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Opinion: Fees, accountability and the HCA

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Opinion: Fees, accountability and the HCA

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

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By John Cross, director, John Cross Consulting

After five years of “will they, won’t they” the Homes and Communities Agency has finally opened up the consultation on charging fees for private registered housing providers.

As Julian Ashby explains, a clear benefit of any fee structure is that it should increase the accountability of the HCA regulatory function to its customers. But what does this really mean?

The consultation tells us that we can expect greater transparency, demonstrating value for money in delivering the regulation service. These are great principles but will they help deliver the regulation the sector needs?

I am a strong advocate for introducing fees, but that advocacy is conditional.

At a time of huge change and uncertainty we need strong effective and independent regulation for the housing sector. Because of the public spending constraints, I suspect that Matthew Bailes and Julian Ashby have been limited in their options to change the regulator from within to deliver the service needed for an increasingly diverse and commercially challenged housing sector.

My hope is that fees will help them gain some element of freedom from government ministers about the organisation and structure of the HCA regulation team. They have a clear and independent remit but they need the tools to do it most effectively. If that means spending more than the estimated £12.5 million currently spent on running the regulation function then we should be open to that without giving them free access to our cheque-books.

The regulatory code and framework are largely being developed and moved forward in a fair and proportionate fashion, albeit we still await the final ‘post-Cosmo’ proposals to deal with sector diversification. Its co-regulatory approach remains relevant and appropriate.

However, as the sector continues to diversify, both in terms of activities and membership, the HCA needs to keep pace. As housing providers are increasingly being required to focus on more commercial business streams to cross-subsidise the building of more homes, then the regulation teams need to be able to quickly and flexibly adapt. They need the right resources that can be stretched when needed. To achieve this effectively they need the high-level skills to be able to understand, analyse and interrogate our businesses so that they can make sound and valid judgements in timely fashion.

If charging fees can break the shackles of government controls over the people and skills side of the HCA regulation function, then we should embrace it wholeheartedly and begin working with Julian and Matthew on the accountability and transparency framework that will, necessarily, go with it.

A strong effective regulator will support and provide a stable platform from which we can continue to build a dynamic well-run affordable housing industry. We can focus our attention, not on the regulation, but on ensuring that our governance arrangements are top class, where boards are truly accountable and drive our businesses to deliver the commercial and social successes we all aspire to and which our communities deserve.

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