. . .There’s a big hole where the Big Society should be, and it looks like it’ll be filled with bureaucracy
Yesterday, a cheer echoed round the Observatory when the Government proposed mutualising the Post Office. Today, the Government has announced the fate of not one, but hundreds of public bodies. As you can see from this list, all sorts of futures beckon, from charitable or trust status to social enterprises, from being merged to being subsumed, and of course from retention to sheer oblivion.
The Cabinet Office press release is noteworthy: it makes not one single mention of the Big Society. Yet, some public bodies, such as British Waterways, are charted for a Big Society destination. If the Big Society means everything, including ‘loving your leftovers’, surely it must encompass public bodies.
Peering more closely, I observed this from Civil Society Cabinet Minister Francis Maude:
“Today’s announcement means that many important and essential functions will be brought back into departments meaning the line of accountability will run right up to the very top where it always should have been.”
Wasn’t it his job to make the line of accountability run right down to the very bottom?
Here we can see him bigging up mutuals and co-ops for the Big Society.
In that context he said: “The era of ‘big government’ being the answer to everything is over”.
Let’s turn the telescope on the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), the body that regulated social housing so as to ensure tenants got a good service, and that confidence was guaranteed for lenders.
Its predecessor, the Housing Corporation, performed this function, along with investment and development. Labour split these, passing the economic function to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) and passing the regulatory responsibility to the TSA. By abolishing the TSA, and by reuniting investment with regulation, the Government has created the Housing Corporation Again.
But, the TSA will be lost just at the moment when it had achieved the greatest degree of support and buy-in from tenants and landlords. One of its jobs was to support tenant groups interested in transferring their council estates to community owned landlords, which nowadays could be a mutual, a co-op, a community land trust or many other tried and tested models. Lost too is the National Tenant Voice, which, like the TSA, was well and widely regarded as a constructive means for engaging with tenants.
As with the Cabinet Office statement on the overall quango cull, the CLG press release about the TSA has a big hole where the Big Society should be. The heading is tantalising enough: “New powers for tenants to improve social housing”. And, Housing Minister Grant Shapps tempts: “I’m putting tenants in the driving seat”. Yet, he makes no mention of the Big Society, is silent on whether tenant groups will be supported, and says nothing about asset transfer to mutuals and co-ops.
So, what does he offer England’s “eight million social housing tenants”, as he culls their quangos at the dawn of Cameron’s ‘post-bureacratic age’?
“Strengthened powers to ensure that their landlords provide quality housing and are held to account when problems arise. Landlords will be expected to support tenant panels – or equivalent bodies – in order to give tenants the opportunity to scrutinise the services being offered and to be involved in resolving disputes.”
Tenant panels? (You don’t fall off your chair in the Big Society Observatory – you bang your head on the telescope). Tenant panels? That’s what the Audit Commission, now so gleefully abolished, used to tell landlords they had to set up! And, by the way, ‘panel’ is the last word in the names of half the quangos to be butchered!
Ministers and the Prime Minister have insisted they believe in people-power, localism, and devolution. They have promised a Big Society revolution, with public assets transferred to mutuals, co-ops, community land trusts, charities and social enterprises. Yet, in return for taking away the few public bodies that empower social housing residents they offer atomised and ineffectual bureaucracy.
If communities can take over their post offices and pubs, if nurses can own their services, and if quangos can be hived off to the voluntary sector, why can’t social housing residents collectively own their homes?
Will the future of social housing be bureaucratic and statist, or will it be mutual and revolutionary?
Why doesn’t the Big Society include social housing?