Getting stuck in
The Localism Act successfully completed its passage through parliament last month, putting residents at the heart of local decision making. So how will it affect the way landlords do business? Rhiannon Bury attends a round table of experts to find out
‘People are doing this already, we’re not trying to reinvent anything,’ says Michelle Reid, chief executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service.
Matthew Gardiner, chief executive of Trafford Housing Trust, agrees: ‘We set out to be at the heart of neighbourhoods, so in some way the Localism Act is simply catching up with what we’ve been doing for six years and what a lot of housing associations have been doing for a long time.’
If coalition ministers think they have started a revolution with the concept of localism - people having the power to shape their own communities - they might want to talk to the 12 housing professionals at this round table discussion hosted by Inside Housing in association with Wates Living Space.
The event is well timed, taking place during the same week the Localism Bill completed its journey through parliament to become the Localism Act. No longer are our guests talking about potential changes and how they could work - these changes are now law.
So are social landlords miles ahead of the Localism Act? How are our panellists personally getting stuck in and will the act change landlords’ approach in any way?
‘We wouldn’t take our cue for localism from the actual bill,’ sums up Helen Williams, assistant director of neighbourhoods at the National Housing Federation. ‘I would hope both housing associations and local authorities understood the importance of doing things for their communities and involving local communities, not just because it’s the flavour of the month but because it makes sense for what communities most need.’
The Localism Act, touted as the government’s panacea for the housing crisis and local authority bureaucracy, certainly is the flavour of the month. It has introduced some of the radical reforms of the housing sector: the scrapping of secure tenancies for new tenants, reform of the much-reviled housing revenue account and neighbourhood planning powers.
Fundamentally, though, it aims to kick-start house building and hand power from central government to local communities so they can dictate their own futures.
But Chris Williamson, MP for Derby North and a member of the shadow communities and local government team, says the real measure of success of localism is to what extent it allows local organisations to work together to deliver the services people want and need.
‘I think there’s a lack of willingness to pool budgets,’ he says, to nodding heads around the room. ‘Aligning them is a step in the right direction but there’ve been massive cuts in public services and public funding and if we don’t actually look at how we can pool budgets then we’re all going to hang separately.’
John Walker, head of business research and planning at housing association Gentoo, picks up on this point. He says a scheme which saw local service providers including the 29,600-home landlord working with a community in Sunderland successfully identified local problems, and led to the various organisations working together to find solutions.
As a result, local residents the police and council environmental services started providing a local responsive repair services, particularly looking at the image and the feel of an area. Together they provide ‘things like rapid response to graffiti and low level anti-social behaviour’, explains Mr Walker. ‘Residents told us that makes a big different to their lives and communities,’ he says.
The thorniest subject tackled by our guests is the reform of the planning system introduced in the Localism Act, and whether these changes will lead to the development of new homes.
‘I think the community engagement around what’s wrong with your neighbourhood is a no brainer,’ states Brian Ham, chief executive of Dolphin Square Foundation, a charitable organisation that invests in affordable housing in London. ‘I think the really tough stuff is how we get development pipeline of housing going because I never really know any local community that says, “yes please we’d like some more development in our area”.’
The Localism Act puts communities in charge of deciding how much development they want in their area, and where. Last year, communities secretary Eric Pickles controversially scrapped regional planning targets in favour of this local approach to housing need. But will residents oppose new homes being built in their communities?
TPAS’s Ms Reid, for one, does not believe that communities are inherently against development - she says that listening to local people from the outset leads to a better outcome. ‘The thing that is terrible is uncertainty,’ she states. ‘Even if the answers are not what people want to hear you’ve got to give people the right expectations, and getting people involved right at the beginning is great.’
Everyone around the table agrees that the planning system needed to change, but there are doubts as to whether the reforms introduced under the Localism Act will deliver. Steve Trusler, strategy director for Wates Living Space, sums up his opinions: ‘Do I believe the planning system is in need of reform? I absolutely do, and could it do better than it’s doing at the moment, definitely. Do I think [the Localism Act] will solve the housing crisis and increase delivery? I’m probably not so convinced in that area. It isn’t just the planning system that’s the problem.’
