The Freedom to be Bad (or Good?)

As Steve said in his last post, it’ll take a while to work through everything in the government’s consultation on social housing.
I want to kick off by commenting on its central themes of choice, flexibility and localism, which will be much vaunted in the face of the old ‘top-down’, ‘static’, ‘monolithic’ system.
The paper does represent a genuine transfer of powers and freedoms out of central government to social housing landlords. Is this localism though? It is a localist measure to give freedoms to councils. These freedoms will also be exercised by housing associations, many of which have tens of thousands of properties, stretching across many council areas and regions. What does this mean for localism? Councils have a democratic accountability. Housing associations don’t. Yet they will be able to decide centrally the length of a tenant’s tenure and under what circumstances they will be evicted after two years. Big powers without democratic legitimacy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing housing associations – the best are great at consulting and involving their tenants. But that’s not the same as democratic accountability. Just because government is giving away more freedoms, doesn’t mean it’s local and it doesn’t mean it’s more democratic.
The next question is – freedom and flexibility for whom?
Councils and housing associations now have more freedom to reduce the length of tenure, decide whether to allow tenants to stay in their homes after two years, charge higher rents and place homeless people in the private rented sector. So social housing providers have loads more freedoms and choices.
Where however are the guarantees of new choices for tenants? What are the new choices that the paper provides people living in social housing? Well, there are new measures that may make it easier for existing tenants to move home within the social sector. A modest and welcome measure – but hardly a revolution.
Councils and housing associations now have a great deal of direct power over the lives of their tenant and future tenants. The question is how will they use those powers and for what? There is much freedom to be malicious and prove Shelter right that these reforms are an attack on the poor. 
For Labour councils the challenge is this: can they use these new powers for progressive ends, for greater choices and options for tenants, to help build more sustainable communities, to support tenants into employment? Do they have the freedom to be good? Do they have the freedoms to show there are alternatives to the coalition’s policies?