Altair’s Governance Blog: The Accountability Deficit

The first of our new blog this autumn from our Governance team, providing an alternative view on current affairs within the housing sector.

So, we got the long-awaited Green Paper in the summer and as Shelter put it there are ‘warm words’ but no new money. Having said that, those warm words have largely been welcomed by the sector, particularly in relation to the nature of the future relationship between landlords and their tenants. It is clear that post-Grenfell, the landscape of dialogue between tenants and their landlords will be expected to be re-made.

Let’s imagine then a time when landlords are even more clear and transparent in their decision-making and in the quality of their services, and tenants are warmly engaged and well-informed with timely information. Let’s also imagine then a time when that reveals Landlord A is providing quite poor (and occasionally really bad) services – what then? If a beefed-up complaints process resolves the issue, all well and good; but what if it doesn’t?

How difficult is it to imagine a scenario where a systemic issue with, for example, repairs performance carries on for months (years?) even where both landlord and tenant are operating in the new era of transparency, knows and acknowledges that there is a problem, and everybody really wants to resolve it but it just drags on – and on? The cynic in me, buffered by too many historical examples – we can all probably name at least one, thinks it is a matter of when, not if.

Let’s hold that thought, and now let’s talk about ‘accountability’; when things go wrong, who is held to account, and how?

If it is the leadership or managers at fault, the board can hold them to account. In private companies (or at least those equivalent to social housing providers), there is always recourse to shareholders, who can vote with their feet (and money). In local authorities, there is recourse to the ballot box, but for most social housing providers there is no mechanism to hold their ultimate governing body – the board – to account; there is no proxy for shareholding activism or local democracy. There is only the regulator, whose job (unless the new consultation says otherwise) is not to act as shadow board members but to monitor compliance with regulatory standards.

So, back to our systemically under-performing organisation. If it is not so bad as to trigger regulatory intervention but is, to use the vernacular, just a bit rubbish, how is that board held to account for that? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t, and that is the current accountability deficit and one of the clear questions for the consultation on the new regulatory framework.

Boards take note and answers on a postcard please to