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The Guardian on Catalyst: Half the staff, but double the work

Catalyst housing association has a bigger net surplus than Greggs or Foxtons, so why are staff facing job losses and unmanageable workloads?

The Catalyst HR director has written to staff saying she is willing to discuss concerns but continues to fail to return calls from Unite.  We do have indications that some senior staff are unhappy with the arrogant approach of the executive and applications to sign up to Unite are flooding in.

We intially covered the dispute at Catalyst here and The Guardian survey showing housing staff with impossible workloads here. We also reported houisng associations surpluses here and the decision by Genesis to pull away from social housing here. The 'mega merger' between L&Q, Hyde and East Thames is covered here.

The Guardian has also covered stress in the sector here.

 

From The Guardian

 

On Thursday 21 April, neighbourhood managers at Catalyst Housing start a work to rule industrial action. They say their current workloads are unmanageable, while management plan to halve the number of staff doing the job. Catalyst refuses to recognise the union, and normal negotiations have not taken place.

 

Last week’s Guardian survey of housing workers showing that 40% of housing professionals say their workloads are unmanageable following cuts struck a chord with Unite members across the housing sector. Cuts are having a serious impact on the wellbeing of staff and tenants and are damaging important services.

 

Employers in the sector often point to government policies such as the 1% cut in social rents to justify cuts: but does this bear serious scrutiny? As associations have become more commercial, social rent is declining as a proportion of their income; in the case of Catalyst it represents only slightly over half. True, there are real uncertainties resulting from government policy and some associations are struggling, but the sector as a whole has reported record surpluses year after year. Last year’s surplus of £3bn across the sector represented a 25% increase on the previous year which was also a record according to the Homes and Communities Agency global accounts. The operating margin also increased from 26% to 28% as costs increased by less than revenues.

In the case of Catalyst, management boast that their £53m net surplus last year [pdf] was more than Greggs the bakers or Foxtons estate agents, which struggled by on £49.7m and £42m respectively. No doubt the size of the surplus is thought to justify the 8% pay rise last year for Rod Cahill, chief executive of Catalyst who is now on £201,920 a year. Belt-tightening in the sector has not extended to its bosses who have taken inflation-busting increases year after year. At the end of their tether, our members do not believe that mass staff cuts can be justified.

 

Significantly the Guardian survey found that 60% of housing professionals felt their employer had lost its social purpose; few in my London Unite housing branch would find that figure a surprise.

 

Under the housing and planning bill, housing associations will be largely deregulated and will be free to sell stock and fully develop the commercial ambitions of their bosses. On the day the latest housing association mega merger, bringing together L&Q, Hyde Group and East Thames, was announced, Elaine Bailey, deputy chief executive designate of L&Q set the tone, writing [paywall] that housing associations are partly responsible for a “dependency culture” and pledged to do less for tenants, telling them to “take more responsibility in respecting their homes and helping themselves”.

Neil Hadden, the boss at Genesis – soon to merge with Thames Valley Housing - has announced his intention to stop building affordable and social rented housing, massively limit social housing development altogether, to 100 units a year, focusing instead on building for shared ownership and market sale.

 

He is not alone. Clearly, many housing bosses want to create organisations that are “palpably different” from the social housing providers we have known. Perhaps the cuts to services in associations are to be explained more by the ambition to create lean and mean neoliberal landlords than any threats to their burgeoning surpluses.

 

Union representatives will be taking up workload issues and we will challenge cuts: time to join if you’re not a member! But in Unite we also seek to make common cause with tenants and communities. Social housing has never been more important; social housing professionals will also need to speak out in its defence through our unions. In the past they may have looked to the leaders of the sector for that, but those days are gone.

Paul Kershaw is the chair of the London Unite housing workers branch

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