Link Group

The Link group is registered social landlord and social enterprise working to alleviate the problem of affordable housing in Scotland. Set up under a group structure with a range of subsidiary businesses, Link provides housing for rent and for sale and builds new homes. It is more than 50 years old and now delivers a diverse range of services to communities across the country. The group works with around 10,000 people across much of Scotland and employs 400 members of staff. It is a multi-million pound organisation with a strong balance sheet and makes healthy profits. Link delivers a number of innovative projects, including a number of innovative low carbon initiatives. The group also takes social impact measurement very seriously, enthusiastically adopting SROI methodology. The group has evolved many decades, often with the support of government, which can bring risks as well as benefits.

The problem 

There is considerable consensus that in the UK, we have a housing crisis. New house building has been at historically low levels. In many areas, there is a significant shortage of affordable homes. Rents or mortgages take up a higher proportion of incomes than ever before. UK housing costs are high in comparison to the rest of Europe and the ratio of house process to earning are significantly above long term trends.

In Scotland, there are over 150,000 people on local authority housing waiting lists. Over 300,000 homes are affected by dampness or condensation and 65,000 homes are officially overcrowded. Prices have risen 75% in ten years and rents have increased by 44% over a similar period. There are 20,000 empty homes across the country.

The solution

Link is a leading charitable registered social landlord and social enterprise. The group provides housing for rent and for sale as well as regeneration services and support and care services. The Link group was formed in 1962 and over more than 50 years has grown to become one of Scotland’s leading housing providers, changing and developing the range of our services it provides. The 1962 Housing (Scotland) Act made money available to encourage developments of cost affordable housing for the middle management sector, which was seen at the time as “essential to the re-vitalisation of the Scottish economy. Following this, the Link Housing Association was formed with an objective to “carry on the industry, business and trade of providing housing for letting and any associated amenities in Scotland”.

The Link group now also delivers regeneration projects alongside local communities, including new health facilities, environmental projects, training and financial inclusion. Link's vision is “to be a provider of choice and excellence in the delivery of a wide range of socially inclusive regeneration, housing and support services”.

The group works with around 10,000 people across much of Scotland and employs 400 members of staff. Link comprises a parent company, Link Group, and a range of subsidiaries, including Larkfield Housing Association, LinkLiving and Horizon Housing Association. Each Link subsidiary company has a Board, members of which are appointed by the Link Group Board. Link develops or improves 100 properties each year for rent or ownership.

Business model

The group has a trading income of over £35 million and in the last recorded year, made a profit of around £4 million, which is reinvested in its mission. Working together with the Scottish Government, local councils and communities, Link provides 6500 rented properties, Property management services to 4,500 owner occupiers, access to home ownership through schemes which encourage shared ownership, maintenance services, money and advice services, support and care services and more. The group operates from offices in Edinburgh, Falkirk, Dalmuir, Larkfield and Livingston as well as other local offices. 

The Link Group Ltd is the holding company which owns most of the group’s assets, such as housing stick. It also provides management, business support and development, communication and other back office services to the rest of the group. LinkLiving Ltd provides care services to support people to live more independently and to manage their lives more effectively. Revenue across the group is earned through rent, through sales, through services delivered under contract and through grant income. Link also has over 100 volunteers support a range of volunteering projects and which also help them to develop skills and enhance their employability.


Link delivers a range of traditional housing services but also develops some more innovative projects. For instance, Link recently opened a new west of Scotland office with a social enterprise “hub”. Called The Bruach - the Gaelic word for river bank - is the base for Link’s west of Scotland team but also includes office and warehouse space available for social enterprises and community-based organisations. The group also formed the Edinburgh Empty Homes Initiative, working with city council and attracting Scottish Government funding to turn 50 empty houses into affordable homes. 

Link has developed its focus on environmental impact with a number of innovative low carbon initiatives which help make the homes they manage more energy efficient and also help mitigate the risk of fuel poverty. These include the installation of a biomass district heating system to replace old electric storage heating; the installation of solar thermal panels at a sheltered housing complex; piloting a micro-combined heat and power appliance – one of the first of its kind to be tried in Scotland – and a cost effective way of heating and providing energy.


