By guest blogger Monimbo
Take a clutch of housing policies for which this government might like to be remembered: rewarding work, mobility for tenants looking for jobs, creating ‘flexible’ tenancies, allowing councils to set local lettings policies and decide who qualifies for housing, setting ‘Affordable’ rents and assessing potential tenants’ incomes, and cutting waiting lists. Apart from all being championed by Mr Shapps, most of these policies are now embodied in the Localism Act and all of them depend crucially on councils’ allocations processes if they are to be put into effect.
It’s not surprising then that the government’s draft code of guidance on allocations, on which consultations close on Friday, should focus on helping councils get to grips with these policy changes and how they should shape their allocations schemes. Except it doesn’t. All of these are mentioned but add the guidance on every one of them together and you’d struggle to make a single page of the 64-page draft code.
However, if you are concerned about accidentally allocating a house to a migrant who is not entitled to it, you will find over 20 pages of help. And there are several pages more on assisting ex-service people who need a house. Both of these are important issues but the eligibility of people subject to immigration control has barely changed, and in the case of armed forces personnel the government is asking councils to do what many of them were already doing (and on which the Labour government issued guidance as recently as 2009).
On the other hand, the policies which the government is keen to promote but on which it is not keen to give guidance are a potential minefield for councils trying to ensure their allocations schemes are legally robust and non-discriminatory. One example is working households. How do you define ‘working’? If you give such households some priority, how do you do it? For example, if you set aside a quota of properties, is that legal or is it legal only up to a certain proportion? ‘Quota’ gets only a single mention in the guidance.
Another is assessing ‘financial resources’. How do you do it? – base it on the housing benefit assessment? But what if the applicant does not want to apply for HB? Look for help on this and you will find three lines that don’t even mention incomes.
One problem is that the minister is clearly confused about what he is trying to achieve. For example, in November 2010 he said that he would make changes ‘allowing councils to set their own rules about who qualifies to go on housing waiting lists’. But the Localism Act doesn’t quite do this: it allows councils to decide who is a ‘qualifying person’ entitled to have an allocation. But it implies that someone told they don’t qualify can still put their name back on the list, because waiting lists have no legal status. So waiting lists may not get any shorter after all.
Mr Shapps’ response would presumably be that it’s not up to him to sort out these things, it’s up to councils themselves: that’s what localism is all about. The difficulty is that many of these changes are highly problematic. For example, while councils now decide ‘who are, and who are not’ qualifying persons, the very limited help given them by the draft code doesn’t even remind them of their duty not to discriminate and how they avoid breaching the law.
Jan Luba and colleagues at Garden Court Chambers have laid into the government about the weaknesses in the code, saying that the government has moved the goalposts but failed to spell out what the new rules of the game are. Understandably they believe the devil is in the detail, and not all local authorities have the skills needed to devise and implement allocations schemes that don’t breach the law.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to take a different view, which is that government shouldn’t get under local authorities’ feet and should let them get on with it. One local authority housing forum has taken this line in its draft response, questioning the need for national guidance at all. While one can have a lot of sympathy for this view, it does require a heroic assessment of the ability of smaller authorities to get to grips with these complex issues, draft policies involving whole new concepts and co-ordinate them with local housing associations who may already be busy setting up flexible tenancies.
The irony is that, whether it was intended or not, a thousand flowers may be blooming anyway (well ok, 326 – one for every English housing authority). Councils seem to be simply getting ahead and rewriting their allocation schemes, since there is no knowing when the code will be finalised and take effect, and they need to keep on top of new measures like ‘affordable’ rents and ‘flexible’ tenancies. Once again the government has championed ‘localism’ with one hand while issuing detailed directives on issues like migrants and armed forces housing with the other. This time it might find that councils have taken it at its word and simply done their own thing.