Commons hears councils should have ‘formal’ oversight of housing associations

Debate also renews argument for applying FoI to associations made remote by “under the table” mergers.

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The Commons has heard housing associations could have more oversight from councils as ‘under the table’ mergers make provider functions remote from residents.

During a Westminster hall debate on the accountability of associations, members were told of growing concern over “confusing” scrutiny with unclear demarcation between the roles of social housing regulator and the sector’s related ombudsman – all of which could be amalgamated into a single body.

The case was again made for putting associations under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act – as is soon to apply in Scotland.

Leading the debate, Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick called for councils to have a more formal role in housing oversight given the “lack of clear regulation and accountability” for associations.

“If councils were given a role locally, alongside a national social housing regulator that focussed on customer service, associations could be held to account and complaints dealt with more directly,” said Fitzpatrick.

“Local authorities are well-placed to understand the performance, or underperformance, of housing associations through the relationships between councillors and residents, and through public realm services.

“Some housing associations are getting so big that they are becoming far too remote from their residents,” he said.

Government was accused of fostering an environment by which “under the table” mergers made “money-driven businesses” out of associations – at the expense of locally focused social purpose and relevant accountability.

It was, said Fitzpatrick, time for FoI to cover housing associations to promote transparency and clarity.

Housing Minister Kit Malthouse folded future accountability into the social housing Green Paper and proposals he said would “rebalance the relationship” between associations and tenants.

Malthouse also referenced the review of social housing regulation – with the outcomes of analysis to be published “in due course”.

Recognising a “plethora of ombudspersons”, Malthouse acknowledged amalgamation was an issue for MHCLG.

“However, there is an argument about specialism and responsiveness in a particular area that needs to be addressed  before we move on to that stage,” he said.

On FoI, Malthouse raised a “technical issue” with the Office for National Statistics tending to classify subject organisations as being part of the government – with their debt moving on to the national balance sheet.

“Given that housing associations have something like £72bn-worth of debt, that would make a fairly significant dent on our national accounts,” said Malthouse.

“Having said that, one of the issues that we will, I hope, address in the social housing Green Paper—when it eventually emerges—is transparency,” Malthouse said.

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