Over recent weeks Government has finally taken some action to improve housing associations and their performance. A few of the ideas were already in train, but others have been triggered by recent catastrophic events such as the coroner’s ruling on toddler Awaab Ishak’s death.
One such initiative comes directly from Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities (DLUHC) is a new, UK-wide consultative Social Housing Quality Resident Panel. The idea was announced in March and the panel recently held its first meeting.
The Panel Scrutinised
Gove claims that the panel will advise government on raising the quality of social housing. Panel members had to apply to join, and numbers were limited to 250.
On the positive side, the panel is diverse and representative. A majority (80%) are female, and 36% are disabled. Members have been recruited from across the country, and 80% live in housing associations properties.
One attendee reported that
There seemed to be a genuine desire to empower housing association residents in the wake of Grenfell and Awaab Ishak’s death.
The initial focus was on improving the complaints process. Panel members submitted some ideas which have been acknowledged by the Department.
This meant that there was no opportunity to question landlord behaviour in general, not least the creeping and now sometimes blatant commercialisation of the sector, with all that entails for resident disempowerment and maltreatment, housing association mismanagement, and so–on.
The size of the panel is cumbersome too, with 250 members providing too many views for agility and speed of governmental action.
There may be opportunities next year as the process continues to raise the wider issues such as an entirely skewed housing association ethos, and consequent lack of ethical behaviour. These opportunities will be taken, and judging by some of the comments on the feed, not solely by me.”
Ultimately however the panel does not fill the real gap. Almost every housing association has a similar forum. The problem here is not that tenants and residents are failing to speak out, but that the forces compelling housing associations and government to ignore them are overwhelmingly powerful. In SHAC’s view, the new measures do not change this equation.
Another New Housing Bill
The Housing Quality Panel and other measures come as a new Social Housing Regulation Bill goes through Parliament. It begs the question: why is the new Residents Panel being created after the Bill has gone through Parliament, and not before?
Gove claims that the new legislation will introduce new enforcement powers to fine and punish failing social landlords, reduce discrimination against disabled tenants and residents, and publicly name and shame underperforming landlords.
Naming and shaming is a favoured government strategy. Judgements by the Regulator, Ombudsman, and Tribunals are already made public. Yet that has not staunched the steep decline of sector standards.
Government also claims that the new legislation will get housing associations to deal swiftly and effectively with housing complaints, not least repairs, and that they will have to increase the number of properly trained staff so that they have the ability to do this.
Finally, a new minimum energy efficiency standard is also included in the provisions.
Crucially, however, there has been no restoration of legal aid to cover the full range of housing issues. This was slashed back in 2012. The Housing Law Practitioners Association reported in 2018 on the damage this had done to those pursuing housing-related cases. The Department of Justice recently announced a marginal extension of legal aid, but only to help those facing eviction.
Nor is Government planning to reverse the cap on compensation for disrepairs cases. This was introduced following sustained lobbying by HA executives, led by Riverside Housing. This manoeuvre – both a demonstration of deviousness and an abuse of landlord power – only came to light when an internal Riverside document was leaked to SHAC. Access to justice still remains elusive for those in council, housing association, or private rentals.
Measuring Tenant Satisfaction
From April 2023 the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) will begin to collect data on levels of tenant satisfaction. This should show how well larger housing associations have performed. Twelve of the Tenant Satisfaction Measures (TSMs) will be measured through tenant surveys, although the remaining ten will be assessed using landlord information.
Most housing associations already report on satisfaction levels. Clarion boasts that more than 80% of residents are happy, based on carefully controlled corporate research. It is widely seen as a failing landlord by tenants and residents in the real world
The new Tenant Satisfaction measures could provide the public with more information about how landlords perform, but this is irrelevant to individuals either already in a housing association property, or waiting to be housed by one. Those in housing need have little choice over landlord selection.
Super Charged Victim Blaming
One final measure is worth reviewing. Next spring, Gove’s department will also be launching a surreal training scheme “helping [tenants and residents] to raise issues with their landlord”. It is surreal because it is hard to envisage any other sector where the end users (or ‘customers’ as housing associations like to call them) are thought to need training to make complaints.
The training scheme encapsulates much of what is wrong with the government’s approach. It is the ultimate in victim blaming. Collectively, the proposals imply that the cause of mould-ridden, rat-infested, and dilapidated housing is that tenants and residents just don’t know how to complain properly.
As we know at SHAC, complaints are made, but often completely ignored. This is especially true when it comes to nonsensical service charges, disrepairs, and anti-social behaviour.
The gradual privatisation of public housing that started with the transfer of council homes to Housing Associations, some of which are now subsidiaries of profit-making organisations, has exacerbated this trend.
This commercialisation grates against the sector’s original social purpose. The sector now relies heavily on city finance, which in turn compels them to focus on the development of housing for rent or sale on the open market above the need to ensure that tenants and residents are housed properly.
The clash of diametrically opposed forces was recently laid bare when the Regulator declared a ‘for profit provider’ to be in breach of both governance and finance standards. The Regulatory Judgement concerned Heylo Housing which is backed by the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock.
The Regulator’s concerns particularly related to financial arrangements that Heylo had entered into with investment partners. These could “require it to surrender its leases in short order to protect the lender’s interest.” The Regulator did not consider that Heylo was able to properly manage arrangements with these investors, and had effectively ceded control of social housing assets.
Registered housing association Heylo is part of the BlackRock finance group
There were also governance failings, with Heylo failing to give proper oversight or control of the managing agent. Board members did not have clear roles, responsibilities, accountabilities, terms of reference, standing orders, or a framework of delegation.
In an Inside Housing interview, Heylo chief executive Andrew Geczy countered that that Regulator did not understand the “unique Heylo structure” in the context of the for-profit group, and accused it of a bias towards traditional housing association models.
Heylo added that its investment partners had been vetted by Homes England. This body, like the Regulator of Social Housing, is a subsidiary of Gove’s department, and distributes the affordable housing grant. It is the body that Gove relies on to deliver public housing supply, creating a further tension in government policy. Effectively, the Regulator has declared the recipient of funding by Homes England unfit to manage those funds. Both organisations report to the LUHC.
A Dose of Democracy Needed
This all underscores the need for government to get serious about the complex issues affecting the sector, and for much greater coherence across regulation, public investment, housing law, and tenants’ rights. Government must turn away from blaming the victims of poor housing, and start empowering tenants and residents. This requires fundamental reforms, not rearranging the deckchairs while the Titanic sinks.
The starting point for any fix must entail a good dose of democracy, and specifically, landlords being made democratically accountable to the tenants and residents they house. This was more in evidence when the majority of public housing was provided by councils (and councillors). A desire to remove such accountability was a powerful rationale driving government to favour housing associations and introduce the stock transfer legislation of the 1980s.
There is a fundamental conflict between this form of democratic accountability and being in hock to financial institutions like BlackRock which are legally bound to maximise their profits, with human or environmental costs secondary.
Thus a further fundamental change would need to be a return to grant funding public housing, preferably under the control of councils, instead of private organisations (like housing associations) whose boards prefer to spend time discussing how best to please lenders and invest in exciting new financial derivatives than how to satisfy the needs of people and communities.
2 January 2023
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