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.”