Councils step up raids on housing budgets

4 July 2016 7:30 am | By Keith Cooper

Cash-strapped councils are increasingly drawing cash from their housing budgets to plug gaps in back-office costs, an exclusive Inside Housing investigation reveals.

This significant raid on their Housing Revenue Accounts (HRAs) has been revealed by an analysis of financial figures from 100 council accounts.

HRA cash is derived from rents and service charges paid by tenants and is supposed to be ringfenced for investment in homes.

But town halls are able to use a loophole to use this cash to prop up general funds – by billing HRAs for ‘corporate and democratic core services’, back-office services such as finance and legal which are used by all council departments.

According to our analysis, the 100 councils’ cut the overall budget for these services by almost £90m between 2011/12 and 2014/15. But over the same period they hiked the HRAs’ contribution to this cost by £1.7m.

Just under a quarter of council landlords billed their HRAs for more than 15% of the cost of back-office services in 2014/15. The average contribution across all 100 authorities was 8%.

In extreme cases, councils billed their HRAs for close to half their ‘corporate and democratic core services’ costs.

Reading Council charged its HRA for 54% last year. Islington boosted its housing budget’s share from 38% of its total cost in 2011/12 to 44% in 2014/15. The average contribution in London boroughs was 7%.

While the Chartered Insitute of Housing and Local Government Association declined to comment on these findings, a public finance expert said they raised questions about the fairness of charges.

Ken Lee, chair of the housing panel at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, said: “As social tenants tend to be the poorest and are a minority in society, is it right that they should be supporting the majority in the community?” he asked. “We should be looking at strengthening [the HRA] ringfence and bring it up to date.”

Checks on the patency of the ‘ringfence’ intended to legally protect housing resources, had been weakened since the abolition of the Audit Commission, Mr Lee added. “District auditors were keen on checking this kind of thing when the Audit Commission was around,” he said. “This role has now gone to private auditors.”

Islington said council housing represented 37% of total households in the borough. Reading declined to comment.

An in depth analysis of the findings will be published in a feature later this week.