the end of March next year.

Scotland's biggest local authority, Glasgow City Council, like other councils no longer owns or manages any social rented housing stock. It transferred all 83,000 of its properties to the Glasgow Housing Association, now owned by Wheatley, in 2003. A subsequent second stage transfer of around 22,000 were also transferred to other social landlords operating in the city.

Critics such as housing campaigners Living Rent said they were "eviscerating" public housing and clearing a path for mass privatisation and demolition "in the name of democratisation and modernisation".

In a close ballot, however, 58% of tenants backed the transfer plans with 42% voting against.

HeraldScotland: Iain Gray MSP

Then social justice minister Iain Gray said the decision was "a giant leap towards achieving community ownership" and giving people a greater say in how their homes are managed.

There are now estimated to be 2.6m homes in Scotland, with nearly a quarter being social, rented properties and 15% being private. Social sector landlords tend to provide lower-cost accommodation.

The level of arrears for 2021-22 is, at 6.3 per cent of all rent due, the highest since the Scottish Social Housing Charter was introduced by the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 and came into force in April 2012.

The Wheatley Group's group-wide level of rent and service charge arrears has risen by nearly 20% (£4.153m) in a year to £25.85m in 2022. Housing campaigner Sean Clerkin, who was chairman of the Glasgow Campaign Against the Housing Stock Transfer said the salary levels were "disgusting".

"You couldn't make this stuff up. Talk about being out of touch with reality," he said. "The local council chiefs were on far less money.

"We are talking about publicly funded housing and astronomical salaries when we are living at a time where many tenants are struggling to keep their heads above water. With massive record rent arrears Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) became known as Wheatley Homes Glasgow as of April, following its merger with 3,000-home Cube Housing Association last year.

It had planned to embark on a development programme that includes a “minimum investment of £250m” in existing homes in Glasgow over the next five years.

It included an extra 600 new affordable homes added to the 1,500 already promised by GHA and Cube.

Martin Armstrong, 57, joined from West Lothian Council as executive director of housing and customer services in 2008, having held housing roles in local authorities from Kingston upon Thames to Moray in the north of Scotland.

He was appointed Glasgow Housing Association chief executive in 2009 and went on to oversee the creation of Wheatley Group in 2011. In his last full year as GHA chief executive he was had a pay package minus pension contributions of £162,000.

Wheatley now employs 2700 staff and has an annual turnover of more than £388 million.

In May, it was announced that Steven Henderson, the group's director of finance, would be the new chief executive after Mr Armstrong announced his early retirement. The changeover is expected this January.

Wheatley Group chairman Jo Armstrong said Mr Henderson was “the outstanding candidate” and someone who would “consolidate and build on the group’s position as a national force for good”.

She added: “Steven’s extensive experience in the sectors in which we operate, along with a proven track record and exceptional leadership skills, marked him out as the outstanding candidate. I am confident he will prove to be an inspired choice to succeed Martin Armstrong.

HeraldScotland: Martin Armstrong, chief executive of Wheatley Group

“I would like also to pay tribute to Martin (above)  for his inspirational leadership over the past decade and beyond. He was the pivotal force in the creation of Wheatley.”

In response, a Wheatley spokesman said: “The group is one of the largest housing, care and property-management businesses in the UK, employing more than 3000 people and with an annual turnover of more than £417 million.

“The group owns and manages over 93,600 homes across Scotland and includes a range of subsidiaries, including several registered social Landlords, a large care organisation, one of the country's biggest property managers, a business-support subsidiary and a charitable foundation.

"It is joint owner also of the country's largest repairs and maintenance company, City Building (Glasgow), which employs a further 2000 staff.”