Conservative Home, the Tories’ blog with its own local government section, has been getting into a froth about councils’ failure to follow government advice on allocations. In particular, they object to councils not favouring ex-members of the armed forces and other categories of applicant like people who are in work or ‘volunteering’. These changes, readers will recall, were a result of the Localism Act, which gave councils more discretion over issues like who goes on their waiting list and how allocations are made.
The blog lists a large number of deviant councils who are refusing to do the government’s bidding. Most of these are inevitably Labour-controlled, but there are Tory and Lib Dem authorities too. The first and most obvious point to be made about this is that – if all councils were taking the lead set by the exemplary Hammersmith and Fulham, whose allocations policy is put forward as a model – surely the Localism Act would have failed? Wasn’t the whole point of the act to let a thousand flowers bloom? Or were we being duped?
Setting aside that minor quibble, let us consider the issue of timing. The evidence presented by the blog is based on councils’ responses to the consultation paper on allocations issued in December last year. It was open for consultation until March and the final guidance was issued in July. So councils were telling the government what they were doing at the start of this year, well before the guidance was finalised. One reason they were doing this was that the Localism Act introduced a raft of changes last year that needed an immediate response. They simply couldn’t sensibly wait until July to get government guidance which – in any case – barely touched on some of the most contentious new issues like defining a working tenant or what volunteering means in practice.
The difficulty is illustrated by Hammersmith and Fulham’s draft scheme (pdf). Volunteering is defined as working unpaid for at least 20 hours per month for a non-profit body recognised by the council, or for a charity or a registered tenants’ association. Someone who – like my mother – devoted her life to looking after lonely old ladies would not qualify. What happens if an applicant finds it difficult to associate with other people, or whose volunteering is staying at home and writing unpaid blogs for Red Brick? The irony is that councils who pride themselves on cutting red tape have had to create bureaucratic hoops to implement their new policies, which will inevitably discriminate against some people who might genuinely fit the broad category but are excluded by the detailed rules.
Looking through the examples of councils of all political persuasions who were hesitant about adopting the new policies, it’s clear that there is an overriding concern to ensure fairness and avoid discrimination. Conservative Home says that councils who want more guidance on some of these policies are pathetic. But the point is that a council needs rules that can be interpreted consistently by dozens of relatively junior staff, perhaps scattered across different offices, whose acceptance or rejection of an application, or how it is categorised, often makes a huge difference (positive or negative) to the person sitting opposite them or whose form they are scrutinising. Council officers know that inconsistencies won’t go unnoticed and will be picked up by councillors, the press or even the courts. It is all very well to fulminate about localism and councils failing to ‘grasp the idea’, but ensuring that they have rules that work in the face of an enormous variety of cases and exercised by people working under massive pressure is not something that responsible councils can ignore.
This point is well illustrated by the government’s own guidance, which as we pointed out in July has 17 pages on how to avoid accidentally giving an allocation to an immigrant who doesn’t qualify. One of the reasons for this enormous chunk of red tape is that numerous court and tribunal decisions have been necessary to make sense of government legislation which is often made in haste and is too broad brush. Allocating houses is a complex administrative process needing precise and workable rules: if government doesn’t make them, or councils, it will be the courts.