Housing is in sharp focus – especially in the current economic climate. A re-think is long overdue for this key national priority. The Government’s housing vision in its Green Paper Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable set out its priorities for building more homes to meet growing demand, constructing well-designed, greener homes and providing more affordable homes to buy or rent. Its ambitious targets of two million homes by 2016 and three million by 2020, with five new eco-towns, were supported in some quarters while a sharp intake of breath at the Government’s sheer over-ambition was heard in others. Whether it will alleviate shortages and rising house prices in the most popular areas remains to be seen. Its targets will be seriously tested in the face of the heightening economic downturn and there is a wide belief that the Government must take a broader approach to regeneration than simply building houses. Local authorities want to play a key role in the success of this shake-up – but has the Government got this message?

The Homes and Communities Agency

A summary of responses to the Green Paper was published in February 2008, which referred to the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) (formerly Communities England) in the Housing and Regeneration Bill. Its key role is to bring together housing and regeneration for the first time ever. It will have responsibility for land and for money to deliver new housing, community facilities and new infrastructure.

It will combine English Partnerships, the investment programme of the Housing Corporation, the Academy for Sustainable Communities and key housing and regeneration programmes currently delivered by Communities and Local Government. It abolishes preceding organisations, including the Urban Regeneration Agency and the Commission for the New Towns, instead taking on their functions and the housing investment functions. With powers modelled on those of the Urban Regeneration Agency, it will be able to act as a local planning authority for any area in England designated by the Secretary of State.

Its ten objectives include encouraging and supporting a supply of well-managed social housing, monitoring and ensuring the performance of social landlords and encouraging social housing providers to contribute to the environmental, economic or social well-being of their area.

Concerns have been raised, one in particular being funding. Another is that the HCA will operate in too much isolation without utilising the local knowledge held by local authorities. The Local Government Association has already made it clear that the requirement for the HCA to work as a “named partner” within local area agreements may not go far enough to achieve successful partnership working. The Government is depending on local authorities as “place-shapers” to achieve its vision, and for local authorities to engage constructively with housing providers. Most local authorities want a general statutory duty for registered social landlords (RSLs) to co-operate with them, but it seems that the new legislation will only place a statutory duty on RSLs to co-operate if the local authority consults them in the preparation or modification of the local authority’s sustainable communities’ strategy. A “one size fits all” engagement process will not work due to the sheer variety of local settings and needs, so differing arrangements for different settings must be adapted to achieve successful joint working between the HCA and local government.

Regulation of social housing

The regulation of social housing is changing dramatically too. Part 2 of the Bill sees the abolition of the Housing Corporation and the introduction of a new watchdog body, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords or “Oftenant”, to regulate social housing, specifically RSLs. However, its responsibilities could be broadened to include local authorities and ALMOs within the next two years. Indeed, many are calling for this to be implemented earlier via an enabling clause in the Bill, as they fear that Oftenant will become too geared to RSLs’ needs and will create a two-tier system for tenants. It has been tasked with the re-design of the regulatory system but, until such time that is carried out, it will have to regulate within the confines of the Housing Act 1996. Its new “superpowers” are far in excess of those exercised by the Housing Corporation as it will have the power to wield financial sanctions against failing social landlords following poor inspection reports. It may even have the power to have social housing landlords wound up, but its powers are still being discussed in Parliament at the present time.

Sustainability and eco towns

The Bill also proposes other measures to help deliver the Government’s targets in terms of sustainability and eco towns. It places a duty on those selling new-build properties to provide information to buyers regarding the sustainability of a property prior to sale. It also enables eco towns (with zero or low carbon housing) to be constructed more rapidly by modernising the powers to establish new settlements and making it more straightforward to deliver such projects for which the HCA will take responsibility. The worry is that local authorities will not have enough say in how and where these eco towns will be built and that skills and training lag behind to deliver such projects effectively.

Council housing finance

Certain housing authorities will be able to opt out of the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy system (something that has already been heralded in the Green Paper) on application to the Secretary of State. This is essential to enable local authorities to finance and build new council housing, which is a key tool in tackling the housing crisis.

Comment

Notwithstanding the credit crunch apparently leading to full-blown recession, the Government will have its work cut out to juggle housing and regeneration priorities when the Bill becomes law. New housing must not be favoured at the cost of regenerating or improving existing communities. Eco towns must be built in conjunction with sustainable transport links, housing must be affordable and built where it is needed, social housing providers must work in synergy, housing must be integrated into local area agreement priorities, the Housing Revenue Account subsidy system must be thoroughly reviewed. Now housing is firmly back on the agenda, local authorities must not be left out in the cold.