Housing Associations need to stand tall and be beacons of optimism
Published by Laura Oakley for Margaret Blackwood Housing Association Ltd in Housing and also in Health, Local Government
Steve White, Chief Executive at Margaret Blackwood Housing Association
By Steve White, Chief Executive, Margaret Blackwood Housing Association
Last week at Margaret Blackwood Housing Association we had to face up to a sensational and unfounded story about how we had "removed 24-hour support" and implemented a "toilet timetable" at our accommodation at Eday Gardens, Aberdeen. The story arose locally and was quickly picked up by national media. As you would expect staff, tenants and partners of the organisation were alarmed and upset by the reports, which were wholly based on an anonymous complaint.
Of course, the claim that we had removed the 24-hour support service was not upheld by Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland (SCSWIS, formally the Care Commission). Tenants at the complex were also quick to distance themselves from the story – one even sent a letter of complaint to the local letters page making it clear that the allegations were unfounded and totally unrepresentative of all tenants' views. The article had implied widespread unrest.
At Margaret Blackwood, we enjoy a positive rapport with the regulator and SCSWIS. We also have hugely experienced, hard working and committed staff. These are people who walked through blizzards last winter to reach people in their care or bedded down at work ready and able to respond to those in need of support. To see these same professionals knocked for six by these allegations and then feeling unable to challenge them was a sickener – issues of professional ethics and confidentiality tie our hands in situations like this. Thankfully, we regained our business momentum quickly – a collective resilience matched by our imagination in approaching the serious issues facing the sector.
As public funding cuts deeper, housing associations need to stand tall and be beacons of optimism. We are one of the life bloods of Scottish communities and can ill afford to be prophets of doom – especially if public funding cuts continue over the next ten years, as currently forecasted. Shouldn't our collective focus be on finding radical new solutions and being entrepreneurial in how we meet the challenges? Stories like this affect us all and we need to be more proactive in presenting the great work we do.
At MBHA, our record of providing a first-class service is something we take great pride in and is well documented. A succession of SCSWIS reports has endorsed our work and the supported housing complex in question regularly receives ratings of 5 and 6 (the highest awarded). When they make recommendations, which of course they do, we welcome the opportunity to improve practice and are always ready to act quickly. A new complaints system that we are introducing identifies complaints as gold nuggets that offers us a chance to listen, respond, learn and improve.
For all these reasons, I welcome exposure of genuine malpractice in the care industry – that is a benefit of a free-to-investigate press. I also welcome media interest in a sector that will certainly be the subject of further Government cuts. But, even with truth and good intent, there is a danger of creating fear and nervousness among some of our most vulnerable people. Who or what ends are served by this? We need to balance our arguments against cuts in welfare benefits and local authority spending with maintaining the confidence of the people we serve.
Perhaps we have been caught in a perfect storm. A government preparing for further cuts, stories of genuine care home abuses and pressure on SCSWIS to review and reform. Ironically, before these press reports, we were all working hard on our new three-year plan to get even closer to our customers and improve what we do and how we do it, in spite of the financial pressures the sector faces.
We could have wrung our hands in the face of shrinking finances, but we rolled our sleeves up and generated a new determination to put our customers at the centre of all that we do. We are proving that recessionary pressure can be a positive force to involve staff and customers creatively in change. We are realigning our budgets to retain employment and create a sustainable future for our organisation. At the same time we are driving improvements in our service delivery, reinvigorating our vision and values and developing a new regional structure to bring staff and customers closer together. There are also radical plans to truly engage our customers in providing services at a local level and to use social networking to democratise the design of disability and smart home technology – by bringing those who design and manufacture into creative dialogue with users.
I will stand shoulder to shoulder with any organisation that faces similarly unfounded allegations. But that's being reactive and it's time to look forward with confidence and create new positive momentum. Yes, there are cuts and yes there are challenges but there are also fresh opportunities and alternative routes forward. Together we must find and pursue these.
I would be willing to host and facilitate a creative ideas exchange to look at a powerful new vision and action plan for the sector. But we cannot be blinkered or parochial in our thinking; we need to involve government, local authorities, the media, the private sector and our customers. Our aspiration must be that the next generation inherit a society they deserve, not simply landed with a legacy of narrowed thinking and short-term policy-making. Ill-conceived media reports are an unwelcome distraction and simply spread fear among the people we are here to serve. We must take a lead in Scotland and generate our own stories – there is much to tell.
Meanwhile, at MBHA, we are back on track with renewed purpose after a week in which our people's energy and attention was sidetracked by what was shown to be an unfounded media story.