Matthew Warburton, policy advisor at the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH), discusses why councils are struggling to assess the impact of the Housing and Planning Bill.
Although the Housing and Planning Act has now been law for more than a month, councils are still unable to accurately assess its impact or to draw up detailed responses to its proposals. Parliamentarians in both Houses complained during debate on the Bill that it delegates far too much to secondary legislation or just to the Secretary of State’s discretion. None of this has yet been published, even in draft, even though the Government expects early implementation of many of the Act’s proposals.
The Act enables the Secretary of State to make councils pay an annual levy calculated in relation to the value of higher value council homes becoming vacant during the relevant year. Councils cannot estimate the amount they will be expected to pay until the Government has laid regulations defining what is meant by ‘higher value’ for each council, and consulted on the other assumptions that will be included in the calculation of the levy.
Ministers have not ruled out asking for an initial payment in respect of part of the current financial year — even though councils will have been unable to budget for it — but the time available for Parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations is fast slipping away.
The EU referendum proved a major distraction from normal business with Parliament in recess and Ministers unable to commit as much time as usual to Ministerial business and unwilling to make controversial decision. Civil servants are likely to struggle to issue draft regulations or a consultation on the levy before the summer recess.
Pay to Stay
The Government has been clear from first publication of the Bill that it wants its Pay to Stay proposals to come into force from 1st April 2017. It has issued a rough timetable of the steps needed to get there. Here, too, all the detail will be included in regulations that will need to be debated by Parliament, although the Government has given rather more information about what it plans to include in the regulations, which makes it a little easier for councils to prepare for implementation.
The regulations are likely to be laid in September and, subject to their approval by Parliament, come into force in November. They need to be in force well before the new rent increases have to be imposed because they will include the definitions of what income is to be taken into account in deciding whether a tenant will be expected to pay more, and how much, and what is to count as evidence of that income.
The Government is hoping that councils will begin the process of implementation in September by writing to tenants to ask them to provide income information; by December they expect councils to have assessed the income of every tenant so that all necessary rent increases can be calculated and notifications be sent out by February. This timetable seems to have been dictated by the feasible Parliamentary timetable; little work seems to have been done to assess whether councils will be able to make the necessary changes to administrative and software systems in the time available.
At the time of writing, the outcome of the EU referendum is unknown, as is its impact on the capacity of the Government to oversee the implementation of the legislation it has made. A Government reshuffle or more dramatic fallout from the referendum result, such as resignation of the Prime Minister or even a General Election, could place a large question mark over when or even whether the Housing and Planning Act proposals come into operation.