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The bonfire of the quangos

The government is scrapping hundreds of quasi-public bodies, some of which are important to housing. But which ones will actually be missed and by whom? Chloë Stothart finds out.

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Prime minister David Cameron might have distanced himself from talk of a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, but last week his cabinet secretary Francis Maude confirmed long-held expectations that hundreds of the quasi-public bodies will go up in smoke on government orders - and there are some big-name losses for housing.

The extent of the cull first became clear in September, when a Cabinet Office list was leaked to a national newspaper. The document named 177 quangos set for the chop, 94 under review - including several linked to housing - several others due to be merged or privatised and 350 to be retained.

Last week’s announcement from Mr Maude signalled the abolition of 192 bodies and proposed reform of 481 quangos in total. The fate of a few, including design watchdog the Commission for the Built Environment, still hangs in the balance.

The Public Bodies Bill, setting out the legal changes needed to scrap the bodies, is likely to be published later this month.

Ahead of this final nail in the coffin, we look at the quangos the housing sector has come to know well, but will soon be no more, as well as those set for reform. Will they be missed, and if so, how? Or is the coalition government right in thinking we can do without them? You decide…


SAVED

Homes and Communities Agency

What is it? The HCA was formed in December 2008 from regeneration body English Partnerships and the investment arm of the Housing Corporation, plus the delivery elements of the Communities and Local Government department such as decent homes and housing market renewal. It is spending £9 billion of its £18.2 billion budget for 2008/11 on building affordable housing and that money is expected to fund 153,176 new affordable homes. It can assemble sites for housing and infrastructure and has compulsory purchase powers.

Annual cost £5.2 billion

Fate? The HCA was on the leaked list as under review but it will continue to exist, albeit as a leaner investment and enabling body and housing regulator, following the TSA’s demise. London mayor Boris Johnson is set to take on its functions in the capital.

Who will be most affected? The social landlords and developers that it funds.

Consequences? It is unclear what ‘leaner’ means, especially since it now assumes the TSA’s regulatory role.

Dale Meredith, development director at Southern Housing Group, backs Mr Johnson’s new responsibilities, which will see the HCA’s London arm fused with the Olympic Park Legacy Company and the London Development Agency.

‘It is helpful because it clarifies and simplifies things,’ he says.

He wonders whether similar arrangements might be made in other places that are set to get elected mayors.


The key players

BURNED

Audit Commission

What is it? An independent public spending watchdog which inspects social landlords on behalf of regulator the Tenant Services Authority, the Supporting People functions of councils, and other public services. It audits local authorities, runs the National Fraud Initiative, including detection of illegal sub-letting and fraudulent housing benefit claims, and publishes other reports on public spending, policy and services. It audits and inspects other public services.

Annual cost £220.3 million

Fate? Closing in 2012/13. The audit practice will become a private company competing with other audit firms.

Most affected? Social landlords, local authorities and tenants.

Will it be missed? Probably not by landlords. Simon Dow, chief executive of Guinness Partnership, says: ‘The Audit Commission cannot force people to do anything. If a landlord wants to improve it will, and if it does not there is not much you can do until there is a situation that needs intervention by the regulator.’

Consequences? Councils will be able to choose their own auditors. On Monday the government said inspections will probe causes of concern rather than make routine checks. As regulator, the HCA can commission inspections from any consultancy. Landlords should provide ‘timely, useful performance information’ for tenants with the form the information takes set down in their local offers.

BURNED

National Tenant Voice

What is it? The NTV was set up in February to gather the views of tenants and represent them to government. It had a chief executive, Richard Crossley, was chaired by tenant activist Michael Gelling and boasted 15 tenants and 50 unpaid tenants’ representatives on its council board.

Annual cost £1.5 million

Fate? Being abolished. Housing minister Grant Shapps told the organisation in July that it would have its budget withdrawn at the end of August.

Most affected? Tenants.

Will it be missed? The fledgling group had no time to show what it could do, so it’s hard to say what will be lost. Tenant groups fear its demise shows government is not interested in their views.

Consequences? Tenants are losing a conduit to put their views to national government. Mr Shapps has mentioned a network of local tenants’ panels to represent tenant views, but there has been no mention of a national body to complement them. The four national tenants’ groups - the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, the Confederation of Co-operative Housing and the National Federation of Tenant Management Organisations - which were heavily involved in setting up the NTV, want to establish a separate national committee to examine the impact of national housing policies on tenants, which could partially fill the void left by the NTV.

BURNED

Tenant Services Authority

What is it? Social housing regulator the TSA ensures social landlords are financially viable, well run and provide good services to tenants. It sets standards for social landlords, commissions the Audit Commission to inspect them, publishes reports on landlords’ performance and can impose sanctions against poor performers. It also monitors landlords’ financial performance and governance and publishes research about the sector, including quarterly financial data.

Annual cost £33.4 million

Fate? Abolished. As widely predicted, the TSA’s watchdog role will go to the Homes and Communities Agency. This enables the government to keep housing associations at arm’s-length from Whitehall and their £39 billion of bank debt off the public balance sheet. Some landlords are keen that the new regulator maintains the TSA’s regulatory regime. ‘They went to great lengths to understand the sector’s viewpoint and respond to concerns we had with their initial proposals,’ says Guinness Partnership’s Mr Dow.

Most affected? Tenants, social landlords and their lenders.

