Sewing a silk purse from a sow’s ear

In 2009 Inside Housing magazine celebrated its silver jubilee by nominating its ‘Hall of Fame’, the 25 people who had most influenced the housing sector over the last 25 years. One of the 25 was Julian Ashby, and it appears that he had only just got started.  Last week he was designated to Chair the Regulation Committee of the Homes and Communities Agency.  If that doesn’t sound like the highest of achievements, it effectively means that he will be the new regulator of social housing in England as the Government closes the Tenant Services Authority and transfers its diminished regulatory functions to become just one of the many roles of the HCA.

Julian is exceptionally well qualified for the job.  He is deputy-Chair of the TSA (CLG under Pickles call it chairman but I’m not capable of stepping back into the last century), and has a hugely impressive track record in the sector, including advising the Cave review which recommended the TSA/HCA split in the first place.  He has been on the TSA since its inception and had a significant influence over the comprehensive regulatory system that the TSA drew up.

As Chair of the steering group setting up the National Tenant Voice at the time, I know it was a system that was welcomed and supported by the national tenant organisations, and their views were influential in its detailed design.  In addition to ensuring financial viability the TSA established a set of standards for services that would have helped the sector, housing associations and council landlords, to improve their services by giving tenants a profoundly more important role in holding landlords to account.

I think Julian Ashby knows how proper regulation should be done, but in his new role he will have to sew a silk purse from a sow’s ear.  The new system is not in my view fit for purpose.  In its announcement of Ashby’s appointment, CLG describes the HCA’s regulatory role as ‘economic regulation and backstop consumer regulation’ ‘with a higher legal threshold for regulatory intervention’.  Grant Shapps led his comments by talking about reducing red tape.  In theory more emphasis will be placed on local scrutiny but few tenants will have the resources necessary to do the job properly and it appears they will only be backed by the regulator in the most severe of service failures.

With the TSA and its comprehensive national standards gone, the National Tenant Voice gone, the Audit Commission Housing Inspectorate gone, my fear is that the sector will fail to continue the improvement in service delivery that it has achieved over the past ten years.  Despite Julian’s best efforts, hubristic landlords will feel that no-one is looking over their shoulder, tenants will be unable to hold them to account locally, and both the HCA and the larger landlords will revert to the bad old days of the Housing Corporation when development was king and the management of services to tenants and residents was an unavoidable by-product.

If Julian Ashby can prevent this happening there is little doubt that he will deserve to be in Inside Housing’s Gold Jubilee list when the time comes.

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