Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cave Review - HAs, self-regulation, contestability and a daft idea

Yesterday evening I was at the National Housing Federation's (NHF) conference for housing association board members. The evening plenary session was on the future regulation of HAs.

One of the speakers was Julian Ashbury who is a member of the Cave Review team on social housing regulation (covering regulation for HAs, council housing and, potentially, private sector involvement in social housing). He spoke about the issues for the Review in a personal capacity.

Ashbury was clearly lukewarm about the NHF’s core proposal of self-regulation. He likened self-regulation to the weak regulation by the medical profession and the Press Council – unchallenging and too “producer-friendly”. (He didn’t mention how the NHF’s espousal of self-regulation could be perceived by the stakeholders and critics of HAs.)

There was more positive talk of “co-regulation” – allowing a degree of self-regulation that is regulator-approved and externally validated. A bit vague but surely more reassuring for tenants (and voters in stock transfer ballots).

I was interested in Ashbury’s thoughts on “market-style incentives”. In particular, he suggested making poorly-performing HAs (and others) give up the management of stock to those who can manage it better. (I said something similar here the other day.) This is essentially “contestability” (the idea that performance can be improved by the credible threat of competition) although he did not use the term. There is nothing more powerful than the thought of losing “business” to make an organisation raise its game.

Ashbury (and James Tickell advises the NHF) recognised the role for residents in the framework. Interestingly he advocated a national voice for residents with a right to be consulted by the social housing regulator – something similar to Energywatch and Passenger Focus.

I should add Ashbury seemed to float one positively daft idea. Letting HAs charge more (less) rent if they get better (worse) satisfaction rates in tenant surveys. Does he not realise that residents might spot that, claim dissatisfaction and vote for lower rents?

I hope some of these ideas from Ashbury are shared and espoused by his colleague Martin Cave when he writes the Review report. Whatever happens, we are in for an interesting debate as well as potentially more freedom and flexibility for HAs and other social landlords – with greater reliance upon good governance and less on strict regulation.

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