HQN Blog: Thinking through the league tables for housing

Simon Dow says if we don’t like league tables we have to come up with something better. That’s a fair point and a good challenge from the chair of the RSH. So here goes.

Let’s just put it out there. I’m sorry to say that league tables for safety are a daft idea. It would be a lot better if everyone just read the Hackitt Report and did things her way. How did we get into a mess over safety in the first place? It was because of box ticking! We ditched asbestos but didn’t think about what else could do the job. Everyone was on with gas safety, but did we sort out issues that are harder to measure? And yes there were what seemed to be fire risk assessments. But were they any use? You need easy things to point up to build a league table. Might I suggest that the pursuit of easy numbers causes nothing but trouble here? Everyone should be safe so there should be no top or bottom of the table. One standard should apply. The highest one. So a league table for safety is just too weak to do the job. But could these work for other services?

The green paper talks of leagues for doing repairs and dealing with complaints. Would these work well in tables? We’ve had indicators for these for years and they can be OK as a rough guide. But folk do cheat. They play fast and loose with the facts when deciding what repairs should be done right first time. Some are pushing more and more repairs onto the tenants. And it can be as confusing as getting through Hampton Court Maze making a complaint. That keeps the numbers down. If you could police these numbers yes you might get a league table that meant something.

But getting the right numbers is always tricky. The RSH has been gathering data on costs and finances for years. They put it online so of course we turn it into a league table. It’s a good way of challenging people. Yes you do still get numbers that are wrong. That’s why the RSH issues guidance to clear up common mistakes and downgrades those who get it wrong time and again. There's no silver bullet here but I tell you what might help. Every landlord should put its calculation out there online for all to see. That would open things up a bit and might make the cheats think twice. It would be even better if we got the numbers out quicker. We are still making decisions based on data that’s over a year old. What would be the point of looking at last year’s league table today?

The RSH tells you who has been building the most. That’s great as it’s a big priority. But some of the biggest builders are not having an easy ride. A few have seen downgrades for other problems. And the press is full of folk angry with the quality of new homes and the prices they have to pay for them. So any sort of league would have to encourage you to be strong in all areas. 

The usual argument against league tables is that you can’t compare apples and pears. We are too different to be in a league table. Yet this does not seem to get in the way of awards ceremonies. Landlords of all shapes and sizes win these. So if we can get round the ranking issues here what is the problem? If we could put Simon Dow into a tuxedo and give him a splash of warm white wine the judging would be easy. Of course you can make allowances for different types of landlord. And the RSH does this already when it issues data.

If we make it all sound too difficult there is an easy way out for the government. Why don’t they just get a pollster to ask if your residents would recommend you to friends or family? It’s one simple to grasp test. That’s what they do for the banks. One polling firm asks the question across the banks and puts the results into a table. Could we do this in housing? Should the pollster’s fees come out of the money you put into the RSH? Mind you I bet someone will still try to wriggle off the hook. Our tenants are so old they have no one left to recommend us to! You heard it here first.

Simon is right to say that if we don’t like league tables we need to come up with something better. That is a new stance. In the past regulators ran a million miles from anything to do with tables. They used to say that at best indicators were can openers. You had to know a lot more about a service before leaping to conclusions. That’s why they came up with the idea of inspection. But times change. For what it’s worth here’s what I would do now:

  • Ditch the idea of league tables for safety – everyone’s got to be on top of this
  • Ensure all data comes out quicker with no cheating – name and shame anyone that games the system – sack auditors that fail to spot the cheats
  • Try the friends and family test to see what lessons we can learn from it
  • Use a bit of common sense when looking at PIs – take account of context but don’t allow excuses.

Should we put the PIs into league tables? In some ways it is a silly question. As soon as any data comes out what does the wise organisation do? It works out where it sits versus others. That’s right it creates a league table for itself. Of course it should hand this over to the tenants. But there are risks here.   

We already have a league table for housing to all intents and purposes. The players in it are going hell for leather to grow. That means they stand toe-to-toe with developers. So the press tars them with the same brush. Yes the exact same press that gleefully takes their cash for the adverts for all the developments. It’s a cruel world sometimes.

While we need to think through the league table idea from the green paper it brings a dilemma for the RSH too. Points mean prizes. If you come out on top you get the funding to build. That’s fine. But what if a big builder drops into the relegation zone for satisfaction? Do you send the funding to someone else? That will slow down house building in a crisis. Yes we're all chasing numbers. We just need to make sure they’re the right ones.

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN Chief Executive