Is it time to write off the TSA?
The Audit Commission has already been left for scrap and the Tenant Services Authority has just a slim chance of being salvaged. Inside Housing’s exclusive survey reveals whether you think the TSA has reached the end of the road. Lydia Stockdale reports.
The Audit Commission has been written off and the Tenant Services Authority is waiting to find out whether it will be sent for scrap or salvage. Changes to inspection and regulation in the housing sector are hurtling along at unstoppable speed. In a matter of weeks the government’s spending review will take place and the TSA’s fate will be sealed.
Housing minister Grant Shapps has already made it clear that he wants the housing watchdog to go. But he has been forced to conduct a review, which must conclude before the government announces its spending plans in October.
With a short amount of time to stop and reflect, Inside Housing ran its own review, asking readers in which direction they would like to see housing inspection and regulation go.
The majority (54 per cent) of the 234 housing professionals who completed our ‘Has the TSA had its day?’ survey last month say they want the regulator to be rescued from the scrap heap, given a thorough service and put back on the road. More than half of them want the TSA to be allowed to continue, and the same proportion think the government was wrong to scrap the Audit Commission.
Meanwhile, 77 per cent want the TSA’s regulatory framework for social housing in England, which was introduced in April, to stay even if the regulator itself is abolished. ‘The fact that most respondents to the survey support the current regulatory framework and more than 50 per cent agree that the TSA should continue, underlines the need for a strong independent regulator for the housing sector,’ says Sarah Webb, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing.
‘Over the past five years housing professionals, tenants, councillors and boards have worked closely together to come up with a regulatory settlement that cuts red tape and reduces bureaucracy, putting the focus back on the relationship between the landlord and the tenant.
‘While we supported a thorough review of social housing regulation by government, we urge that this builds on the strong foundations already in place through the TSA to deliver value for money for the taxpayer and underpin great service provision for tenants. Our submission to the Communities and Local Government department’s review of regulation makes this point clearly.’
The TSA responds to the results of our survey saying: ‘We fully support the objectives of the government’s review of the TSA and are working hard with CLG to ensure these are met. Pending new arrangements being implemented following the review, we are getting on with the job.’
A foregone conclusion
This is all very optimistic but rather out of date, argues an outspoken Alistair McIntosh, chief executive of benchmarking organisation the Housing Quality Network. He believes, despite how much readers want the TSA to stay, it’s already a thing of the past. ‘[Asking whether readers want the TSA to continue] is a question from another era - a previous government’s regime. It’s gone. We need to finish the moaning and get on with a new world,’ he says.
Greg Campbell, director of consultancy Campbell Tickell, agrees. ‘In an ideal world we would keep the TSA,’ he says sympathetically. ‘But to put it bluntly, it’s not going to happen.’ The government is desperate to reduce spending, he continues, and quangos such as the TSA are going to have to go.
This may prove difficult for most of the readers who took part in our survey to hear. Fifty seven per cent believe that if the TSA is scrapped, social housing regulation will be less robust, transparent and independent. A quarter say regulation would be ‘far less’ effective. And more than half of readers are certain that scrapping the TSA would not cut unnecessary regulation, one of the objectives outlined in the government’s review.
What about the government’s bottom line: cutting public spending? Respondents are undecided about whether or not abolishing the TSA would save taxpayers’ money. Thirty five per cent think it would, but 39 per cent argue that it wouldn’t; a quarter of respondents say they’re unsure. Almost half, meanwhile, believe that losing the TSA would negatively affect investment in social housing: 48 per cent argue that lenders’ and investors’ confidence would falter if the regulator was not there. Approaching a third, on the other hand, believe that lenders would be unaffected.
If the government does decide the regulator has had its day, 46 per cent of readers would want the Homes and Communities Agency to take over its role; 15 per cent favour the Housing Ombudsman Service, while 22 per cent opt for Mr Shapps’ tenants’ panels.
The Shapps plan
Uncertainty still looms over the future of housing regulation, but the housing minister has gone public with certain parts of his plan for the TSA. The HCA would take over the TSA’s watchdog role. Meanwhile, the framework developed by the TSA to ensure the provision of excellent tenant services will remain, and landlords will be required to comply with it. Complaints that cannot be resolved by a landlord will escalate to an elected local official such as a councillor or MP, before heading to the existing Housing Ombudsman Service as a final resort.
