Posted by: Jules Birch21/12/2010
The consultation on social housing reform ends on January 17. Guess when the government has scheduled the second reading of the Bill that will introduce them.
The debate on the Localism Bill scheduled for the same day means that the vote on the general principles of the reforms will be taken before there has been any chance to consider the responses to the consultation.
As I blogged when the reform paper was first published, the rushed consultation period of eight weeks (seven if you take off the Christmas and New Year week) breaches the government’s own code of practice. Now we know why.
The code drawn up by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills states that: ‘Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible.’
It goes on: ‘If a consultation exercise is to take place over a period when consultees are less able to respond, e.g. over the summer or Christmas break, or if the policy under consideration is particularly complex, consideration should be given to the feasibility of allowing a longer period for the consultation.’
Over the Christmas break? Check. Particularly complex? On the government’s own description this is ‘the most radical reform of social housing in a generation’.
In the reform paper, the government justifies the haste on the grounds that: ‘The consultation period has been set at eight weeks to provide the greatest possible opportunities for comment and allow for a draft Direction on a new Tenancy Standard to be considered alongside the Localism Bill.’
However, even that does not seem to stand up to scrutiny. The consultation period on the new tenancy standard launched last week by the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) lasts until March 2.
The TSA admits that the consultation is 11 weeks rather than 12 but says it needs enough time to allow housing associations to implement the new Affordable Rent model from April 1.
In contrast, the housing reform paper promises: ‘A summary of the responses to consultation will be published on the Department’s website within three months of the end of the consultation period.’
Which implies that, just as the second reading will take place before the government has considered any objections to the reforms, the committee stage and third reading will happen before it has published the responses to the consultation.
That seems in flagrant breach of two more parts of the code – that ‘formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to inﬂuence the policy outcome’ and that the summary of responses ‘should normally be published before or alongside any further action, e.g. laying legislation before Parliament’.
The code is not legally enforceable and ministers do have discretion to ignore it if they wish. The important point is what underlies it though – the idea that good consultation leads to good legislation and poor consultation leads to the exact opposite.
While many people will welcome reform of the housing revenue account at last, many of the other reforms are complex in their own right and in the way they interact with each other, not to mention cuts in housing benefit and wider welfare reform.
So what’s the rush? After all, there is no urgent electoral mandate for the reforms. There was no hint of the most controversial proposals in the coalition programme for government or in the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestoes.
As I may have mentioned once or twice before, the Conservative manifesto pledged to ‘respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants’. Party spokespeople stressed during the election campaign that this applied to future as well as current tenants.
And more than half of current Lib Dem MPs signed early day motions in the last parliament opposing the idea of time-limited tenancies.
It’s true that the Localism Bill does not impose the changes across the board but allows local authorities and housing associations the freedom to apply them where they wish. Maybe the vast majority will not use the new powers – as a survey out yesterday on tenancies suggests – but whether it will turn out to be quite as voluntary as that in the long term remains to be seen.
The rush certainly seems to fit with the idea of ‘creative chaos’, the description that influential Conservative backbencher Nick Boles applies to the coalition’s reforms of public services. These are far from the only reforms that the coalition is rushing through.
The Lib Dem-supporting academic Alex Marsh says on his excellent blog that the unseemly haste suggests that ‘the Coalition seem to be trying to do as much – I am tempted to say “as much damage” – as fast as possible because they suspect it won’t last’.
But it’s hard to escape the impression that the real consultation on the housing reform plans happened before the election and over the summer – the one with Conservative local authorities in west London.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context