Opinion: Let the regulator carry out snap inspections on safety

By Alistair McIntosh, CEO HQN

You can’t trust everyone to do the right thing.

Why do I say that? Well, I’m on the road most days and the way people drive is truly shocking.

Lots of motorists pay no attention at all to zebra crossings, red lights and speed limits. And why would they look up from their phones to bother with any of that?

There are no police around so you get off scot-free. Not so fast! The police are now deploying military-grade drones to catch the wrong’uns. As they put it, “deterrence is sometimes best achieved through intense enforcement”.

You can say that again. This is exactly what we need in housing, too.

Inside Housing has been looking into whether RPs keep the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) in the loop on safety. That’s what they are supposed to do as part and parcel of co-regulation. You’re meant to work together to make sure tenants are safe. Is this happening?

Hardly anyone picked up the phone to call the RSH until the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Why would they? No one was bothering too much about the consumer standards at that time.

Of course after the deaths in the fire the RSH took many more calls. All of a sudden the stakes were higher. It turns out that things could go wrong. And when they did, there was no hiding place. So everyone became a stickler for the rules. Or did they?

Yes, more housing associations are telling the RSH about safety issues. Do you know when they do this?

All too often they make that call on the very eve of an in-depth assessment visit from the regulator. That’s not good enough by a long chalk, is it?

Why is this so worrying? It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that co-regulation is a busted flush.

The RSH can have no confidence at all that it is finding out about safety problems at the right time. So it is a sitting duck. It needs to fix this fast.

And it is quite obvious that some of our boards switch on only at exam time. This is a common problem with boards of all stripes. Have a read of The Intelligence Trap by David Robson.

It explains why smart people do stupid things. He finds that the sorts of clever people we put on boards can be “misers” with their minds and they really do only get in gear as an exam looms. We know this is so, but we pretend it doesn’t happen.

I’m sorry to say that co-regulation is based by and large on guesswork. The RSH doesn’t get into enough housing associations to find out what is happening on the ground. And too many boards are crammers. If we leave things as they are, one day our luck – and that is what it is – will run out.

So how do we sort this out? It’s not a hard one. We know what works. The police are on the right lines. If boards think that the RSH will spot safety problems then the boards will try harder.

It really is that simple. But it costs money. Is it worth it? Well, put it like this: if we have another screw-up on safety it will be the end of the sector. Yes, we need to give the RSH more cash. We are drinking in the last chance saloon. Here’s what I would do.

I would give the regulator the people and powers to go out looking for trouble. Launching a programme of snap inspections of safety would have a big impact on behaviour. That will make all boards wake up and do the right thing. It’s the weakest link that will let us all down.

We need to think about who actually goes out and does the visits. How should we divvy up the inspections between the RSH, the Health and Safety Executive and the new tall buildings regulator?

I don’t care what lanyard they are wearing at all. But I want the job done by eagle-eyed experts, not box-tickers. That’s what matters.

At the minute the RSH goes on site to check on the economic standards but not the consumer ones.

It has literally walked past wooden balconies to look at the books. That’s the wrong way around. But it’s the law. Once again showing that the law is an ass.

The RSH is doing all it can even though it is stuck inside a straitjacket. Will they get set free with more powers? We find out soon.

Sadly, there is a blimp on the horizon.

Boris Johnson wants to cut back on regulation. Did you hear his speech about how red tape was strangling the kipper industry?

It turns out it’s not even our kippers he was banging on about. Never mind it went down a storm with the faithful. We need to be wary about this.

The last thing we should be doing is easing the rules on safety. We know the consequences.

Give the RSH the money it needs to do the job. And can boards treat each day as a test day? You’ve got the ability. Use it.