As the Housing and Regeneration Bill moves through Parliament, Simon Brandon finds out how legislation filters down to the frontline.
Legislation and its little sister regulation are the framework on which the housing sector hangs. Both are due for a major and fast-approaching upheaval.
The upcoming Housing and Regeneration Act – currently a bill doing the rounds in the House of Lords (see box overleaf: a bill’s journey) – is going to forge a new regulator altogether. A big change is on its way.
But how does new legislation percolate downwards from Whitehall? What happens between Parliament and the frontline? Putting new laws into practice can be a painstaking job and it seems that just as one has been absorbed and implemented by social landlords, along comes another. Inside Housing decided to follow one act’s journey to the frontline.
The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 passed into law in December of that year. Three years later, many landlords have only recently finished implementing it – and according to one observer, many others have yet to do so. What takes them so long?
The DDA 2005 is a wide-ranging piece of legislation. It builds on its 1995 predecessor – which made disability discrimination illegal – by compelling organisations to actively root out policies and practices that discriminate against disabled people. Its consequences have been felt throughout housing organisations. ‘It hit us amidships rather than head on,’ says Mike Donaldson, group director of corporate strategy and communications at L&Q Group.
The extent of the DDA’s reach might be surprising, too. Forty-two per cent of social renting households are home to at least one disabled person, according to an Ipsos MORI poll for The Housing Corporation. ‘A large proportion of disabled people live in social housing – they are housing associations’ bread and butter,’ says David Carrigan, the corporation’s diversity policy manager.
Once new laws or regulations have been rubber stamped, they are written up and sent to housing providers. It is Mr Donaldson and his counterparts throughout the sector who act as their organisations’ conduits for new diktats from above.
‘Usually a circular comes from the government, or the Housing Corporation, explaining what they are trying to achieve,’ he explains. ‘Some of them have deadlines, some long, some short.’
The powers that be can, Mr Donaldson says, be ‘rather vague’. He doesn’t remember the corporation’s circular on social HomeBuy, a scheme to help tenants buy their house, very fondly. ‘A lot of that came out very late,’ he says. ‘You need detail, especially when you’re talking potentially about people’s life savings.’
In the case of the DDA 2005, landlords were given until December 2007 to each produce a disability equality action plan – in essence, to set out exactly how they were going to eliminate disability discrimination from their organisations.
The first step towards that at L&Q was Mr Donaldson summoning the association’s equal opportunities working group. Its co-chair is Tom Nichols, the group’s director of human resources.
‘It comprises people from all over the group – managers from one department, housing officers, Unison reps. We have a range of ages too – there is a graduate representative,’ Mr Nichols explains. ‘We worked out what we thought we would need to do – what the piece of legislation was going to require, what sort of actions we needed to put in place.’ The idea behind the working group’s cosmopolitan make-up is to ensure that the implications for the entire business are taken into account as far and as early as possible.
There was also external guidance to draw on. In this case, the Housing Corporation had asked Habinteg Housing Association, a specialist provider of housing for people with disabilities, to publish its own advice on implementing disability equality schemes online, as a best practice reference for other associations.
Other sources of help were less useful. The Housing Corporation’s own guidance, according to one policy manager, did not materialise in time for it to be very useful. It hadn’t arrived in July 2007, five months before the landlords’ deadline. But the National Housing Federation that month staged a conference on the issues around the act.
What next? Experts consulted and internal policies drawn up, landlords began to push the new action plan throughout their organisations. For L&Q, this was done through a policy operation group of senior managers ‘whose job it is to get the message through’, explains Mr Nichols.
Human resources departments were majorly affected by the DDA 2005. ‘There was a lot of change in human resources policies,’ says Mr Nichols. ‘We are trying to ensure that everyone from the chief executive down has responsibility for equality and diversity. It’s time-consuming, but it’s my job.’
At Places for People, it is assistive technology manager Tahir Idris’ job to help disabled tenants find technologies to make daily life easier. It also falls to him to update frontline staff on their DDA responsibilities. Promoting equality of opportunity for disabled people is a key part of the DDA 2005 and providing technology to help counter the effects of disabilities is part of that. But implementing that throughout a large organisation is not easy.
‘We are nationally spread – it’s hard to make an impact,’ admits Mr Idris. ‘But how do you eat an elephant? You eat it bit by bit. The bottom line is that we have more than 2,000 staff. It’s a huge challenge but we are getting there.’
For staff at arm’s-length management organisation Hackney Homes, part of the DDA 2005’s legacy has been discrimination awareness training. ‘For the past 18 months all staff have had equality and diversity training,’ explains Hackney Homes’ service development manager Sharan Sewa. ‘It’s mandatory for all our staff and covers all aspects of legislation, including disability. It’s an ongoing exercise.’
Everyone from board members to frontline staff undertake the training. Ms Sewa describes the experience as ‘looking at customers and diversity… and putting it into action’.
And all this, presumably, means an improvement in services for landlords’ disabled tenants – the act’s original purpose fulfilled.
Nor does it end there. The Housing and Regeneration Act is imminent, aiming among other things to put more power into the hands of all social tenants.
The changes it will demand of housing providers remain to be seen – as will landlords’ readiness to implement it.
‘We don’t believe that the new act will increase the burden of regulation on housing organisations, but the greater focus on tenants, increased tenant choice and the powers that tenants will have to influence the business, will require change,’ predicts Abigail Davies, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing. ‘Some organisations will be ready for this and some won’t.’