All posts from: October 2011
There will be a victory for tenant power on Monday when the government will almost certainly succeed in amending the Localism Bill to ensure tenants can still complain directly to the housing ombudsman.
The government has been keen to push its mantra of localism, and wanted to allow elected representatives and tenant panels to deal with complaints, rather than a remote, unelected body.
Housing minster Grant Shapps has previously argued that this would reconnect local representatives into resolving the housing complaints of their constituents, thus strengthening local accountability.
The risk with this of course is that tenants would not, in all circumstances, be guaranteed a fair and impartial hearing.
This would especially be the case if the designated ‘democratic filter’ representatives are in some way related to the social landlord in question.
The government is now proposing that tenants can go to the ombudsman after a period of eight weeks has elapsed.
This is a sensible compromise, which still sends the message that the government expects tenants to go to the ‘democratic filter’ in the first instance, while not barring them from going to the ombudsman entirely.
The partial u-turn on tenant complaints is another example of tension between the government’s localist instincts and the need for services to meet expectations nationally.
In recent weeks we have seen how giving councils an effective veto over affordable homes developments has led to stand-offs as councils insist on their rent policies, while associations want to push ahead with building homes for the national programme.
The path to localism is, as the government is now learning, not simple.
An effort to persuade the government to allow tenants to opt to have their housing benefit paid to their landlord predictably failed last night.
Lord Richard Best’s amendment, which was backed by 16 organisations including the National Housing Federation, failed to win government support.
One suspects this is more to do with politics and a point of principle than about logistics. The government is determined to make the experience of receiving benefit closely resemble that of being paid a wage, with claimants made more responsible for their finances. ‘The choices available to working households do not include opting for their employer to pay the landlord directly,’ Lord Freud said.
But this leaves the serious problem of what happens to those tenants who are in, or at risk of going in to, arrears with their rent.
Lord Freud has said that payment could be switched to landlords if tenants go into arrears and has announced demonstration projects to test the feasibility of this.
The minister has also said he is working with banks to look at the possibility of setting up ringfenced ‘escrow’ accounts to prevent banks from cancelling direct debits if the tenant has debts elsewhere, although it is not yet clear how effective these would be or exactly how they would work.
The multi-billion pound IT system that will enable claimants to monitor their universal credit payments will also have the potential for a budget calculator ‘app’ to educate tenants and prevent them from getting into arrears.
It seems as though the government is so determined to force claimants to manage their own finances it is considering complex mechanisms to protect landlords’ cashflows.
Would it not have been easier simply to support Lord Best’s amendment? Surely opting for your benefit to be paid to your landlord is an example of tenants making a responsible choice?
Another week has passed and there is more concern about stand offs between councils and housing associations over rent levels in the affordable homes programme.
The housing minister has now intervened and asked civil servants to look at the issue.
A number of housing association chief executives are furious that some councils are only now publishing their position on rents, after associations have agreed terms with the Homes and Communities Agency.
Councils can effectively veto schemes as the bidding rules under the £1.8 billion programme state schemes must ‘contribute to local authority priorities.’
One chief executive has privately told Inside Housing that his organisation will not now sign a bid unless the matter is resolved, with government intervention if necessary.
The situation throws up big questions about the sovereignty of housing association boards.
These bids have been agreed by boards and the HCA. Should councils really have the ability to over-ride the wishes of association board members and the government?
In seeking to drive a localist agenda and empower councils, the coalition government might have unwittingly infringed on the ability of association board members to make decisions.
Associations are in real danger of being caught between central government, which needs to deliver a national housebuilding programme, and local government, which is rightly taking advantage of greater ability to set a local agenda.
One figure close to the discussions in the capital has said councils and associations will reach agreement when they discuss bids in more detail.
We have to hope he is right as the sector, already more than six months into the four-year affordable homes programme, cannot afford to have this impasse go on for much longer.