The right to transfer is here, but there’s not much time to use it

The transfer window is open

On 12th November 2013 the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published the final version of the Statutory Guidance to the Right to Transfer Regulations.  On the same date they published the new Housing Transfer Manual and the responses to the consultation on the manual.  On 14th November 2014  The housing (right to transfer from a local authority landlord) (England) regulations 2013 were laid before Parliament. These should come into force on 5th December 2013.  Taken together, these documents provide council tenants a window of opportunity to exercise their Right to Transfer.

But it’s not a very big window

The title “Housing Transfer Manual period to 31 March 2015” says it all, the Government is emphatic that any transfer requiring debt write-off must be completed by this date. With a fixed term Parliament this is clearly tied to the expected date of the next General Election.  There’s so little slack in the timetable it’s hard to predict what would happen to transfers in progress if the Coalition fell apart and there was a snap election.  That leaves only a little over 16 months to put together a transfer proposal, conduct a tenant ballot and if tenants’ want it, set up a stock transfer landlord and complete the transfer.  As Pete Apps said in Inside Housing “Councils hoping to use a debt write-off scheme to complete stock transfers face an ‘unrealistic’ race against time to tie up the deals.”

An uphill race

So if councils with all the resources of a local authority at their disposal face a struggle to complete a stock transfer in time, where doe this leave tenant groups hoping to use the Right to Transfer (RTT)?  Almost by definition tenants only need to use the RTT process where their landlord is not willing to support their desire to explore stock transfer, so from the start these tenant groups are at a disadvantage.  Whilst the RTT regulations require local authorities to co-operate, there are still myriad ways an unscrupulous council could slow down and seek to derail the process.  Given the incredibly tight timescales there is little scope for slippage in any stock transfer plan, so delay introduced by a council could prove fatal.  There is also a complete mismatch of resources, even the largest and best run tenant management organisation doesn’t have the resources in manpower and finances to match their landlord.

It may appear that forcing a local authority to transfer stock against its will is an unwinnable fight, and so it may prove.  However tenant activists have been successfully overcoming bureaucratic indifference and political opposition for decades; sometimes David does beat Goliath.

Who do you trust?

Tenant groups do also have some factors in their favour, the trust and support of their local community is a huge benefit and may help overcome one of the big hurdles as outlined again by Pete Apps in his article:

Jonathan Hulley, a partner at law firm Clarke Willmott, said: ‘The timescale is unrealistic given the critical issue of consultation. As lawyers we would never say it’s impossible, but it is certainly unlikely.’

A tenant group that genuinely represents the local community has a built in advantage over any council when it comes to understanding the needs and desires of tenants and what is important to them when considering stock transfer.  There is also the issue of trust, an effective ad accountable tenant group should be able to persuade tenants more easily that its intentions are bona fide than even the most honourable local authority.  It is natural that people are more likely to believe what they are told by people they know and live amongst.

When a local authority undertakes Large Scale Voluntary Transfer (LSVT) it is most unlikely that the key decision makers will be directly affected.  The odd local councillor may be a tenant, but the overwhelming majority of members and senior officers won’t be.  In contrast, tenant activists are subject to the outcome of the transfer, as are their family and friends, so they have a critical personal interest in ensuring that the proposal brings immediate and long term benefits to their community.  This gives their message credibility – it is a lot easier to believe when someone tells you stock transfer is a good idea if you know they are going to go through it themselves.

Size matters

Being small can work to the advantage of tenants pursuing RTT.  With timescales being so tight, speed of thought, decision making and implementation will be of critical importance.  Most tenant groups are small cohesive organisations with the ability to take decisions quickly.  If they employ staff then they will typically have a close working relationship between tenants and officers and very flat management structure.  This can help to get staff buy in to the process, make it quicker to get decisions acted on and make it is easier to be flexible in how to get tasks done.

By contrast local authorities are large, unwieldy organisations with fairly rigid decision making  processes and timetables that will tend to introduce delays to any project.  They also tend to have party politics as well as pork barrel issues to contend with and far more external stakeholders to work with and satisfy.

Big Politics

Whilst the local political landscape may be unhelpful, tenants do at least have some friends in high places.  The Right to Transfer came about through Central Government support tenant groups thwarted at local level.  Although we have been through umpteen Housing Ministers and a change in government since it was enacted, RTT has always had general support at departmental and ministerial level as part of the tenant empowerment and localism agendas.  In the Ministerial Foreword to the new Housing Transfer Manual, Kris Hopkins says:

We want to encourage not only stock-holding local authorities, but also tenants and existing private registered providers to consider the opportunities which stock transfer may provide.  Alongside this manual we are laying before Parliament the Right to Transfer Regulations which will for the first time give local authority tenants a statutory right to initiate a transfer process and require the local authority to co-operate as tenants explore the options.

That RTT gets such a prominent mention in this critical document suggests that tenant groups with a strong business case for transfer will get a fair hearing from the Government.

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