Hexagon Housing Association: From Community Housing Association to Corporatised Property Developers, and (hopefully) Back Again!
Guest written by Hexagon residents
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Between 2009 and 2019, our Hexagon Housing Association has been transformed by the chief executive (CEO) and allies from an open and accountable social landlord into little more than “a property developer with a social conscience” in the words of one leading director at Savills.
A key and consistent part of this has been to degrade residents from shareholder members able to hold the executive and board to account, to ‘customers’ with little or no say in what happens to our tenancies. Meanwhile the rent we pay – and our homes – are used for corporate growth based on building ‘affordable’ tenure homes” that most of us could not afford to live in, and genuine social rent tenures are gradually being converted to more expensive levels.
This is how it was done and what we, the residents are doing about it.
A Community Housing Association
Hexagon in the mid 2000s had been a community housing association formed earlier from the merger of a cooperative and a small housing association which had residents as share-holders.
The board met openly, was unpaid and a third of its membership were freely elected residents. Any tenant could stand for election, and was free to advocate whatever policy or criticisms they chose. On the whole, even the non-resident board members shared a strong commitment to social housing and had a genuine respect for residents.
In addition, there was an entirely open and elected Residents Forum which all tenants could attend. It had a strong connection to the board and all policy proposals were open to examination and critique by residents. And this was just one of a number of routes to engagement which provided channels to learn about, and influence, Hexagon’s direction.
The positive ethos was driven by chair of board, Leroy Philips OBE, a respected community activist. However, things began to change when he was replaced by an international investment banker, David Robert-Jones of Mizuho Bank. The corporatisation of a community organisation was underway.
A Change of Government and Social Housing Policy
In 2010 the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats formed a government after the Tories failed to gain a sufficient majority to rule alone. The ‘ConDem’ government signalled changes in government policy towards social housing and a sweeping deregulation of the sector began. It encouraged a focus on corporate growth, and undermined the accountability of housing association boards to external regulatory bodies or their own residents.
Far from resisting the attack on our community ethos, Hexagon took advantage of the opportunity with alacrity. As board membership was renewed, the recruits were no longer people motivated primarily by a concern for community and social housing. Instead, Hexagon took a ‘Corporate Turn’ (to use the National Housing Federation’s term). Payment was introduced for members, ranging from £4,000 to £10,000 for a few hours work a year. The CEO’s salary also began to climb, and now stands at around the £180,000 mark.
Next came the undermining of Resident Board Members (RBMs). Even as it was, they had always been a minority on the board, and hugely under-resourced. Training was often incomplete even at the end of a three-year term of office, and the loan of laptops, which few tenants then possessed, was repeatedly refused.
After a lengthy battle with resident representatives, open democratic election of resident members was changed to a process of candidates carefully selected by the board and CEO. Simultaneously, shareholding came under attack. The board explicitly limited shareholding to current board members, rendering themselves accountable to no-one. The few remaining tenant shareholders were pressed to give up their shares.
While these changes marked a radical turn for Hexagon, it still wasn’t enough it seems. In 2015 the CEO and the board chair engaged the services of the large and expensive city law firm Devonshires to make a case for throwing off one of the two remaining freely elected resident board members. A last dissenting voice on the governing body was expelled.
What Has Happened Since
Then it was time to deal with the Residents’ Forum, the last bastion of resident democracy. Just a few days before the Forum’s annual general meeting, Hexagon announced a plan to withdraw all further contact with the Forum and to engage instead through a focus group of residents who would be approved by the executive.
The assumption that the Forum would agree to shut down proved to be misguided, however, and the Forum resolved to continue operating. Hexagon responded by cutting off all contact with the Forum, withdrawing facilities, and shunning communication. Perhaps they believed that the Forum would just wither away, but they were wrong. Two years later and we are still going.
Since 2015 the Forum has become a beacon for those who want a democratic say in the running of Hexagon. We have more than doubled in size, and developed a substantial social media operation. We have also mounted demonstrations and campaigned against detrimental changes within Hexagon. We are now working with SHAC to launch a SHAC@Hexagon branch.
It doesn’t have to be like this. For a view of a different world, we need look no further than Phoenix Community Housing which operates nearby; a genuinely tenant-led housing association and a constant inspiration in our battle to re-democratize Hexagon. We remain determined to return the association to the residents and staff who are its real stakeholders.
The battle continues.
14 October 2020