Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
40. It is not?
(Dr Perry) Our lead regulators are quite senior people.
41. I got the impression that they were not
senior posts and if these officers, if you want to call them that,
are going round to some of these housing associationsand
I have seen some of the slick chief executives and financial directorswhat
is to say that they are not being bamboozled by them?
(Dr Perry) The survey which the NAO did showed that
in 1999 there was about one-third of associations which were a
bit worried about the skills and qualifications of our regulatory
staff. We have done a lot of work since then. As I mentioned previously,
we have now hired special purpose financial regulation teams and
I think if the NAO repeats its survey in a couple of years' time
hopefully they would find a different picture in the sector.
Chairman: Thank you, Mr Steinberg. Mr David
42. Dr Perry, can I start byI am not
sure if warning is the right wordtelling you that a chap
called John Gatward, who is my brother-in-law, is currently head
of a housing association so I want to lay that on the record for
the Committee's information and yours before I start. Paragraph
2.13 of the Report mentions among the high risks that are frequently
brought up by housing associations the question of falling demand.
Coming from the area I do in central southern England around West
Berkshire, that is a staggering idea. In our case demand is soaring
and there is a desperate shortage of housing owned by housing
associations and available for rent. Is this something to do with
the north/south divide or is it to do with specialist housing
associations where specialist demand may be falling?
(Dr Perry) It is geographical variation. It is very
much an issue in the north of England and to an extent in the
northern part of the Midlands as well. There is a phenomenon which
is affecting all types of tenureowner occupation, private
rented, council rented and housing association rentedwhere
there is beginning to emerge, apparently, a surplus of housing
over people who wish to occupy that housing. Housing associations
have been no more affected by that than any other form of landlord
and probably less affected than local authority landlords at the
moment, but it is something that is becoming an issue.
43. Before I go back to that issue, is there
any particular specialist area where the housing associations
are noting a drop in demand?
(Dr Perry) There are unpopular types of construction
44. I really meant are there housing associations
that deal with a particular specialist area, like those who deal
with people who are disabled, where the demand is falling?
(Dr Perry) Not to my knowledge. This is an issue of
general needs housing.
45. To go back to the question of the north/south
divide which seems to be the main problem here, firstly, what
are you doing to try to overcome that or to re-balance demand
or to suggest new policies to Government so that where they might
try to get the balance of demand right?
(Dr Perry) The issue is such that the housing associations
can do very little of their own accord so we have to work in partnership.
At the national level we have been working with the Social Exclusion
Unit and the DETR and, indeed, the National Strategy for Neighbourhood
Renewal specifically mentioned the role of registered social landlords
in overcoming it. The 80 or so Local Strategic Partnership areas
which are eligible for the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund will be
a key part of the solution because much of the fall in demand
is in those LSP areas.
46. One of the ways in which it has been suggested
that demand could be better balanced across the country is by
enabling more people to work from home using cabling facilities
and so on. Is there anything that the Corporation can do to encourage
that sort of move?
(Dr Perry) Separately we are interested in that particular
aspect. In fact, we have got some home-working pilots in the Corporation.
Where investment proposals came forward from RSLs which involved
that we would be interested. I think it is fair to say
47. Do they know that? Have you publicised that?
(Dr Perry) They would know that through our innovation
and good practice programme. Housing associations are well aware
that we are open to innovative ideas. The point I was going to
make, Mr Rendel, was in the particular neighbourhoods where demand
is falling I am not sure that home-working is the issue; we also
have very high unemployment in those areas.
48. That is precisely the point. There are perhaps
jobs which are currently based in other parts of the country where
there is very low unemployment like mine which could be done down
the line by cable, and perhaps by making sure that the right cabling
systems are in place you could both improve employment in those
areas where demand is falling and at the same time improve the
demand for housing.
