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Cometh the hour, cometh the Comprehensive Housing Authority? Matthew Warburton - 17/01/2014

Working_together_jigsawOlder readers may, like me, have started their housing education in the days when the idea of a comprehensive housing authority was at the heart of policy.


In the 1970s councils were being encouraged to go beyond their traditional roles of clearing slums and providing council houses to develop a much more strategic approach that looked at the local housing market as a whole and sought to develop interventions to meet housing needs across all tenures.


Unlike today, the base assumption was that it was the local authority itself that needed not only to write the strategy but deliver the interventions.


The challenge for councillors and managers alike was not only to develop the skills to research local housing needs and develop a strategy to meet them, but also to overcome the departmentalism and professional rivalry that could undermine a consistent and joined up approach. 


I can remember battles between housing and environmental health officers about priorities for the allocation of home improvement grants and who should be responsible for housing action areas, and between planning and housing committees over housing blighted by town centre development plans that were unlikely ever to happen. But the important thing was that these wars could always be brought to a conclusion because all departments were under one roof and the council could, in principle, settle matters.


Fashion started to move away from the idea of a comprehensive authority when the Thatcher government decided that housing associations should take over the role of providing new social housing. Councils were reassured that they would remain responsible for housing strategy. Their role thenceforward would be, as one Housing White Paper had it, "to ensure that everyone in their area was adequately housed, but not necessarily by them". 


The story of the Emperor's new clothes is brought to a conclusion when a little boy points out that monarch is naked. Several little boys back in the 1980s argued that there was no point councils having a strategic housing role if they lacked the levers necessary to implement it, but, on this occassion, hardly anyone was listening. 


There was not always a good fit between local strategies and Housing Corporation grant allocations to housing associations. And once councils began, with government encouragement, to give up their landlord role and transfer stock to a housing association, the result was all too often that they also lost much of their capacity to carry out the strategic role. 


Support for the comprehensive idea probably reached its nadir shortly after the turn of the millenium when the Labour government decided to ask councils to choose among just three options for the future of their housing stocks - stock retention and in-house management not among them. Councillors and housing departments in multi-functional councils were claimed to be too easily distracted by other priorities; tenants would get a better deal, so the argument went, from an ALMO or a housing association with an undistracted focus on the landlord role.


Some councils had the good sense to see that there was no simple fit between stock option and landlord performance, and that fragmentation of housing functions had a downside that needed to be taken seriously, not least that it further separated strategy from delivery and usually cost more. Many of them are now members of ARCH.


Fashion has moved on, and stock retention is once again a respectable option for councils to pursue, with added advantages since the introduction of self-financing, which opens up the opportunity for councils to build homes in significant numbers for the first time in 20 years. Now they have the resources to bring all their homes up to modern standards and keep them there, there are no reasons why the landlord performance of stock retaining councils should not match the best in social housing. 


But a focus on landlord performance would be too narrow. With the political focus now firmly on housing growth and increasing the number of new homes built in all tenures, ARCH members have the opportunity to show that they are readier and better equipped to respond effectively than other councils - because they still have all the necessary functions under one roof, even if there is still a need to build up skills and capacity in some areas. Perhaps there is now an opportunity for ARCH to show that the day of the comprehensive housing authority has come again.


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ARCH Member Comments 6 people like this

  • Richard Brook, North Tyneside MBC - 17 January 2014

    Need to stop the right to buy first though.