A government select committee has today published its first report on the regulation of social housing which contains a series of recommendations to improve the experience of tenants and residents living in this sector.
The report follows a government ‘Inquiry into Social Housing Regulation’ which included months of evidence gathering and a Parliamentary hearing. It was overseen by a group of MPs brought together as the Levelling Up, Housing and Local Government Committee (the committee).
In response to the initial evidence gathering, SHAC consulted members and then submitted a response detailing our concerns about the commercialisation of the sector.
We also gave oral evidence to the committee of MPs at one of their sessions.
Unlike the current draft bill to reform social housing, the recommendations made in this report could have some impact – if they are implemented. The committees recommendations are directed at government, housing association leaders, the Ombudsman, and the Regulator of Social Housing.
While narrow in their scope, the recommendations include a number of points which align to SHAC’s own policy. Below, we analyse some highlights and provide further suggestions to strengthen tenant and resident rights.
Regeneration and Supply
Much of the report is focussed on disrepairs and poor maintenance. In response, the committee calls for fully funded regeneration to replace older stock, and an increase in the supply of homes for social rent. These measures are aimed at replacing the homes in the worst state of disrepair.
This recommendation is welcomed but would need to be enclosed in powerful safeguards.
Past experience of regeneration carried out by councils and housing associations often leads to a loss of homes at the more secure and affordable end of the spectrum. Tenants are moved out while work is in progress, but are not always guaranteed a right of return on the same tenancy terms.
Regeneration can also scatter communities as fewer social rented homes are built than existed on the site previously. This is usually deliberate, with developers arguing that healthier communities are created from mixed-tenure estates. They seek to combine residents with different levels of income.
Others call this process social cleansing, and it has led to major conflicts between communities and landlords. Examples abound but include the infamous Carpenters Estate.
A further call on government, this time intended to prevent the “erosion of the social housing stock”, recommends “a fully-funded plan for ensuring the one-for-one and like-for-like replacement of every home sold under Right to Buy”.
Rather than replacements, SHAC believes that all Right to Buy should cease as the evidence now establishes the extent to which it has depleted the precious stock of social housing. There are other, better ways of helping people into home ownership if that is the goal.
The report recognises that one of the greatest pinch-points in the negative experience of housing association tenants and residents is the way that complaints are handled. SHAC and media outlets have regularly reported on the lengthy, frustrating, and bureaucratic procedures which appear designed to wear out and deter complainants.
Some recommendations are made to housing associations, but the onus for remediating this falls to the housing Ombudsman.
One of the most significant recommendations is to raise the size of fine that the Ombudsman can issue. It advises a maximum of £25,000, noting that “in 2020–21, the average level of compensation awarded [by the Ombudsman] was just £260”, and correctly concluding that the current system offers no deterrent to rogue landlords.
The committee also points out that failing to ‘level up’ would create a two-tier system which discriminates against social housing tenants and residents:
Government promised to establish a new ombudsman for [private renters] with the power to award compensation of up to £25,000 … To tolerate a situation in which social housing tenants are not receiving the same levels of compensation as [private] tenants would amount to blatant discrimination.House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee – The Regulation of
Social Housing – First Report of Session 2022–23
The report argues that more punitive fines would help “concentrate the minds of boards and senior management teams on improving service standards”. But the Ombudsman needs a much greater level of resource – mainly staffing – to help it process referrals more quickly, and take on any increased demand, at least until complaint numbers drop because housing associations have upped their game.
MPs also want government to introduce new laws which require providers to self-assess against the Ombudsman’s complaint handling code (as this is currently voluntary), or for government to introduce a new regulatory standard to the same effect.
In our view, self-assessments rarely lead to improvements and represent the weakest form of regulation. As we have seen, without external oversight, the sector cannot be trusted.
Further, none of these measures will resolve the major problems for tenants and residents who have difficulty even taking the first step into a bureaucratic process. This might be because they have a lower level of formal education, don’t speak English as their first language, or have a mental health condition or a learning difficulty. Sometimes it is a combination of these factors.
Government needs to establish advocacy support for such tenants and residents, similar to that provided by Mind and Victim Support. This could be housed in a new organisation or within the Housing Ombudsman Service.
A series of measures are recommended by the committee to strengthen the hand of tenants and residents, and they make interesting reading.