(Dr Perry) I hear that but I think that the areas
that we are talking about are ones where the level of unemployment
and the level of social deprivation makes it unlikely that cascaded
"brain" jobs from other parts of the country could be
taken up. It is an issue of importance perhaps in rural areas
where we have areas of demand and stress in the countryside where
home-working has been very successful. I know it has in the Highlands
of Scotland. But, say, in east Manchester, or north Liverpool
it does not seem quite as likely.
49. I am sorry to hear your estimation of the
capabilities of some of those people. It seems to me that there
are of number of home-working jobs which you call "brain
jobs" which do not demand a huge amount of skills or intelligence
which could be done in all sorts of parts of the country where
people are currently finding it difficult to get work.
(Dr Perry) We would be happy to act almost as an intermediary
between employers who had the jobs and housing associations who
had local demand and, indeed, were working in community regeneration
50. Excellent. I hope I have been encouraging
you to do just that because that seems to be a useful thing that
you could concentrate on. In paragraph 2.3 the indication is given
that to some extent the Corporation acts as a fallback where housing
associations may be in some sort of trouble. This brings me back
very much to something which has been one of the worries of this
Committee for a long time, that what tends to happen sometimes,
particularly in things like the private finance initiative, is
that people take great risks thinking that the risk is being passed
on in some way to somebody else and actually the risk remains
with the public sector. There is a concern here that the real
risk that housing associations individually are getting themselves
into may in the end fall back on you in the public sector because
they take greater risks than they should. Is that something that
you are worried about?
(Dr Perry) We hope that is unlikely. We are always
aware of the problem of moral hazard where you have a public sector
regulator. The lenders certainly do not think that the Housing
Corporation stands behind RSLs financially. The Report mentions
13 instances in four years where the Corporation had to organise
what used to be the equivalent of the Bank of England's "lifeboat"
to get other people in. What we always do is to get other associations
into the system. No extra funds from us are normally put into
play in this matter. Since there are invariably quite drastic
consequences for the senior management of these associations and
boards, it is not something that they would do lightly. They would
not take risks on the basis that if it does not work out they
will get rescued because it will cost them their jobs on the way.
51. Turning to table 6 on page 16 of the Report,
which the Chairman mentioned earlier, this strikes me as a rather
frightening table, not simply because in so many instances is
the figure under the 85 margin, but because it indicates in terms
of rent gearing, and rent arrears, which are the two ratios that
have been under 85 per cent the whole time, it is getting very
considerably worse and, particularly, there is a rapid deterioration
in the last two or three years. Would you like to comment on that?
(Mrs Miller) If I can start with rent arrears, first
of all. The issue which faces housing associations here is largely
around the administration and the payment of housing benefit.
What we are doing in that area is to work with the DSS and in
particular we are looking at associations taking part in a pilot
exercise to take on some of the verification checks in the hope
that that would assist in improving the performance of housing
benefit. That is the specific initiative we have there. You also
pointed to rent gearing. If I can also point you to the ratio
just underneath rent gearing, gearing reserves. We have two gearing
measures which we use in tandem. As you are aware, these are measures
which indicate the increase in borrowing and the capacity that
associations have for future borrowing. The trend in both of those
has been down over the seven-year period and I think that reflects
the increase in borrowing that associations are taking on and,
over the same period of time, the reduction in Government funding
that is going into those associations. I think the trend is understandable.
The question that you asked is what we are doing about it. I think
we are monitoring very closely associations on an individual basis
whose borrowings would seem to indicate that in a short period
of time they will run out of future capacity to borrow.
52. It is all very well monitoring them, that
is partly what these figures do, but the figures have, in the
case of gearing reserves, been collapsing quite quickly over the
last four years and, in the case of rent gearing, collapsing over
a longer time than that, and even the gearing reserves are now
only just about the 85 per cent. Rent gearing is down to 55 per
centa very, very long way under your target. Your monitoring
them is all very well but something has to be done about it, not
just looking and seeing that it is happening.
