It might be unclear what the regulator’s boss Claer Lloyd-Jones’s title is, but as Martin Hilditch finds out, we finally have some indication of what the Tenant Services Authority has been up to in the past year.
Question: what does the chief executive of the Tenant Services Authority have in common with Batman? The answer, it emerged last week, is that the titles they are commonly known by in public conceal their true identities.
While Batman doesn’t have to reveal all in a set of end of year financial statements, the TSA’s annual report contained some surprises for people who had hitherto thought Claer Lloyd-Jones was the organisation’s chief executive.
The report revealed that Ms Lloyd-Jones has never held the role - despite being referred to as chief executive on its website and in press releases.
Rather, she was appointed managing director following the redundancy of the previous CEO, Peter Marsh, last November (Ms Lloyd-Jones is, however, clearly something of a superwoman because she is also the regulator’s accounting officer and director of corporate services).
The reason the TSA decided to refer to Ms Lloyd-Jones by one title in public and another in private is still unclear. Employment lawyers told Inside Housing that she could have been employed as chief executive because Mr Marsh’s redundancy was voluntary and occurred as part of a wider restructure of the organisation (which agreed £2.2 million in redundancy payments in 2010/11). A TSA spokesperson simply says it was decided that she should be referred to as chief executive in public to ‘ensure external clarity on accountability’. Quite why the title managing director would prove confusing remains a mystery which the TSA refuses to clarify - although some have hinted at ministerial interference in the decision.
A clearer picture
Despite this puzzle, however, the annual report does provide the first detailed picture of what the regulator has been up to since the coalition government came to power - and almost immediately announced that the quango would be scrapped - last year.
The move, coupled with the axeing of the Audit Commission, prompted disquiet among lenders and fears that the cost of borrowing might rise as a result. What, then, has the organisation that Ms Lloyd-Jones oversees been doing over the past year and is there any evidence that it has been distracted from the task in hand by the turbulence the coalition brought in its wake?
The report demonstrates that despite the uncertainty, the TSA certainly hasn’t stood still. For a start, it reveals that it undertook a ‘growing body of work on strategies for resolving concerns about consumer-facing standards’. In plain English, this relates to the way landlords engage with their tenants and work with them to deliver a locally agreed set of priorities - which the regulator required them to do from October 2010. The watchdog dealt with 20 such problem cases last year.
This work will tail off in the near future, however. The regulator has received a clear steer from government that its main focus should be on the governance and viability of providers. And as Inside Housing revealed in June, it has not commissioned a single landlord inspection in almost a year - prompting concerns that problems are less likely to be spotted (Inside Housing, 10 June).
Consultant Phil Morgan, who was executive director of tenant services until his contract was terminated in May 2010, says this is a real worry.
‘I think what we got [after the coalition came to power] is a cautiousness by the TSA about approaching customer facing issues,’ he says. ‘[Housing minister] Grant Shapps has given a fairly clear steer to the regulator to stay away from consumer-facing stuff.’
The report certainly reveals a big shift away from tenant involvement work. The budget for the tenant excellence fund, designed to help identify and share best practice, has fallen from £499,000 to £77,000 and tenant empowerment grants have been slashed by £500,000 to £1.6 million.
Michael Gelling, chief executive of the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, lays responsibility for this squarely at the government’s door. ‘There is a significant amount of money being withdrawn from tenants,’ he states.
Mr Morgan, who is still in touch with former colleagues, says he fears little regulatory attention outside viability and governance, and no regular in-spections mean the TSA’s ability to nip problems in the bud is reduced.This is bad news for tenants, he feels. ‘There is a group [of landlords] who basically said, “Grant Shapps said the TSA is toast” and took their foot off the pedal. They didn’t want to worry too much about all this pesky tenant stuff. That is the group I worry about,’ he adds.
The regulator did, however, unleash its claws several times during 2010/11 - with nine providers under supervision or intensive regulation during the course of the year. In general, however, the report reveals a growing determination from the TSA to give providers every chance to sort out their problems behind the scenes, part of its new co-regulatory approach. The four times it used its statutory powers to appoint board members were all carried over from the previous year.
‘Where it is reasonable, these cases are resolved through agreeing improvement measures proposed and implemented by the providers themselves,’ the report states. In two cases, it says, self-improvement plans were not deemed acceptable and it was ‘prepared to use statutory powers’.
In practice, though, the regulator pulled its punches - the landlords whose improvement plans had been rejected were allowed to give ‘voluntary undertakings’ which ‘proposed formal strategies for resolving regulatory concerns’.
By and large, the new approach is proving a hit with landlords, however.
Alison Thain, chief executive of 15,000-home Fabrick Housing Group, says that in general the TSA had got the balance right over the past year.
‘I think the idea that regulation should be proportionate to risk is absolutely right,’ she says. ‘In the past there was an awful lot of regulation for the sake of it, which I think was in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees.’
Councils also came under the housing regulator’s power for the first time in 2010/11. The report reveals that it agreed eight improvement plans with council landlords but in general they were performing well against its tenant involvement standard. It adds that it has found that councils support its regulatory approach.
The next year should see the TSA close down and regulation absorbed by the Homes and Communities Agency. Whatever her title, Ms Lloyd-Jones will oversee the change. The knack will be making sure that bad landlords do not slip through the net while this goes on. Even Batman might baulk at that challenge.
The Tenant Services Authority’s position
‘The Tenant Services Authority published 125 regulatory judgements in the year, twice as many as in the previous year,’ a spokesperson for the authority says.
‘The work on consumer-facing standards arose principally from our review of providers’ first annual reports to tenants submitted to the TSA in October 2010, from Audit Commission inspections and subsequent action plans and from tenant complaints.
‘Since April 2011, we have no longer actively sought evidence of compliance with consumer-facing standards. Instead we assume compliance unless we receive significant evidence to the contrary.
‘From April 2012, subject to the passage of the Localism Bill, we expect further change and will only intervene when we receive evidence of service failure resulting in serious detriment to tenants or the risk of serious detriment.’