Out of commission
The Audit Commission has completed its final inspection. So what did the watchdog achieve and will it be missed? Simon Brandon finds out
It’s a phrase that must have struck fear into the hearts of more than a few housing organisations over the past eight years: the inspectors are coming.
Since 2003, the Audit Commission has been the sector’s watchdog, snapping at the heels of poorly performing landlords and driving up levels of service - or that was the idea, anyway.
In August last year communities secretary Eric Pickles announced the commission’s demise, saying the body had ‘lost its way’. The commission completed its last inspection in December and this function is now due to transfer to the private sector.
Now that this watchdog has been defanged, how will it be remembered? Roy Irwin, former chief inspector of housing at the commission, believes it improved the housing sector (see opinion, right) - but do others believe it has been a force for good?
‘Undoubtedly it was,’ says James Tickell, director of housing consultancy Campbell Tickell. The commission’s predecessor in the watchdog role, the Housing Corporation, was much more focused on organisations’ probity and financial security, he adds. But the culture and language of the sector today is centred around customers and the services provided to them, rather than economics - the commission’s inspection regime can take credit for that.
A great reminder
‘I have no doubt that the onset of inspections reminded housing associations that they had tenants and that services mattered,’ Mr Tickell says. ‘A lot of them, not all, had forgotten that.’
Gwyneth Taylor, policy director at the National Federation of Arm’s-length Management Organisations, agrees. ‘The ones who will suffer [as a result of the Audit Commission’s demise] are residents,’ she says.
The commission had a special and formative relationship with the ALMO sector. To access decent homes cash, each ALMO had to attain at least two stars - a ‘good’ rating - from the commission.
‘Although that wasn’t the case in other sectors, I think the ALMO sector was pushing the boundaries as a result of inspections,’ says Ms Taylor. ‘That spread to other sectors. It helped bring everybody up.’
Losing the way
There have been criticisms, too.
Mr Pickles is not alone in his assessment. ‘For the first four or five years [the Audit Commission] made the biggest improvement to housing management since [Victorian philanthropist] Octavia Hill,’ says Alastair McIntosh, chief executive of the Housing Quality Network. ‘But they lost the plot. They didn’t refresh. Instead of changing tactics and coming up with new ideas, they just came up with more and bigger key lines of enquiry.’
In line with the government’s localism agenda, the commission’s audit work is to be outsourced to private companies in time for the audits of organisations’ 2012/2013 accounts. The worry now is that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater; poorly performing businesses will still trigger official alarms, but it is what Ms Taylor calls the ‘unambitious average’ that are the concern. ‘There will be nothing to push them anymore,’ she says.
‘It will be easier to get away with mediocrity now,’ agrees
Mr Tickell. ‘There are all sorts of criticisms about how [the commission] did its work, but it pushed the whole sector in the direction of customers and tenants. It changed the way people thought about what they were there to do. History should be kind to the Audit Commission.’
Timeline: the lifetime of the Audit Commission
The Audit Commission for local authorities in England and Wales begins operation. Its remit is to monitor and audit councils’ use of public money
Auditor John Magill, appointed by the commission to investigate the ‘homes for votes’ scandal at Westminster Council, publishes his report. It finds Dame Shirley Porter, Westminster Council’s leader, guilty of gerrymandering by selling council houses cheaply to families likely to vote Conservative
The commission begins inspections of local authority housing services. Its first inspection is of Dacorum Council’s housing cleaning and caretaking services. It is rated ‘good’, and ‘likely to improve’
Birmingham Council’s repairs service is given a zero-star rating and judged as ‘poor’. In 2003, when it received zero stars again, it was agreed that the commission should provide ‘supervision and support’. In its most recent inspection, the commission found that the council gave a ‘fair’ service to tenants
The commission recommends government intervention at Hull Council following a corporate governance inspection. In 2005, it found the council to be ‘improving adequately’ and in 2007 to be ‘improving well’
The commission assumes responsibility for inspecting all social landlords. The first housing association to receive a visit from the inspectors is
Sarsen. Its services were judged satisfactory, with standards rising
Shaftesbury Housing Association (now part of Sanctuary Group) becomes the first social landlord the Audit Commission judges to be ‘failing’ its residents. Upon re-inspection two years later, Shaftesbury had improved to ‘poor’
Communities secretary Eric Pickles says the commission has ‘lost its way’ and is to close (Inside Housing, 13 August 2010). Mr Pickles says scrapping the body will save £50 million - a figure later described by housing minister Grant Shapps as ‘ballpark’ (Inside Housing, 8 April)
An Audit Commission audit
30 - number of re-inspections of social landlords judged to be ‘failing’. Of these 20 were found to have improved and 10 received the same overall rating but received higher scores for their prospects for improvement
49 - number of housing inspectors employed by the commission in addition to 19 support staff
1,400 - number of inspections carried out since 2000
Opinion: Roy Irwin
The commission’s former chief inspector of housing reflects on its legacy
When the Audit Commission set about inspecting council housing services, and later those of arm’s-length management organisations and housing associations, it wanted to get behind the reports and statistics to see how tenants and other service users were really served and how money was really spent. The findings were graded and made public. Not just to improve the accountability of those concerned, including the commission, but to stimulate debate, learning and a bit of competition.
The introduction in 2004 of the key lines of enquiry - or KLOEs, as they came to be known - aimed to codify the commission’s assessments. These became the industry standard and, despite the effective end of inspection, still appear to be an important point of reference.
The commission undertook more than 1,000 landlord inspections over 10 years, an average of two per housing provider over the decade. In addition, we produced work covering the Supporting People regime and the local authority strategic role.
So did inspection make a difference? Are tenants and other service users better served than they were? Is value for money central to decision making? I think the answer to all three, in general, is, ‘yes’. I know the response to this will be, ‘well he would say that’. But as outlined by Steve Wilcox and Hal Pawson in the UK Housing review 2010/11, there is evidence that services improved under the Audit Commission.
Will improvement continue? Well that’s over to you.