(Mrs Miller) I mentioned earlier on that we were undertaking
an exercise to look at the entire range of our ratios and this
is a particular area that we wish to focus on. We have conducted
quite extensive discussions with lenders in the field because
we hope that our ratios match industry norms in this area and
so lenders are a particular source of information for us. They
have suggested to us that perhaps our ratios are slightly out
of step with the ratios that they would expect to see in this
field. This is an area that is under discussion.
53. You mean, rather as the Chairman was indicating
earlier on, that if the ratios seemed to be falling dramatically
you are going to change the ratios and monitor something else?
(Mrs Miller) We have been resisting that over the
seven years that you have in front of you. We have definitely
not reduced our ratios and, indeed, we have stuck to them even
though associations are seeming to find it more difficult to meet
54. Surely if they are finding it more difficult
to meet them that is not a reason for changing the ratios you
monitor; it is a reason for doing something about the fact that
they are going downhill the whole time, and in the most recent
years in, frankly, a rather worrying way. If this trend continues
you are going to find that none of the associations will have
their rent gearing at an acceptable level within a few years'
time. You are down to 55 per cent now and you have fallen by 20
per cent in the last few years. That to me is very worrying. Just
changing the ratios you monitor is not going to cure that.
(Dr Perry) Not of itself. The picture that this is
showing is of a sector which is coming under increasing stress
but part of that is a deliberate policy intention because these
are social businesses, their purpose is not to rack up large surpluses
but to operate with their 50/50 mix of public money and private
money relatively close to the margin. The specific issue of rents
is very much geared to the problems that are being experienced
in the administration of housing benefit. That is specific and
that is quite concerning to us, but in that sense working with
the DSS is the most that we can do because this is something that
covers the whole of the local authority sector as well as RSLs.
55. I understand the problem about housing benefit.
It has been a long-standing concern to many of us. Given the trend
that you have got at present, do you think that the sort of changes
you have been suggestingmaking housing associations take
on some of the work which, after all, is going to put up their
costsin the end is good enough or do we have to look for
real changes to the whole housing benefit system? Is it no longer
going to work for housing associations?
(Dr Perry) Those are matters of policy for the DSS.
We are talking
56. If they do not change it are some housing
associations going to collapse in the near future?
(Dr Perry) I have to distinguish between the policy
and the way that it is being administered. Clearly, there are
a number of local authorities where their administration of housing
benefit is a mess and quite a large number of housing associations
are being affected. Some of the larger ones can take it within
their system but you may notice a difference in their reserves
at the year end. We are quite concerned that some smaller housing
associations, if things do not improve before too long, will get
into cashflow problems. Yes, that is a fact.
57. Have you warned the Government of this?
(Dr Perry) We constantly talk to the DETR and the
DSS about this.
58. Can I ask one final question. You set your
targets at 85 per cent as a proportion of RSLs that pass each
financial ratio. You want more than 85 per cent of the totality
of RSLs to pass each ratio. Why do you do it that way rather than
saying that each RSL has to pass at least 85 per cent of the ratios?
(Dr Perry) I will answer the first question myself
and then perhaps pass the second one to Mrs Miller. The 85 per
cent is not an absolute judgment. It was related to our workload.
Arguably, if we have more staff we would lower it so that we then
looked at more associations, but we do not regard it as an absolute.
59. Fair enough. The point is why are you monitoring
over the whole sector to make sure that more than 85 per cent
of the sector passes rather than monitoring each association to
make sure that each association is getting most of its ratios
right? That seems to be a much more relevant thing for you to
(Mrs Miller) We do both. Our target, as Dr Perry said,
was set originally in order to target our resources at those most
at risk but we do also monitor on a sector-wide basis how many
housing associations pass all of the ratios, how many pass seven
of the eight ratios, how many pass six. If you took the 85 per
cent, for instance, three per cent of associations would pass
more than 85 per cent on that basis.
Mr Rendel.: A pretty small number.
Chairman: Thank you. Mr Nigel Griffiths?