By Carl Davis
Earlier this week SHAC’s Suzanne Muna gave evidence to the opening session of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee’s inquiry into the regulation of social housing.
After discussing disrepair more generally, the Committee of MPs turned its attention to what the panel Chair described as ‘ a bit of explosion in some areas of claim management companies‘, often referred to as ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawyers.
A False Narrative
Suzanne questioned the sector’s cynical, self-serving narrative on this question, namely that the increase in disrepair claims was being driven only by unscrupulous ‘no-win , no-fee’ lawyers who target vulnerable social housing tenants and dupe them into making baseless claims against their landlords. In this narrative, the actions of lawyers are responsible for a significant drain on the landlord’s finances and resources.
Clare Miller from Clarion agreed with this narrative, noting that lawyers in these cases got a lot of money from the landlord and this money could be better spent on getting repairs done. However, she did not seem to consider that these lawyers are only paid if they win the case, and if landlords did the repairs in the first place, the claims would be unnecessary. It would also save an awful of misery for the tenants.
Lawyers of Last Resort
As a social housing tenant, I was forced to resort to using a no-win, no-fee claims company during the first lockdown. I previously had to get a court order to force my landlord – L&Q – to address appalling disrepair. I have therefore followed the development of the sector’s one sided narrative on disrepair claims and, like SHAC, I accept that there’s a parasitic aspect to the claims industry.
Having said all of this, to pretend that the lawyers themselves are the source of the problem and that social housing providers are simply being targeted by firms taking advantage of vulnerable or gullible social housing tenants is utterly disingenuous.
SHAC was right to dismiss this narrative as a distraction from the real problem.
The truth is that there is widespread disrepair in the social housing sector, twinned with a regulatory regime that housing associations can ‘game’ to ensure they remain unaccountable.
Like many of the larger providers L&Q has an appalling record of disrepair and complaints mishandling. Indeed, both L&Q and Clarion, England’s largest social housing provider, have been officially investigated for neglecting to undertake maintenance and essential repairs and serially mishandling tenants’ complaints.
Yet until ITV aired stories of widespread disrepair, an open secret that powerless tenants were already aware of, the sector seemed most anxious to avoid openly acknowledging and addressing this disrepair problem. Social landlords instead created a perception that they (not the tenants) were innocent victims being ruthlessly targeted by greedy and unscrupulous legal firms.
Speaking Truth to Power
SHAC explained to the Committee that Riverside and other providers had conspired to lobby Government to cap compensation claims and weaken the rights and protections of their tenants. There was no acknowledgement by the housing associations involved that they were unscrupulously taking advantage of their tenants. Nor did they admit that the light touch regulatory regime pretty much left them unaccountable no matter how often they neglected repairs, however poor their services were, or how badly they treated their tenants.
Under the management of L&Q’s former boss, David Montague, the housing association considered maintenance and repairs of existing homes as little more than a drain on their finances and resources. The new boss admitted as much when taking up post. She was forced to acknowledge that L&Q had neglected existing tenants and their homes as it had been too focused on expansion and sales.
This trend is evident elsewhere too. Montague was following a well-worn path in which association bosses dream of turning their own association into the largest social housing provider in the country or even across Europe. It is a trend driving one merger after another. Recently, One Housing Group merged with Riverside. Peabody merged with Catalyst not long after the former merged with Family Mosaic and the latter with Aldwyck. And so it goes on.
The sector’s self-victimising disrepair claims narrative takes no account of this reality.
A Personal View
So here’s a personal view on the explosion of disrepair claims from someone who was forced to go down the no-win, no-fee disrepair claim route, mid-pandemic, during lockdown.
Like many others, I did it because – and only because – my landlord continued to regard disrepair in my home as something I just had to put up with no matter what. During lockdown, disrepairs that were previously difficult to live with became intolerable, with no escape from the conditions between one day and the next.
The disconnect in not seeing how being locked-down in a property overrun with damp, or mould, or as in my case, after the bathroom ceiling collapsing for the third time would cause despair is breath-taking.
A Loud Silence
In response to the rise in disrepair claims, the sector did not hesitate to produce stories of how difficult management and staff found the lockdown environment. There is no doubt that businesses of all kinds struggled. However, they quickly proclaimed how heroically the larger providers were looking after the most vulnerable, checking-in on people in their homes. Once again, the reality was a little different on the ground. Not everyone received a consistent treatment.
I heard nothing from L&Q throughout the lockdown. When my bathroom ceiling collapsed again I was remotely told this was a non-essential repair that had already been fixed and wouldn’t be dealt with until after the lockdown. Even when I posted a date stamped video of water cascading through a huge hole in the ceiling from the flat above, I was told the problem had been fixed or that the video was historic. I was also accused of anti-social behaviour for daring to challenge a staff member’s expertise and authority. It was this video that led a claims management company to contact me.
They weren’t pushy, they didn’t lie or promise me huge amounts of money nor did I receive a huge amount of money for my claim. They simply promised me that they could make sure that the disrepair in my flat , which wasn’t just limited to the collapsed ceiling, would be addressed. They kept their promise. The disrepair was dealt with or at least the most distressing aspects of it were.
This doesn’t quite fit with the sector narrative on disrepair claims does it?
Finding Solutions with SHAC
If housing associations genuinely want to reduce disrepair claims, supressing tenant rights is not the way to go about it. Instead, they can ‘cut out the middleman’ by ensuring that their organisation has a good quality maintenance and repairs services in the first place.
They could also create a genuine and responsive complaints system, and promote stronger tenant representation to highlight when things are not working. Government can play its part in ensuring that the regulatory regime is fit for purpose and makes housing associations accountable to the people they house. If these measures were in place, the number of complaints and claims would drop dramatically, and the resources wasted at tribunals could be put to far better use.
20 January 2022
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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