In the last reporting year, the group completed almost 300 new homes, including almost 250 for social rent and held total reserves of over £40 million. Link was recently named Scottish Social Enterprise of the Year in the 2013 Social Enterprise Scotland awards and was also victorious in the overall UK awards run by Social Enterprise UK. The group have started to integrate social impact measurement and reporting into the groups business planning and service evaluation. The organisation has been a strong advocate of social impact measurement and an early adopter of the Social Return on Investment (SROI) methodology. For instance, one of the staff has become an Social Return on Investment Accredited Practitioner, only one of 5 in the country. The group has encouraged the delivery of Social Return on Investment Training to staff within the organisation and helped raise awareness of social impact measurement through a range of presentations, events, articles and training for others. 

Link offers a wide range of services. So instead of seeking to evaluate the overall impact of the entire organisation, Link uses Social Return on Investment to evaluate specific services. So far, these include an older person’s advice project, temporary homeless accommodation and independent living support, and a small repairs service for owner occupiers with disabilities. Each analysis concludes that the services are exceeding their aims and objectives and delivering net positive social return on investment. 

Link uses the results of their social impact measurement work to both communicate the value they offer, such as to the Scottish Government and to win further investment, and to assess internal processes.

Problems and challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Link, along with other social enterprise, is the continuing difficult economic climate. Together with welfare reforms, the economic health of the communities in which Link operates and the personal finances of tenants are under increasing pressure.  This poses a real risk for the organisation’s revenues. Ongoing challenges remain about the condition of existing stock, sometimes in the face of severe weather conditions and stretched contractor resources. In 2011/12 Link invested £5.7 million in a range of repairs. Other challenges include managing the development of new housing, effective delivery of core services and managing a large, multi-million pound organisation whilst striking the right balance between financial and social motivations. 

Link has also sought to become a more democratic organisation over time, building on the strong Scottish mutualist and co-operative traditions. Link Group is a membership organisation with currently more than 220 members registered - people who live in the communities which the business serves, alongside other supporters. Membership applications are welcomed from tenants, service users, other residents in the local area and people with relevant professional skills to support the organisation’s development. Every member is invited to the Annual General Meeting (AGM) and any member can stand for election for the Board. The group has a Board of 15 members elected annually by the membership.


The Chair of the Link group sums up prospects for the future “There are clouds on the horizon, including more cuts in local and national government budgets which will require us more than ever before to be more ‘competitive’ and prove social return, and both Link and its customers will be severely challenged by the Welfare Reform measures. Nevertheless, I am confident that we will continue to meet and address such challenges, just as we have done during the 50 years since our formation on 13th September 1962. We celebrate our half-century.” Chief Executive Craig Sanderson has promised that Link will “continue to build homes, provide employment opportunities and excellent services to people… We look forward to continuing the excellent working relationships we have with local communities, Falkirk Council and other partners to extend these services and supply significant numbers of new homes, not only of exceptional quality but also 
affordable to people on limited incomes.” The group plans to invest almost £100 million to deliver 750 new or improved homes over the next five years. In 2013/14 the group will invest over £25 million in new homes.


The Link group has evolved over a long period of time. In the early years, for example Link was very dependent on volunteers. In 1969 it evolved into a nationwide housing association employing staff on a full time basis. Later, in the 1970s, the group decided to expand and developed a group structure. Ones lesson from the experience of the group is that at each step, the role of government and policy has rarely been peripheral. The role of government funding was highly significant in getting the endeavour underway, as it was with other successful social enterprises, such as Coin Street Community Builders in London and many other housing projects. Registered social housing providers are perhaps rather more closely linked to the state than some other parts of the social enterprise sector. In the mid-1980s, for instance, the group required grant support in order to avoid rent increases and questions over the viability of the business model. But as we witness with the recent welfare reforms, this closeness to the policy and government can also bring risks as well as support. 

One other lesson is the critical role of a loan in the early days of the group’s development. While there is much talk of social investment as a 21st century idea, a loan made 50 years ago helped make the Link group what it is today. This reminds us that social investment has a long history but can also play a critical role in the development of new models of social enterprise.

Leader’s perspective

As an organisation with a 50 year history and with a range of individuals leading the management and governance of the organisation over many decades, the Link group serves as a useful reminder that social enterprise is not always (and indeed perhaps rarely) about the drive and passion of one lone individual. Rather, it often relies on a group of people with a common cause and the support of a range of stakeholders and supporters over a sustained period of time. In the last few years, the Chair of Link has stepped down, passing onto a new Chair but also remaining on the Board of the organisation.


Author: Dan Gregory, Head of Policy at Social Enterprise UK

Source: “China-UK Social Enterprise and Social Investment Case Studies” publication