Housing, scrutiny and the Housing Revenue Account (HRA)
We are really pleased to have published an LGA-funded piece of research on the scrutiny of housing. It looked across the piece at social housing, private rental, planning and redevelopment, and homelessness. These four issues come with some policy levers for local politicians – policy levers over which we think scrutiny ought to have oversight.
In one area in particular, a shiny new lever has now been installed. The impact of the removal of restrictions on councils to build new homes for social rent will have a transformative effect on their ability to provide the homes that their residents need – if the reality matches the rhetoric. This is a huge and unexpected win for the LGA and other sector bodies which have been arguing for it for quite some time. The challenge now is to capitalise on the opportunity.
Unquestionable, this will cause councils with an HRA to look afresh – and in many cases completely redraft – their housing strategies. Being able to build, at scale, and confidently, will ease the pressure of the private rented market. It has the potential to reduce homelessness and the distress of those living in temporary accommodation, or other accommodation which fails to meet their needs. Being able to house people in secure, good quality homes will, in due course, lessen pressures on health and care services too.
How should scrutiny response to this?
In the short term there will be a need to understand how this announcement provokes councils to plan changes to their approach. There is an opportunity for real ambition here – one that cuts across the council and its partners and their responses to pressing local social issues. Easing pressure on waiting lists is only part of the potential prize, so scrutiny will need to satisfy itself that councils understand and wish to capitalise on the opportunity. Councils’ strategic approach – and the shifts in priorities that will result – need oversight. Councils will also need to consider how these new powers intersect with older rules which discourage new social housebuilding – the requirement to sell certain high value properties, for example.
In the more medium term councils will be turning their eyes practically to the siting and design of new homes. Councils have not built at scale for many years, and the kinds of professional skills needed to do so may no longer exist within councils. Councils may need help to engage with local people to involve them fully in this process (at every stage) – initially being to understand the kinds of homes they want and need. Here, again, scrutiny can help.
In the medium to long term scrutiny will need to put its mind to the way that councils put in place longer-term housebuilding plans – working with partners like housing associations, and working with tenants and leaseholders.
Written by Ed Hammond, Director, CfGS