Our columnist gives his verdict on the Cole report into one regulation system for the whole social housing sector

Professor Ian Cole’s report into Cross Domain Regulation, published last week, sets out a way forward for regulating all social housing. Currently Housing Associations are regulated by the Housing Corporation and Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs) and retained council housing have a different approach from Government.

Last year Professor Martin Cave published his report into social housing regulation. In that report he set out a new vision of social housing regulation. He proposed key objectives around provision of high quality social housing, to empower and protect tenants, and to expand choice of providers of social housing. There would be graduated powers of intervention. He also proposed that the new regulatory regime would apply to all social housing, across the ‘domain’.

This broad vision was accepted by the Government and reinforced by consultation last Autumn that showed support for cross domain regulation. The Housing and Regeneration Act has now been passed by Parliament and has set up the new Regulator, the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), with specified objectives, including tenant choice, protection and involvement. During the passage of the Act there was total support for the TSA to have a cross domain remit and successful lobbying by the housing sector of an enabling clause to make it happen as soon as possible.

So why the Big Fuss? The introduction of a new regime of regulation, setting new standards for local government for ALMO and retained council housing has come along at the same time as the Government has reined back requirements on local Government.

Every local authority is required to publish a Sustainable Community Strategy, including a Local Area Agreement. This sets out 35 locally agreed priorities drawn from a list of 198 National Indicators. These Indicators are the only agreed priorities between central and local Government and will inform what is assessed under the new Comprehensive Area Assessment. The Cole Review was set up to deal with the resulting tension between reducing the burden on local government and, at the same time, including local authority housing as part of cross domain regulation.

Well the good news is that the Cole Review has carried out the task assigned to it. The Report drew on good will from all partners round the table and benefited from resounding support for a ‘level playing field’ from tenants involved in TPAS run focus groups. It proposes the TSA regulates local authority housing, acknowledges that some of the TSA statutory objectives are met differently by Local Authorities, that common principles and standards should apply to all social housing but any new Performance Indicators would be set by Government. The regulator would collect data from Local Authorities, have the ability to require further information if there were cause for concern, commission inspections and intervene on behalf of tenants if needed.

Most importantly this goes a long way to fulfill the ambition of the level playing field for tenants – to gain from the TSA objectives of tenant choice, protection and empowerment, to be able to set service standards and priorities with landlords, get benchmarked information of the performance of their landlords, scrutinise that information and set off tenant triggers to the regulator if their landlord performance is poor irrespective of whether their landlord is housing association or local authority owned. In addition TPAS has been successful in persuading the Government to review Tenant Participation Compacts which could cement these key principles for Local Authority owned housing and their tenants.

There remain areas of difference – whether the TSA should intervene directly or through Government and whether Local Authority landlords should be liable to compensate tenants, as with Housing Associations. However the Cole Report provides a clear basis for taking forward ‘domain’ regulation and for the TSA to launch it’s forthcoming National Conversation on the new standards with all landlords and tenants.