In our new regular section on housing, Victoria Madine reveals how housing associations have been given five years to comply with the Egan agenda, and overleaf, Roger Humber bemoans the forced nationalisation of housebuilding
last summer, housing associations were in a bit of a state. The Housing Corporation, their main conduit for public money, had decided that they had to become Eganised if they wanted cash for their development programmes. what this meant in practice was that they had to meet five out of nine criteria (or "proxies" as the corporation called them) inside three years. After that, any scheme that didn't make the grade wouldn't be funded.

Many housing associations resented this top-down approach to change, and complained that it was being imposed on them with little consultation. Critics complained that those social landlords that wanted to change – and would have anyway – would have to put themselves through a crash re-engineering programme to make use of key performance indicators, and commit to partnering and off-site fabrication.

On the other hand, those firms that did not want to Eganise would probably just tick the boxes on Housing Corporation forms.

Now the corporation has decided to drop the idea of proxies. Instead, it is demanding that registered social landlords sign up to the Construction Clients Charter. This is a document developed by the Confederation of Construction Clients after recommendations made by Nick Raynsford, the then minister for construction, in 1999. The idea is that clients that register with the charter commit themselves to continuous and quantifiable improvement.

At the moment, the charter is made up of 170 or so performance indicators of which housing associations will have to comply with 37 (see "Achilles vs the housing associations", right). By adopting it, construction clients commit their organisations to a programme of cultural change that gives them five years to hit certain targets. But are RSLs any happier with this method – and will it be more workable?

Clive Clowes, the Housing Corporation's head of procurement, practice and development, says that, whereas the proxies tended to be used on individual schemes, the charter should encourage a change in the whole culture of procurement. "The proxies were useful in getting the associations familiar with a range of issues in Rethinking Construction," he says. "But they were still just bolted on to the end of projects. We now want to change hearts and minds."

Most would agree that a move away from the proxies cannot come soon enough. Liz Willis, policy officer at the National Housing Federation, says the charter means that RSLs can find a way of applying Egan principles that suits them: "The proxies were the corporation's interpretation of the Egan report. But the charter offers flexibility, and means we're getting away from the one-size-fits-all mentality," she says.

David Shaw, director of procurement at Places for People, the second largest RSL in the country, believes that the charter should be much easier to use than the proxies. "Following it makes common sense and is a logical strategic progression away from the bureaucratic proxies."

And for Chris Durkin, chief operating officer at contractor Willmott Dixon, the charter is to be welcomed because it creates a leadership role for the client in the construction process. However, he wonders whether RSLs will still aim to please the regulator, rather than making real change. "The whole point of Egan is to change ways of thinking, rather than focusing on processes."

The charter was written for contractors, not for clients. It is asking RSLs to do things we don’t do

Richard Baines, environmental consultant, Black Country Housing Association

It is this last aspect that has upset some RSLs; once again, they feel they are being frogmarched into taking on a role that they do not feel comfortable with, and there is resentment at having to accommodate "just another initiative". Richard Baines, environmental consultant at Black Country Housing Association, which manages 1400 units, feels that the charter is nothing less than a "cop-out" that is putting an unfair burden on the shoulders of RSLs.

"The charter was written for contractors, not for clients," he asserts. "It is asking RSLs to do things we don't do. We are not in a position to enter partnering agreements with subcontractors – which are the companies that actually do the building work. So we are having to abdicate responsibility for the charter to our main contractors."

Baines is not happy with this because his association will be committed to efficiency improvements at a time when none of its contractors is delivering on time, or to an acceptable quality.

He cites the example of one well-known contractor that delivered a project 14 weeks late because it had problems finding enough brick workers. For Baines, the Housing Corporation is issuing too many initiatives without taking account of problems "on the ground".

Alan Yates, regeneration director at Accord Housing Association, agrees that RSLs are already "struggling through" a lot of initiatives including housing quality indicators and other KPIs.

The corporation's Clowes says comments such as these are borne of a "certain amount of ignorance" about how the charter should be used. Clowes points out that of the 170 cultural indicators that make up the charter, 37 have been chosen for use by RSLs and will be formally put together by April this year.

He explains: "We have agreed with the CCC to form a grouping within the charter especially for RSLs. So, for example, profitability indicators will be taken out. None of the 37 indicators are actually construction related; they are about general management principles."

The National Housing Federation has also hinted that a mini-charter will be developed for small developments, where the RSL or the main contractor does not have the capacity to deal, for example, with the kind of sophisticated accounting that the charter assumes.

Achilles vs the housing associations

Data management company Achilles is co-ordinating RSLs’ accreditation on the Construction Client’s Charter. The idea is that each RSL devises its own programme of cultural change, using the cultural indicators of the charter as a guide. If the association needs help, it can call on Bath University’s school of management for assistance. RSLs have until April this year to register with Achilles (at a cost of £600), and must have their action plan formulated by July 2002 for use in the Housing Corporation’s funding year 2002/3 – although they can also use proxies to demonstrate Egan compliance. Only the charter can be used in the funding year 2003/4. No RSL has as yet achieved accreditation, although Achilles says that Hyde Housing is likely to become the first to do so next month. So, by 2003/4, each RSL should have registered with Achilles, agreed a programme of change, and agreed to have implement that change within five years. “We make sure that the programme is realistic,” says Duncan Colling, project manager at Achilles. “We understand that RSLs need objectives that are acheivable.” Achilles will check the progress of each client. If an RSL is found to be straying, it will contact the corporation, which will have a “word in the ear” of the offending RSL. If it continues to stray, it may lose funding. For more information, log on to and