“It’s déjà vu all over again”. Yogi Berra’s famous words came to me when I heard that the government planned to split the quango that funds and oversees social housing providers into separate investment and regulatory arms.
Investment and regulation have very different objectives, so it is important that those functions should be independent of one other, but this will be the third reorganisation in eight years – a period of political meddling that will have wasted millions of pounds.
For 44 years, between 1964 and 2008, housing associations were funded and regulated by the Housing Corporation, whose role became increasingly important during the 1980s, when council house-building was supposedly replaced by housing association development.
In 2008 the Labour government decided to scrap the Housing Corporation and create a new regulatory body, the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), and a new investment quango called the Homes and Communities Agency. The TSA was responsible for monitoring the activities of housing associations, ensuring they maintained set standards of viability, probity, governance and tenant involvement. In 2010, the TSA’s remit was expanded to include local authorities, Arms Length Management Organisations (semi-independent bodies managing council housing) and co-ops. The Home and Communities Agency (HCA) was responsible for funding new homes.
When the coalition government was formed in 2010, the then housing minister Grant Shapps took a severe dislike to the TSA. Its decision to tour the country in a pink camper van talking to tenants and its lively merchandising seemed to rile him beyond words. He told journalists that it was a “quango too far” and announced that “the TSA is toast”.
In April 2012 the TSA was merged back into a revamped HCA and a “chinese wall” was established between its investment and regulatory arms.
Then in March this year the government undertook a review of the HCA. This month it was announced that the agency would be split into two new bodies, a quango dealing with investment and another dealing with regulation. Sound familiar?
The government has also decided that Registered Housing Providers, which includes councils that still own housing will be required to pay an annual fee to the regulator. Providers with fewer than 1,000 homes will pay a flat annual fee of £300 and larger providers will pay a fee of £5 per property per year. This means that the new Clarion Group with 125,000 homes, formed from the merger of Circle and Affinity Sutton, will pay £625,000 a year for the pleasure of being regulated by the new body.
So at the end of eight years we are back at square one. Heaven knows what the cost of this ping-pong has been. The costs of re-structuring government quangos, with new chief executives and management structures, office moves, redundancies etc are huge. At a time when many tenants are struggling to make ends meet the government has effectively wasted millions of pounds splitting up the Housing Corporation to make two new bodies, merging them, and now splitting them up again. You couldn’t make it up.
(This article first appeared on The Guardian Housing Network on 1st December 2016)