In his June speech to the CIH’s conference in Harrogate, Mr Shapps introduced his idea for tenants’ panels. ‘There could be tenants’ panels that genuinely help tenants have a stronger voice in their local communities,’ he said. ‘Along with elected councillors and MPs, tenants’ panels could act as a new gateway to the ombudsman. Elected representatives would know which landlords provide the best service to their tenants. Landlords would become more responsive and locally accountable.’
Campbell Tickell’s Mr Campbell believes ‘the government recognises the need to have regulation to a degree, and it’s inevitable that [the TSA’s role] will be merged into the HCA’, as the housing minister has suggested. ‘Hopefully it will be a distinct division within the HCA,’ he says. Regulation will once again be under one roof, as it was with the Housing Corporation until 18 months ago, he continues.
As for the housing minister’s tenants’ panels idea, nearly half of readers who completed our survey agree with it, while 29 per cent disagree. Nearly a quarter, meanwhile, are either undecided or unclear about what tenants’ panels will be expected to do.
Mr Campbell is also unclear. ‘How are they going to operate?’ he asks. ‘Suppose for a moment tenants’ panels and local authority councillors do work together [as Mr Shapps suggested in Harrogate] - metropolitan areas have huge numbers of landlords, who’s going to monitor performance? Also, it’s going to need resourcing. Local authorities are going to need to cut 25 to 40 per cent of their budgets. This [tenants’ panels] isn’t going to be a priority for them.’
One survey respondent wonders, ‘Is it fair to expect tenants to take on the huge role of regulating/inspecting their landlords without any independent support. Has anyone asked them if they want to do it?’ Another reader - one of the 17 per cent who believe that another body should be set up to replace the TSA - says that a tribunal system should be established to deal with tenants’ complaints. ‘Bureaucracy and power need to be taken out of the system,’ she argues. ‘Tenants don’t need to be patronised. They don’t need the TSA or housing ombudsman to tell them how ineffectual and powerless they are - they need real power.’
Indeed, tenant empowerment is one of the greatest concerns to emerge from our survey. Sixty three per cent of respondents are not confident that tenants will be adequately protected and empowered if the TSA is abolished. Mr Campbell understands this fear - regulation could potentially focus on efficiency and value for money rather than customer service, he says.
Private sector involvement
While the TSA’s fate is uncertain, the Audit Commission’s is sealed. Last month, secretary of state for communities and local government Eric Pickles announced he was scrapping the efficiency body, hitherto responsible for housing inspections. Housing professionals have been left wondering what next?
One thing’s for sure, respondents to our survey do not want private firms to take over inspection. On a scale of one to five, one being highly unfavourable and five being highly favourable, approaching half of them gave the lowest possible score of one.
‘If inspection was to be undertaken by private firms, to be an independent process, residents need to lead the procurement process making it clear what needs to be inspected and why,’ suggests one respondent.
But another asks: ‘Are they going to be producing glossy reports to please the client so they get more contracts?’
A bigger question is posed by Mr Campbell: ‘Is inspection going to continue other than in the most extreme circumstances?’
At the moment, there are so many questions about the future of regulation and inspection hanging in the air - but the speed with which the coalition government is introducing changes means that before long, answers should become clear.
Depending on the outcome of the review the housing minister has been compelled to conduct, the TSA could still be given an oil change and continue on its journey as the majority of our readers wish. On the other hand, it could join the Audit Commission on the quango scrap heap.
Your say: what our readers have to say about the TSA
‘I think the Tenant Services Authority and the Audit Commission are a waste of money and the government is right to scrap them. I think it would be better for the local councils to oversee all landlords within their area, and have full regulatory powers.’
Colin Worthington, chair of Arkwright Town Residents’ Group, Derbyshire
‘I like the TSA’s principle of co-regulation and the emphasis on tenant scrutiny. Speaking to tenants, it seems to me this is what they have wanted for many years. With the TSA under review, my concern is that the notion of tenant involvement and empowerment will become watered down. Under the Audit Commission, inspections seemed to be more about jumping through hoops than working with tenants to improve services. What I did like about the Audit Commission, however, is that it was able to draw some useful comparisons between organisations and highlight good practice.’
Leon Tricker, service improvement manager, Guinness Hermitage
‘If you gave the role of inspector to the private sector there would be an outcry. As for regulation, it’s far greater in the housing sector than it is in other sectors and there seems to be a lot of duplication between the different agencies. We have a Homes and Communities Agency that’s more like the Housing Corporation as we knew it - one single quango that’s cost effective.’
David O’Neill, head of new business and sales, Housing 21
Views expressed are those of the named individuals and do not represent those of their organisations.