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.

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