Categories
Blog Post Uncategorized

Time to say goodbye

Love it or loathe it, the Audit Commission Housing Inspectorate will be missed after it closes operations this month.
I have a long list of irritations with how it went about its work. Number one is probably the poor quality of some of the inspectors, who sometimes failed to follow their own guidelines about transparency, feedback and having ‘no surprises’ in their conclusions, or imported their own views about how something should be done and turning it into a supposedly objective judgement. Having experienced inspection outcomes that were both significantly higher and significantly lower than the service being inspected justified, I’m left with the nagging feeling that some were preordained and that political fixing could make a difference. Some services seemed to get stars simply because of their previous reputation and sometimes there seemed quite a gap between the evidence and the conclusion.
All of this would be denied by the AC of course and the upside of its achievements comfortably exceeds my annoyances. Most importantly, there is evidence that after decades of flatlining, housing management standards really did pick up and improve during the period that the housing inspectorate was active. The first series of inspections of housing association services burst the balloon that their chief executives had been blowing up about the quality of their own services. Shining a light into a few dark corners brought significant improvement to the sector, in both councils and housing associations. The weight given to the experience of tenants increased as the regime was refined and improved. The set of KLOEs (key lines of enquiry) that the AC produced was a brave attempt to provide a template for a good service, even if they were then rather slavishly followed. Whilst the industry of pre-inspection consultancy prospered, the ideas of regular service review, external challenge and constant improvement became endemic, driving service improvement and a focus on tenant satisfaction.
There were a couple of areas where I am happy to own up to just being wrong in my early views on the inspection regime. One was that the traffic light system was superficial and trivialised important judgements – in fact it was a great success and an effective communication tool. Second that introducing the link between inspection outcomes and funding in the ALMO programme wouldn’t work. In fact it was a great motivator and became an important driver of service improvement and tenant engagement, helping to restore the credibility of council housing.
Maybe I’ll be wrong again but my view even before the Election was that the inspection element of the new TSA regulatory regime risked not being comprehensive and rigorous enough to keep standards improving and that some organisations would slip back into bad old ways. Since the Election, the changes made by this government convince me that it will be far worse than that. Even if the TSA (whilst it exists) and the HCA, as the new regulator, ensure the financial viability and probity of the sector, they will be toothless tigers in relation to service quality. I would welcome the emphasis on local tenant scrutiny if I didn’t know that it will be hopelessly under-resourced and open to manipulation by landlords of all types wanting to talk a good service instead of delivering one.
One of many challenges facing landlords will be to put sufficient effort and resources into making tenant scrutiny work and to maintain the tradition of external rigorous challenge based on the methods developed by the Housing Inspectorate. I hope they will but I fear they won’t – and the industry will take a step backwards.

Categories
Blog Post Uncategorized

Porter would have got away with ‘Homes for Votes’ under new Tory audit rules

Shirley Porter, responsible for the ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal in the 1980s – what the Law Lords called ‘a deliberate, blatant, and dishonest use of public powers’ that amounted to ‘political corruption’ – would never have been brought to book if new Audit proposals by the Tory government had been in place during her reign in Westminster in the 1980s.
Some people think that the Tory Party has never forgiven the Audit Commission for the tenacity they showed in bringing their brightest council star Porter to justice and causing huge embarrassment to the Thatcher/Major governments.  The Tories nationally never apologised for what was done in their Party’s name. 
Now Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps have proposed ending the right of electors to raise ‘objections’ to the local authority’s accounts with the council’s official Auditor.  They say it is ‘outdated’ and ‘over-burdensome’ on council tax payers – well, not in Westminster, where £12m was recouped from Porter (and it should have been £40m, the amount set by the Law Lords in their judgement).  Removing the right to object is contradictory to both their localism policy and their repeated statements that they wish to devolve power not just to local government but to the people.  
Porter’s gerrymander in Westminster would not have been exposed if it had not been for outstanding work by opposition councillors and others in the community who were concerned about the council’s housing policy as described here and here and here.  But it was the process by which local electors could raise a formal objection to the council’s accounts that ensured that an initially sceptical Auditor was required to look into the matter; investigations that led to the most damning report ever issued about a local authority.  Moreover, it was the independence of the Audit Commission standing behind the Auditor that ensured that the case was brought to a conclusion – and it took more than a decade.  There was a lot to withstand – political pressure to have the matter dropped, a personally offensive campaign against the Auditor, and criticism of the high cost of the forensic enquiry (dawn raids on city hall, tens of thousands of documents and dozens of interviews) and the court cases.
Pickles’ and Shapps’ proposals are contained in a CLG consultation document on the ‘Future of local public audit’.  It sounds dull but there is a lot in this consultation of concern to anyone with an interest in local government and its probity.   
The consultation paper says that “The right to object to the accounts was first introduced more than 150 years ago, at a time when the auditor was the only individual to whom an elector could raise issues of concern.” 
But in Westminster, less than 25 years ago, the council wouldn’t listen to the accusations that there was gerrymandering going on, the government wouldn’t listen, and the Tory party certainly wouldn’t listen.  The only route that worked for local people was to raise an objection to the District Auditor, who took a serious and independent view of his role in tackling improper behaviour.  This right should be retained.

