News from the Chartered Institute of Housings conference on June 1921 Commission bids to be homes regulator

28 Jun 07
The Audit Commission has made a firm bid to become the new independent regulator for social housing.

29 June 2007

The Audit Commission has made a firm bid to become the new independent regulator for social housing.

In spite of a government review calling for a new watchdog to be created, Michael O'Higgins, the commission's chair, told the Chartered Institute of Housing's annual conference in Harrogate that it was the obvious body for the role.

While stressing that the commission had no wish to 'increase its empire' for the sake of it, O'Higgins told delegates on June 21 that councils would not welcome a further regulator.

The commission inspects local authority housing departments, arm's-length management organisations and housing associations. 'The change must result in better neighbourhoods,' he said. 'Housing associations can't afford to be islands overseen by an organisation with no view of the wider picture.'

O'Higgins was speaking 24 hours after the Cave review recommended a new watchdog to regulate all social housing providers, including private firms.

A government consultation paper on Communities England, the proposed housing and regeneration agency, agreed that CE would be unsuitable but questioned whether the commission would be more efficient.

Martin Wheatley, programme director at the Local Government Association, later told Public Finance there must be a full discussion over the regulator.

Declining to publicly back the commission, he said: 'New bodies carry risks with them in terms of extra costs.'

The Department for Communities and Local Government consultation paper also concluded that it might be tricky to create a unified system to regulate councils and Almos at the same time as ministers are committed to reducing performance measures in local government.

But most observers backed a single regime. Roy Irwin, the commission's chief inspector of housing, told a fringe session: 'It's logical that there should be a regulatory framework across the piece.'

Despite promises by ministers that future regulation will be 'light touch', Peter Williams, chair of Thames Valley Housing, claimed that the review left considerable scope for government intervention.

But Professor Cave replied: 'The housing sector would be very unlucky if it ended up with a regime where there was an awful lot of behind closed doors intervention.'

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, claimed the review failed to recognise the important role of housing association boards.

Respect town halls' mandate, Rouse tells RSLs

Social landlords must respect the leadership role of local authorities, according to the outgoing chief executive of the Housing Corporation.

In his last major speech before leaving to become chief executive of the London Borough of Croydon, Jon Rouse told delegates that relations between councils and registered social landlords depended on RSLs recognising councils' democratic mandate.

But it was also up to the government to empower authorities to carry out their strategic role in housing. 'As local authorities are more empowered, housing will become a higher priority at local level,' said Rouse, who leaves next month after three years at the corporation.

Speaking later to Public Finance, Rouse admitted he had been tempted to apply for the top job at Communities England. But the transition to the new agency, which will replace the corporation and English Partnerships, will take until at least 2009.

'My real ambition was to be a local authority chief executive,' he said, adding that there were 'plenty of good candidates' to lead the agency.

Rouse urged CE, which will have an annual budget of £4bn, to 'wear its power with humility' and reflect local strategies.

Build more if you wish, Kelly tells councils

Local authorities have real opportunities to resume their

house-building role without ministers bowing to pressure for a 'fourth option', Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly told the conference.

Some were failing to explore all options for raising money for new homes. 'I'm interested in working with them on how they can be more creative,' she said.

Kelly stressed that she remained opposed to giving councils more powers to borrow money for new homes and refurbishment work. 'The vast majority of [future] house building will come from the RSL sector,' she added.

Asked whether Labour's policy on council housing would change under a Brown government, she said he supported fiscal prudence. 'I think you will find that [Brown] follows a path on these issues that's quite similar to the one that's been pursued until now,' she added.

A survey of CIH members published at the conference showed 89% want councils to play a greater role in delivering housing, while 83% accuse the government of placing too much emphasis on owning a home at the expense of social renting.


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