Home front — The polarised debate about merging regeneration agencies is missing the point

When, in March, Gordon Brown outlined a review of the roles of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation, only two possible outcomes seem to have been discussed: to merge or not to merge?

Why have we accepted such a polarised debate? One option, certainly, is a merger, as was mooted – and rejected – in 2002; another is to redefine the roles of EP and the corporation, but essentially not change much.

A “super-agency” has been suggested. What is surprising is that nobody has asked the most challenging question of all: does either need to exist?

There is little argument that having both is a questionable use of public money, and that having one makes logistical and fiscal sense. But, by the same logic, having neither would mean even less red tape and expense. .

The rationale for merger is that both bodies have the same objective. This is simply not true. The corporation’s functions are to regulate housing associations and fund new social housing. EP’s role is more complex, involving area-specific regeneration initiatives. There is, functionally, no crossover here. The merger concept is based on a false premise.

Our polarised debate would have it that if the two do not share sufficient crossover to warrant a merger, both should be left alone, with only cosmetic changes in responsibility. But the government does not want this. It has a deeper reason for change: the delivery of the holistic, mixed communities regeneration strategy it preaches. This government has a reputation for being centralised. If it is holistic regeneration it is after, maybe what it needs is not more quangos, but a clear, articulate version of its vision, and then a strong, central departmental focus on delivering it.

There is a valid argument that, as happens with health or education, the strategic planning for housing should be driven by the Department for Communities and Local Government, while implementation is devolved to regional housing boards.

I doubt we will see a centralisation of EP’s and the corporation’s roles. But whatever the outcome, we must interrogate what these quangos do. If they were not broken, they wouldn’t need fixing. Cosmetic changes will not do.