Monday, 30 March 2015

Regulator concerned by ‘handful’ of associations

The social housing regulator is concerned about the financial viability of a ‘handful’ of large housing associations, but feels unable to downgrade them for fear of increasing their problems.

Julian Ashby, the chair of the Homes and Communities Agency regulation committee, yesterday told MPs the regulator cannot use its ‘statutory powers’ to intervene because doing so might trigger a repricing of a housing association’s debt, making any financial problems worse.

Mr Ashby was giving evidence to the first session of an inquiry by the communities and local government select committee on social housing regulation. He was put under pressure to explain why none of the 280 large housing associations the regulator monitors has a financial viability rating that would indicate it is in any trouble.

He said that although the regulator does have financial concerns about some landlords, it is reluctant to indicate this through the ratings system as this would probably result in the landlord breaching loan covenants with its lenders, which would then take the opportunity to reprice.

Mr Ashby identified repricing as one of three big risks facing the sector, saying around £40 billion of bank debt held by the sector is ‘underwater’, meaning it costs more to the banks than they get in return. Welfare reform and reducing grant rates are the other risks he identified.

‘If we use any of our statutory powers we are potentially putting lenders in a position where they can reprice, so we tend to be very careful about how we approach these situations, because you don’t want to make a difficult problem worse by triggering a repricing,’ he said.

He said if the regulator had concerns about the financial viability of a housing association it would suggest actions the landlord should take to avoid statutory action, or indicate problems by reducing the association’s governance rating instead of its financial viability rating.

When pressed on how many times the regulator has done this in the last 12 months, he said there were ‘probably at least 20 cases where we have been giving associations a pretty strong steer on the actions we expect them to take’, but that only a ‘handful’ of these related to financial viability.

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