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Comment: Watchdogs get their teeth into privatised housing bosses
The interrogation of Watford housing bosses by councillors last week made for an uncomfortable spectacle.
It must have been an even more discomforting experience for the Watford Community Housing Trust execs coming under scrutiny.
Watchdogs get their teeth into privatised housing bosses.
Watford politicians had spent weeks collecting testimonials and listening to the stories of tenants from the last half a decade since the borough council sold its housing stock to the trust.
The result was a difficult couple of hours for the trust’s top staff as they came under a fusillade of criticism over everything from the time it took to answer their phones to their efforts to railroad through unwanted developments despite overwhelming community opposition.
Throughout, the trust’s chief executive, Tina Barnard, stoutly defended the organisation’s record and pointed out that it had spent more than £60 million improving homes.
When she was presented with failings she intoned that the not-for-profit trust was listening and learning from its mistakes.
Yet after sitting through the inquisition it appeared many of the problems highlighted that evening stemmed from the inefficient social housing system.
Tenants are trapped in a halfway house between a functioning private sector and public ownership.
If working well, both of these models should offer unhappy tenants avenues for change.
Under public ownership – i.e. the council running the housing stock – tenants could turn to the democratic process to effect change.
The discontented could lobby their councillors for change in policy and these politicians could then in turn campaign on those promised reforms.
When a service is privatised, tenants lose their power as voters but are instead, in theory anyway, empowered as customers and the free market should enable them to vote with their feet.
If they feel a provider is not delivering what they want, the market should provide them with competitors they can turn to.
In reality, social housing is very much a seller’s market. Demand far outstrips supply and effectively tenants get what they are given.
They are a captive customer base and as such housing associations do not feel the pressures of the free market needed to give tenants the benefits of privatisation.
The point was underscored when Gareth Lewis, the trust’s director of property and new business, took umbrage with a councillor describing the neighbouring housing association Thrive as a competitor.
He responded the housing trust preferred to think of Thrive as a “partner”.
By the end of the meeting one group did come out looking somewhat better – the councillors.
They put the tenants’ case to the housing trust with energy and at times even forcefully. It was encouraging to see them vigorously scrutinising a service the council had outsourced.
Over the last decade the borough has privatised more and more services as its income is squeezed while its body politic has not shed any weight.
At Watford, politicians are carving out an important role acting as the watchdog of privatised services that still play an important role in town.
And in recent years the council’s scrutiny committee has also taken on issues outside its immediate remit.
Its investigation into Watford General Hospital’s steep parking charges helped start a process that culminated in the trust lowering its £4 starting fee.
Both episodes show that as the number of services the council directly runs dwindles, democratic oversight is more important than ever.
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