It was the Nat Fed conference last week and I know many of our readers were there taking in the sights and experiences and nabbing free pens/drinks. I’ve never really enjoyed it. Not enough law for me. I’m also deeply sceptical of the Nat Fed after its (shameful) role in helping create a fig-leaf for the absurdity of the Voluntary Right to Buy scheme; a scheme which, as I may have mentioned before, promised to bring in all of the stupid bits of RTB (like the discount) without any of the protections that come with being a stautory scheme (e.g. because it’ll be a contractual agreement, then misrepresentation problems may arise, unlike under the statutory scheme).
But I digress. The most interesting bit of the conference was a key note speech by the Secretary of State (available here) in which he announced that the government will
“…be bringing forward a green paper on social housing in England.A wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector, the green paper will be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation…”
Before I turn to the content of this green paper, I should explain my headline. In May 1992, Lionel Richie released his first compilation album called Back to Front. And that’s rather an apt description for what the Secretary of State has been up to. You see, the normal (i.e. sensible) way of making legislation is to have a Green Paper first, serving as a discussion document to get as wide a range of views as possible on areas of reform and outlines as to what those reforms might look like. Then you move to a White Paper in which you make firm proposals and ask for detailed and specific feedback. Then you legislate.
But if we take the housing policy of the post-Coalition Tory governments, you’ll see that they get it back to front. We got legislation (Housing and Planning Act 2016), then a White Paper (Fixing our Broken Housing Market) and now we get a Green Paper. If anyone wonders why vast chunks of the H&PA are not yet in force, it may be that they’re rubbish/really difficult to implement and would really have benefited from a proper Green/White Paper process.
Back to the speech. What selection of delights does the Secretary of State have for us? The paper will consider “… safety issues…”. Without more detail, it’s hard to know what that might involve. But two things spring to mind. The government could very easily restore the pre-LASPO position on housing disrepair so as to enable people to get advice about housing standards (and enforce what rights they might have). The Bach Commission has just (22 Sept) explained how and why this would help (see here). He could also support the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill that Karen Buck MP has introduced.
We will also all be asked to consider the “…overall quality of social homes, many of which are now beginning to show their age…”. What, one wonders, does he have in mind? I’d rather hoped that the Decent Homes scheme would have helped with this. I’m also aware that many authorities have (since the abolition of the HRA subsidy regime) embarked on significant repair and upgrade works. It’s vanishingly unlikely that he’ll provide money for any works (witness the extreme reluctance to agree to provide any funding for fire safety works post Grenfell). And what is going to happen about RTB leaseholders if there is a new round of major works? (Clue – Florries Law won’t help them).
I also sense the worrying whiff of the Ombudsman. The Green Paper will “… look at the rights of tenants and show how their voices can be better heard. And it will cover what can be done to ensure their complaints are taken seriously and dealt with properly, and make sure tenants have clear, timely avenues to seek redress when things do go wrong.” I realise that litigation isn’t always the answer, but the obvious place for someone to seek redress when their rights are ignored is the court!
Then, frankly, we get into outrageous hypocrisy. The Secretary of State asks “…how can social landlords help to create places that people really want to live in, places where roses can grow? What role can social housing policy play in building safe and integrated communities, where people from different backgrounds get along no matter what type of housing they live in?”. This from the government that forced local authorities to offer fixed term tenancies (‘tho, again, that bit of H&PA isn’t yet in force) and who had to be forced – kicking and screaming by the House of Lords (esp Baroness Lister) – to provide for possible exceptions. One way you create stable, safe, integrated communities is to treat housing – social, private rented and owner occupied – as homes, not assets or aspects of the welfare state.
We are also asked what more can be done to tackle homelessness? If only there were a recent report from a non-partisan body of experts which had carefully outlined the many and varied failings of his department. Oh, wait, there is. The Secretary of State doesn’t need to wait for a Green Paper to start making the changes that the National Audit Office has called for.
And we end with two odd questions. “What support is needed for leaseholders who have a social landlord? What can be done to tackle illegal sub-letting, not just chasing down offenders but dealing with the cause of the problem in the first place?”. Odd because I’d be surprised if anyone had put these two in the top 10 list of urgent housing law/policy issues to resolve. There are problems with leaseholders and social landlords (mainly to do with the huge costs that come with any major works project) and unlawful sub-letting is, I accept, something that needs to be pursued. But are these more important questions than, say, whether authorities should be able to suspend the RTB so as to facilitate building (and borrowing)? Whether the HRA borrowing caps need to be revised? Whether – and if so – when, the rest of the H&PA 2016 will come into force.
Lets see – it is easy to be critical and to snipe from the sidelines. Perhaps this will finally mark the beginning of a sensible and holistic approach to housing law and policy.