Geeta Nanda, chief executive of Thames Valley Housing which owns 14,660 homes across London and the south east, agrees. She says her organisation has always had ‘planning disputes’ when it has proposed new housing developments.
These disputes do not result from councils lacking clear direction. ‘The local authorities we’re going to go to are the ones who do know where they’re going, who have strong local leadership,’ she explains.
Lack of resources and land supply are common obstacles. There are also problems with finance, she adds. ‘It’s not just planning.’
Development won’t happen at all unless there is money to support plans, warns Robin Lawler, chief executive of Manchester-based arm’s-length management organisation Northwards Housing. ‘Energy and enthusiasm in local communities has to be backed by resources in order to make things happen,’ he says.
The changes introduced under the Localism Act have done little except provoke nervousness, especially given the raft of reforms contained in a single document, Mr Lawler suggests.
Alex Morton, senior research fellow for housing and planning at think tank Policy Exchange, which has campaigned for a change in planning reform for the past six years, doesn’t mince his words about councils’ attitudes to more development. He says household projections, which estimate population growth in a particular area, are inaccurate and underestimate true local need. ‘Councillors love household projections because it means they can build much less housing than is actually needed,’ he says. ‘Over 60 years, as housing need has gone up and up, we’ve built less and less.’
There is undoubtedly courage needed for these things to happen locally, but where does the buck stop? ‘I don’t think it’s exclusively the local authority or the housing association or the community,’ answers Mr Lawler. ‘You need to find a way of working together and you need to get people on terms that are right for them. And if people give you their views you need to tell them what you’ve done with them.’
The NHF’s Ms Williams wants to see councils providing plans for their areas. ‘[Under the Localism Act]there’s much more of an onus on local authorities to have sustainable local development plans and certainly we’d like to see the planning framework strengthened so that there are requirements on them to do robust assessment of housing need on a local basis, so there are local targets making it a stronger requirement to build [the number of homes in the plan].’
James Murray, cabinet member for housing at Labour-led Islington Council, gives a local authority perspective. ‘We don’t just want development at any cost, we want to make sure we get a plan that’s appropriate for our needs,’ he states.
‘We’ve had good feedback [from a lot of our housing association partners] because we’ve been very straightforward about what we want. It’s about being clear and about being up for discussion. I also think that’s true in terms of talking to local residents.’
Taking the positive
Making new homes happen is challenging, our round table participants agree - so eyebrows are raised when Kate Davies, chief executive of 26,800-home Notting Hill Housing, suggests she’s upbeat about the potential to develop in the capital.
‘Fortunately, for housing associations with capacity in London at the moment the times are quite good,’ she states, going on to explain how her organisation plans to build 4,000 homes over the next four years.
‘We were able to buy land when it was relatively cheap, the housing market has continued to go up, housing need is huge, our market rent portfolio is doing well, shared ownership is in more demand than it ever has been, there’s a shortage of homes available for private sale, so they’re all selling. I’m not saying it’s easy but it’s a set of circumstances that are quite reasonable for a central London housing association at the moment,’ she says.
As the discussion draws to a close, Ms Reid brings up a point that others may not have considered: fixed-term tenancies, introduced under the Localism Act, might actually undermine the ability of landlords to engage with residents.
The TPAS chief executive is particularly worried about the impact of scrapping security of tenure on stable communities. Housing providers will offer a default tenancy of five years to new tenants - even fewer in some circumstances.
‘The evidence is that people are already saying, “if I’ve only got a tenancy for five years I’m less likely to get involved, and I’m less likely to give my views on things”. So it may actually have an impact on people’s ability to get involved,’ she explains.
It’s now up to housing providers to draw on their experience of resident engagement to ensure people feel they have an investment in their communities.
‘Localism will work, but it will work despite what’s going on rather than because of it,’ she states, heads around the room nodding in agreement.
The consensus is that localism will free up resources and encourage local participation, helping housing providers to continue to work with their residents. But if the government thinks it’s ahead of the game, this is one room of experts who are more than willing to tell it otherwise.