Non-public status ‘at risk'
Unprecedented powers handed to the government's new social housing watchdog risk robbing housing associations of their independence and hobbling their efforts to build more homes.
Oftenant will be created by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will also pave the way for the Homes and Communities Agency to be created from the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. The bill will also give ministers the power to free local authorities from the complex housing finance regime to help them meet house building targets. Stock transfer rules will also be overhauled to help prevent council tenants from challenging ballot results in court (see page 3). But it is the strength of Oftenant's powers that has caused alarm among housing associations. The bill will give the new scrutineer and the government the ability to set standards housing associations will need to comply with.
National Housing Federation chief executive David Orr described these powers as 'unprecedented'. The move risked turning associations into public agencies, hampering their ability to borrow from banks, he warned. 'The only way in which the regulator can currently actively intervene in the affairs of a housing association is if there has been misconduct or mismanagement,' said Mr Orr. 'The bill as it stands will allow the regulator to passport government policy. That is not the purpose of regulation. They [housing associations] risk losing their non-public status.'
Corporation board member Kate Barker said the federation was right to voice concerns. 'I think the National Housing Federation is absolutely right to [raise it] because it is an important issue,' she said. 'It is important that we continue to have them [associations] regarded as private bodies.'
Mr Orr was also worried by the watchdog's ability to raise fees from the sector, which he said could come at the cost of thousands of new homes a year.
Merron Simpson, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said the power given to the new Homes and Communities Agency to seize local planning powers from councils should be used sparingly. 'Where local authorities are doing a good job, it should be based on whether or not they're operating in an effective strategic housing role,' she said.
Housing minister Iain Wright described the bill as 'enabling legislation, rather than dictating legislation'.