Categories
Blog Post

Welwyn-Hatfield Syndrome

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

Always one for the grand gesture and photo-opportunity, Grant Shapps is on TV yesterday cutting some ‘real red tape’ and complaining that local authorities suffer from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.  Well, the point missed me for one and possibly most of the rest of the population as well.  Wikipedia came to the rescue as usual, letting me know that in psychology Stockholm Syndrome describes the paradox where captives express positive feelings towards their captors.    

I don’t know if Shapps is a student of psychology but evidentally in Spooks the syndrome was crucial to the storyline involving agent Lucas North.  More likely that was the inspiration.

Shapps was describing the ‘bonfire of the regulations’ that are to free local government from the ‘apron strings of the nanny state’.  But, just as this week’s social housing consultation talked of freeing landlords and not tenants, this announcement is about freeing government and councils and not residents.  Both are about removing scrutiny of performance and achievement.  At the core, they are about obscuring and hiding the real impact of the cuts.

One of the casualties is inspection by the Audit Commission of local authorities’ strategic housing function.  Under the government’s plan to remove regional planning and targets and to place all key housebuilding decisions at local authority level, councils’ understanding of their local housing markets and housing supply and demand will be critical. 

Over the last couple of years, the Audit Commission has completed over 30 inspections and re-inspections of councils’ strategic function.  Not one was found to be excellent.  Only 4 were found to be good, 18 fair and 11 poor.  Picking one at random, West Somerset was described as follows: “The service lacks a clear understanding of community need and because strategic plans are weak, the Council has yet to effectively target the relatively poor private sector housing conditions. The delivery of new homes is not meeting needs and there has been little success in addressing empty homes. Strong outcomes for vulnerable people, such as those living in temporary accommodation, are limited.”

Some districts are very small, many now have no housing stock of their own, and many have little capacity to undertake the strategic work that is necessary.  It is not surprising that they do not perform strategic housing tasks well and it would be even more surprising given budget reductions if they were to suddenly discover the talent to do so.  This is one reason why so many local housing development decisions will be decided by the loudest voices rather than careful deliberation.  It is also why the regional perspective was so important to housebuilding delivery.

So, we identify the new Welwyn-Hatfield Syndrome, unfortunately not yet in Wikipedia, but named in honour of Shapps’ constituency.  This is where someone passes the buck down the line having made damn sure the recipient will fail to deliver, removing all scrutiny of the process, at the expense of everyone who needs a home to buy or to rent.  Then you shout from the rooftops:

“Nothing to do with me guv, I’m only the Minister.”

Categories
Blog Post Uncategorized

Indecently decent

A guest post from Maureen C
Like Red Brick I’m pleased to see so much news coverage of housing and benefit issues as this new government appears to announce new, ill thought out policies, most of which they have no mandate from the electorate for, on a daily basis.  Even when the press get things wrong, as they have on some aspects of the HB reforms, it is nevertheless good to get the issues out there.
Grant Snapps made some statements yesterday on proposals to alter funding arrangements for Decent Homes which do not seem to have attracted attention yet. These represent more bad news for the many tenants who still live in homes that do not meet the decent homes standard. Interestingly the background papers on this state ‘46% of council owned non-decent homes will lie in London at end March 2011.’
 
The decent homes standard is fairly basic – it includes having modern kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems. But the previous government’s arrangements have quietly transformed standards in social housing all over the country. Millions of council properties in particular have been brought up to a decent standard after decades of under investment.
Some councils have done this by transferring their stock to housing associations. But where council tenants, understandably in many cases, voted against wholesale transfers , councils could get access to funding (largely loans) if the arms length management companies (ALMOs) they formed to run the housing got 2 stars in an Audit Commission inspection. The rationale was to incentivise councils to provide better quality, VFM services for their residents and ensure services were built around residents’ needs and preferences. As anyone who lives and works in this area knows -better housing, opportunities and stronger communities need much more than bricks and mortar. But decades of tenants’ pressure to improve services and design fell on deaf ears. No teeth and no real market to power better services.
Inspections assessed this independently and were widely credited with driving up services and standards. The reality is that housing organisations had to up their game and provide better, more customer orientated, VFM services to get 2 stars. These efforts produced good results for tenants that sadly previous decades of tenant and political pressure had failed to deliver. Over 20 ALMOs got top scores of 3 stars for excellent service and 40 have 2 stars – making them the best performing in the sector.
Now Grant Snapps has slashed the funding for future programmes to meet decency standards – down from £680 million to £260 million in 2011/12.
And the pressure is off landlords to improve their services as they no longer need to get 2 stars to access what little funding remains.  Under the banner of reducing the ‘hoops to go through’ funding will be decided upon by the regulator (what’s left of the regulator anyway). The proposals, published by HCA, state ‘We will work with the regulator to achieve appropriate assurance on value for money in the use of funding.’
So much for transparency and accountability.
They had a system that produced better services for tenants and decent homes. It wasn’t perfect but it did produce some of the best outcomes for tenants in social housing we’ve seen for decades. Now we can have no assurance that the reduced funding will fuel better services and choices for tenants who deserve much better than this.  Will this get picked up by the national media?