The Housing and Regeneration Bill, published in November last year, promises a radical shake-up of the way in which housing is regulated and delivered. However, having pored over the small print, observers in some quarters are not sure they like what’s being promised, and many are lobbying hard for amendments that ensure the things on their wish list are included.
Under the Bill, two new bodies will be established - the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) and the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords (OFTSL). The HCA will take over the regeneration role of English Partnerships, the affordable housing investment role of the Housing Corporation, and certain housing and regeneration functions currently undertaken by CLG. The idea behind the HCA is that it will provide a “one stop shop”, concentrating a “toolbox” of support options for its partners in one place, and doing away with the multi-agency system that exists at present.
It will be tasked with increasing the supply of housing, regenerating areas, promoting mixed communities, using public sector assets (especially land) more efficiently and levering in private sector investment. The HCA will have compulsory purchase powers, and will assume certain planning functions, although there is concern in some quarters that the latter may cut across those of local authorities.
OFTSL (also known as “Oftenant”) will oversee housing regulation. Both RSL and private sector bodies will be able to register with OFTSL, although they will be regulated in differing ways, with regulation of the RSL sector being more “hands on” than that of its private sector counterparts. OFTSL will have the power to set compulsory standards for social housing, and enforcement powers (stronger than those currently held by the Housing Corporation) if these are not met.
There are concerns that the bill, as drafted, will give central government too much influence over the new regulator. Professor Martin Cave, upon whose 2007 report the bill is to a large extent based, recommended that the regulator be statutorily independent from government, but the NHF has expressed fears over the way in which the bill could give the Communities Secretary too much influence over the regulator, which could result in OFTSL being used to deliver government policy initiatives. The degree of government influence envisaged by the Bill has also led to suggestions that the degree of regulation could lead to RSLs being reclassified as public sector bodies, which would result in the sector’s entire debt being shifted onto the government’s balance sheet.
For its part, the Charity Commission has also expressed concerns that meeting the standards OFTSL requires may threaten their independence by forcing them to engage in activities that fall outside of their charitable objects, which could lead to them being taxed on any surpluses derived from non-charitable activities or possibly losing their charitable status.
Until the next draft of the bill is released, it would appear to be very much a case of watch this space. The NHF and many RSLs are keen to see less regulation exercisable by OFTSL, while some in government and (in the wake of the Ujima affair) funders want to see more.