In discussing the desire to create a ‘stronger tenant voice’, SHAC would firstly substitute the term voice with power. Being able to speak to someone does not mean that they will listen and act on what has been reported.
A tenants union must also include residents. These are shared owners and leaseholders whose buildings are owned or managed by a housing association. They suffer the same problems as full renters and deserve the same rights.
The report argues that social housing providers should “ensure their boards and senior management teams better reflect the diversity of their communities”. They want government “to establish a permanent national tenant voice body”, and for the “regulator to require providers to support the establishment of tenants and residents associations that are led by tenants and residents and not unduly influenced by providers.”
All of these calls are welcome of course, but SHAC is not confident that they will be introduced. The regulator, in its previous incarnation as the Tenant Services Authority, regulated tenant and resident engagement. These standards were however removed from the regulator’s powers around 2012.
The coalition government in power at the time argued that such requirements created an unreasonable burden of red tape and stifled housing association bosses. A number of MPs who served in the coalition government – Grant Shapps being one example – remain in power today.
The recommendation to ensure people from a diverse range of backgrounds are on the boards and senior management might help a little, but does fix the problem of corporate lack of understanding or empathy with social housing tenants and residents.
Because the landlord selects who will serve on its board and executive, then they will (and do) opt for those who support rather than challenge the status quo. The board members will be there to speak for themselves, not speak on behalf of, or be accountable to, the mass of tenants and residents.
Even if they did however introduce these measures, SHAC counters that there needs to be far more emphasis on democratic accountability to develop a genuine voice and a sustainable, healthy, collective power. We need elected representatives to outnumber non-elected board members and be backed by a system whereby representatives can be recalled and held to account by their constituents.
Similarly, any national tenant and resident union must be fully funded via government, but not beholden to them. Their structures should be created through democratic elections to keep them accountable and independent.
Our members also call for a new housing inspectorate, once again funded by government but very different to the bureaucratic inspection services in other sectors, and the previous housing inspection service. They want an organisation that is run by a tenant and resident body, not by civil servants.
Now It’s Time to Act
The committee’s report contains some welcome suggestions, but could be extended as outlined to really challenge the imbalance of power and authority between landlords, tenants and residents. Ultimately however, none of the bodies to which the committee has made its recommendations is obligated to act on them. The recommendations are purely advisory.
See more about SHAC’s policies here.
The following provides highlights from the report’s recommendations.
Recommendations for Government
Government shoud introduce funding specifically for regeneration and to deliver on its commitment to increase the supply of homes for social rent.
To prevent the further erosion of the social housing stock, Government should present a fully-funded plan for ensuring the one-for-one and like-for-like replacement of every home sold under Right to Buy.
Government should establish a permanent national tenant voice body to send the clearest possible signal that it intends to involve tenants in the national conversation about how to drive up standards in social housing.
Recommendations for Social Landlords
Providers should ensure their boards and senior management teams better reflect the diversity of their communities.
All providers that have not already done so must immediately review and where necessary improve their complaint handling processes.
Recommendations for the Regulator of Social Housing
As parts of its review of the consumer standards, the regulator should require providers to routinely audit the condition of their stock.
The regulator should also incorporate a requirement that boards and senior management teams better reflect the diversity of their communities into its revised consumer standards.
To strengthen tenant voice, the regulator should require providers to support the establishment of tenants and residents associations that are led by tenants and residents and not unduly influenced by providers.
To reverse the trend of some providers becoming too remote, the committee also recommends stronger wording of the regulator’s tenant involvement and empowerment standard to require providers to deliver housing services that are genuinely local and tenant centred.
The regulator should reconsider its interpretation of the duty to minimise interference and act proportionately, and to abandon the ‘systemic failure’ test. The report argues that the regulator’s decision to only intervene where there is evidence of systemic failure within the organisation concerned has created the most passive interpretation of its statutory duty imaginable.
Recommendations to the Ombudsman
The ombudsman has already been given the power to publish a complaint handling code and to issue complaint handling failure orders to providers that fail to deal with complaints properly. However, the Ombudsman should more proactively monitor providers’ compliance with the complaint handling code.
Government should amend the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to give the Ombudsman the power to order compensation of up to £25,000. This is based on the fact that a recent government White Paper aimed at reforming the private rented sector promises a new regulator with the power to award compensation of up to £25,000.
20 July 2022
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