Earlier today my good friend Dave over at Nearly Legal, in a post about the Localism bill, put his finger on something that had been troubling me. Something strange and unusual is definitely afoot.
It is only a couple of weeks since the social housing reform consultation paper Local Decisions was launched on an unsuspecting world (I discussed it here). And yet yesterday we have the Localism Bill which embodies most of the key ideas in the consultation paper (CP). But hang on a minute, the consultation doesn’t close until mid-January. Many people haven’t got over the shock of the CP yet, let alone submitted a formal response. So there could be a tidal wave of criticism about to crash over the bows of Communities and Local Government. One would like to think that the government might be open to reviewing the wisdom of its strategy in the light of professional and public opinion. That is, after all, the point of running a consultation.
But clearly we are kidding ourselves. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore, legislatively speaking.
Simply as a matter of Parliamentary logistics the consultation is going to prove a sham. By the time the consultation has closed and CLG digested the responses the legislation is going to be some way through its journey to the statute book. The only impacts possible for the consultation are likely to be minor tweaks. The direction of travel is already set. Of course, given that we can see where things are heading perhaps that theoretical tidal wave of objection won’t materialise. After all, what is the point?
Some might see this as clever politics. It wouldn’t be implausible to argue that the Government’s reforms are not being met with overwhelming enthusiasm, beyond those Tory strongholds in London that have been lobbying for their obligations to be watered down for quite a while now. So short circuiting the process stops the Government from having to deal with some unwanted interventions.
Be that as it may, it seems to me to be a flagrant abuse of the spirit, if not the letter, of the process. What is the point of having a consultation if you have no intention of listening to anyone? Of course, the answer is that you might, sort of, feel obliged to go through the motions whether you want to or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if another bout of modernising government weren’t heading our way – in the interests of streamlining the legislative process it would be highly desirable to do away with all this unnecessary and time consuming consultation and debate. The Government of the day knows what it wants to do without needing any input or evidence from anyone else.
We seem to be operating in a legislative world where Ministers feel that if they repeat often enough and loud enough something that is clearly erroneous that makes it true. For example, there is an argument abroad that there are 5million people in housing need on the waiting lists for social housing because of Labour’s failings. In just about every conceivable respect that argument is wrong. But that doesn’t stop the Government pressing ahead using that as justification for action. I’m not denying there are problems that need to be dealt with, but it would be good to have a rather more accurate basis for thinking through the issues.
I would expect this sort of high-handedness from the Tories. But the LibDems, by nature, are more reflexive and more willing to debate openly the merits of alternative courses of action. To be complicit in this sort of charade ill-serves the party.
But I guess the bigger question is why the unseemly haste? While there are some things the Government undoubtedly feels it needs to be doing urgently to address the deficit, the provisions on social housing reform are really nothing to do with dealing with the budget situation. There is no earthly reason, as a matter of logistics, why they couldn’t have waited through the consultation period and then produced a rather more mature and sophisticated piece of draft legislation, which reflected a rather firmer grasp of the nature of the problem and plausible solutions.
But that would imply that we were thinking of good policy in terms of effective policy, rather than policy that accords with a particular set of ideological priorities.
A few weeks ago, the Government were making a big noise about being in coalition and in government for the long term. Yet that would tend to imply a rather more reflexive and statesman-like approach to the task than the one being taken at the moment. To the contrary, the Coalition seem to be trying to do as much – I am tempted to say “as much damage” – as fast as possible because they suspect it won’t last. Perhaps they are right. The tuition fees debacle may be the first sign that things could come off the rails. If the Government goes back on a commitment to get rid of control orders and the AV vote does not deliver constitutional change then the LibDems may well be asking even more urgently than they are at the moment whether they have sacrified too much for too little (a topic I discussed here a little while ago).
While the politics of the situation might point to the need for speed, the siesmic impact that some of these proposals could have on the housing system suggests the need for much greater circumspection.