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Viewpoint with Phil Morgan

Power to the People?

I was speaking recently at the ARCH Tenants Conference on the Localism Bill setting out the impact of the Bill on tenants. The audience was interested to hear about how David Cameron was now replacing Wolfie Smith in chanting “Power to the People” and the laudable intention that housing decisions be taken locally. They were equally interested, if far less convinced, by the proposals to introduce so-called flexible tenancies and affordable rents for new tenants in the Bill.

The Bill will also require local authorities to set out their approach on affordable rents and flexible tenancies for all social landlords (and tenants) in their area. Currently as drafted the Bill will also require local authorities to consult those social landlords on their draft strategy. However there is no similar requirement to consult tenants, an omission even stranger given the Bill’s insistence that tenant panels have a role in the so called democratic filter for complaints.

In Grant Shapps’ own constituency such a tenant panel already exists and it doesn’t take much imagination to extend its role to cover being consulted on the draft tenancy strategy. Certainly it would be a good example of not just local authorities being ‘empowered’ but tenants as well. T his is particularly the case when those local authorities own their own stock. These tenancy strategies will effectively set their policy on their own stock and tenants. Of course, social landlords are presently required to consult tenants on formulation of their housing policies – although this appears a requirement like many others that seems to be increasingly diluted by the separation of ‘economic’ from ‘consumer’ regulation.

About 10 years ago I met Charlie Falconer, then Housing Minister. I was always impressed by his accessibility, sitting down and drinking a quiet beer with delegates after his speech at the TPAS Annual Conference. The then Government had introduced various changes including separating out the landlord and strategic roles of local authorities. Hidden away in the minutiae of the previous
Green Paper was a proposal that local authorities consult tenants on their strategic housing policies and I asked if the Government was going to insist on this. He was clear that it would not.

Roll forward 10 years and it feels like déjà vu yet again. On one hand, the simple answer is for Grant Shapps to ensure housing decisions really are taken locally by inserting a simple clause in the Bill, or at least confirming that this will be required through regulation for local authorities. However, perhaps the answer based on the proposal I set out to the ARCH tenants – “if you do one thing differently when you get back ensure you are consulted about your local authority’s Tenancy Strategy”. Certainly it would be interesting to see some local authorities becoming early trailblazers.This would build up a reservoir of understanding to support all local authorities putting their policies in place including the best way to involve tenants in a strategy that bears their name.

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