Older 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
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
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.
Matthew on Twitter