Will it be missed? The HCA will focus on economic regulation, according to a government review published on Monday. It will set standards for consumer protection but day-to-day consumer regulation will be carried out by local tenant panels. Complaints will go to the housing and local government ombudsmen. The HCA can intervene if a serious breach of consumer standards impacts on a large number of tenants. The TSA’s work on tenant empowerment is likely to be scaled back, pending a government review. Tenant may miss the TSA’s consumer regulation work.

Consequences? If the HCA loses lenders’ confidence, providers may not be able to borrow at relatively low rates.


Further casualties

BURNED

Regional Development Agencies

What are they? The RDAs try to increase economic growth by funding projects, including several large regeneration schemes, working with businesses and other organisations.

Annual cost £2.2 billion

Fate? Being abolished. The RDAs will be replaced by local enterprise partnerships, made up of local authorities and businesses, by March 2012. The government has not said how the new bodies will be funded, although it has already asked RDAs to cut their budgets.

Most affected? In housing, public and private developers and local authorities with regeneration schemes.

Consequences? Some think LEPs could be good news for housing. Mark Thompson, deputy chief executive at Swan Housing Group, says: ‘I would sooner go to an LEP than the RDA. The local authorities understand the estates and communities, whereas the RDAs’ patches are massive. But everything is about the size of the budget they get.’

SINGED

Thurrock, London Thames Gateway and West Northamptonshire Development Corporations

What are they? Set up to coordinate regeneration in their areas, the companies have planning powers, buy and prepare land for development, and bring in developers and public bodies to work on schemes.

Annual cost £83.5 million

Fate? Thurrock’s DC will be absorbed by Thurrock Council from 1 April 2012, West Northamptonshire’s DC will have a majority of council members on its board and its planning powers will be transferred gradually to the councils. London Thames Gateway DC will close in 2013, but whether its planning powers will go to local authorities or a Mayoral Development Corporation is still being worked out.

Most affected? Councils and developers building in the three areas.

Consequences? Swan’s Mr Thompson welcomes the idea of Thurrock’s DC becoming part of the council. ‘It was more difficult with the council and the DC - they did not necessarily have the same agenda - but the problem we see is the funding available.’

BURNED

National Housing and Planning Advice Unit

What is it? The NHPAU produced advice and research on the house building numbers needed to improve or maintain affordability, and gave advice to ministers on regional housing numbers and on the workings of the market in order to improve the planning and delivery of homes.

Annual cost £1.4 million

Fate? It has closed.

Most affected? Anyone wishing to lobby for an increase in housing numbers.

Consequences? Together with the loss of the regional planning system, the abolition of the unit means there are fewer sources of evidence to show how many new houses are needed in each region.

SINGED

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

What is it? Cabe aims to improve the quality of what gets built in England. It runs design reviews of more than 3,000 major developments, provides training on its Building for Life grading system and on green space management and promotes debate on the quality of buildings and public spaces through research.

Annual cost £26.2 million

Fate? On Wednesday the Department for Culture, Media and Sport withdrew its share of Cabe’s funding. The watchdog has vowed to examine ‘options to create new ways to support and champion good design’.

Most affected? Developers, planners, residents and campaigners for better buildings.

Consequences? Southern’s Mr Meredith says Cabe helps to get design quality up the agenda in housing but wonders whether standards might be sufficiently embedded to be upheld even if Cabe were to disapper completely.


And the rest…

SINGED

The Environment Agency

Annual cost £858 million

Fate? Survives on the condition it is ‘reformed and substantially reviewed’. Likely to be slimmed down, with details to follow soon. The agency’s work includes flood protection, standards for land remediation, management of water resources and fining those who break environmental law.

Legal Services Commission

Annual cost £1.8 billion

Fate? Being abolished and reconstituted as an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice.

There is no date for the change.The commission’s legal aid scheme funds advice centres and lawyers in England and Wales to help about 2 million people a year. Many are on low incomes, including those bringing cases about housing, care and benefits.

BURNED

Commission for Rural Communities

Annual cost £6.5 million

Fate? Being abolished

The commission ensures the government takes account of rural communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, when making decisions. Some staff will join the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Rural Communities Policy Unit after it is abolished following the Public Bodies Bill.

SAVED

Equality and Human Rights Commission

Annual cost £63 million

Fate? Survives, but will be overhauled to focus on regulation and better taxpayer value.

Promotes and monitors human rights and enforces equality rules in government policy and in other organisations, including employers.

Fuel Poverty Advisory Group

Annual cost Claims expenses from DECC

Fate? Survives ‘on the grounds of the need to act independently’.

The group, made up of representatives from energy firms, plus organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group, Chartered Institute of Housing and Citizens Advice, reports on the effectiveness of policies to reduce fuel poverty.

Olympic Park Legacy Company

Annual cost £19.2 million

Fate? Rebranded

Will manage the Olympic Park after the 2012 games. It will build 8,000 homes and will convert the 2,800-home athletes’ village into residential housing to be sold or managed by other organisations. It will join a new Mayoral Development Corporation.

TINDER

Sustainable Development Commission

Annual cost £3.8 million

Fate? Survives

The commission advises the government on sustainability and monitors its progress. The government will withdraw funding for the commission from April 2011 and Defra will examine sustainability policy in its place.

The Leasehold Advisory Service

Annual cost £1.35 million

Fate? Remains under review. Provides free advice on residential leasehold law and a mediation services for leaseholders, landlords and others.

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