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By Rob Gershon, HQN Residents’ Network Lead Associate
Last week’s Shelter commission report on the future of social housing featured a number of sound bites about how many homes England should build to meet housing need, and how much it would cost to make these genuinely affordable.
This debate continues to be important – especially at a time when the results of recent Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government ministerial roadshows indicate that tenants are acutely aware of the difference between rents set at a council/social/living rent level, and more recent additions to housing products like so-called ‘affordable rents’ and shared ownership.
Leading the recommendations at the back of the report, however, are the commission’s views on what needs to change in the regulation of social housing. The commission only came about as a result of the fire at Grenfell Tower and was in part a response to the community in North Kensington consulting Shelter on what could ensure change.
To this end, the commission looked at a range of issues around how to ensure tenants are not ignored, and how to implement an effective system of regulation when the imbalance in power between landlords and tenants requires action to ensure neighbourhoods and communities have a say in how their homes are run, and ultimately protected from harm.
Here we take a look at some of those recommendations and interpret what they could mean. Alongside the commission report of course, the government is still expected to produce responses to the Social Housing Green Paper, and a separate consultation on the regulation of social housing that was held at the same time in 2018.
The government should create a new consumer regulator to protect renters and ensure their voices are heard. This should operate alongside the Regulator of Social Housing, focused on its core economic brief.
Part of the Shelter position on changing regulation is driven by the ideas coming from Grenfell United about changes to the regulator.
In other sectors when there have been disasters, such as in banking, new regulators have been created to protect consumers. Much like in the housing sector today, banking used to only have a regulator that dealt with governance and financial viability.
After the financial crash and a range of scandals where banks were failing to protect their customers, the regulator was effectively split in two. One half continued to look at the operational governance and viability of banks, but the other made them responsible for the policies they operate and the actions they take.
Under the system of financial regulation, senior managers and executives at banks have to put their names to the policies and actions of their departments and businesses, and where they breach regulatory standards individuals are expected to resign, and if they have broken any laws will be prosecuted. It is too early to say whether changes to the housing regulator will follow these principles.
Social housing residents need better protection. Government should require standards of social housing to be proactively inspected, publicly reported, and strongly enforced in order to hold failing landlords to account.
Currently, the ‘consumer standards’ expected of landlords are not reviewed or enforced in any way. This ‘light touch’ approach to regulation means that ensuring home, tenancy, involvement and engagement, and neighbourhood and community standards are upheld is a voluntary exercise on the part of landlords themselves.
If residents are to be protected and given a voice, there must be clearer standards for social housing providers. The government should direct the regulator to make consumer standards more specific; setting clear, minimum expectations, like timescales for dealing with complaints.
This recommendation would mean a return to some form of inspectorate, perhaps along the lines of an audit commission, which would measure whether or not landlords were meeting their responsibilities set against some clearly published expectations.
Landlords who classify tenants as vexatious would not be able to do so when tenants were merely trying to resolve issues that have gone unheard. Guidance for complaints handling would mean tenants could escalate issues if landlords fail to respond to them within a timescale and in a clear enough manner expected by the regulator.
All groups of residents (whether recognised by their landlords or not) should be able to refer their concerns directly to the new regulator where they have common concerns they believe are caused by a systemic failing in the landlord’s services.
After the closure of the Tenant Services Authority and National Tenant Voice, the then Department of Communities and Local Government laid out a plan to suggest tenant and resident associations and panels could scrutinise the actions of their landlords. This has not led to a wide adoption of the model, and tenants who cannot get their residents to recognise them – often as a result of a failure of complaint or dispute resolution – have no way to have their voices heard.
This recommendation would mean that tenants do not have to be hand-picked by their landlords or approved by them to raise their valid concerns with the regulator.
Residents should not have to prove they might be at risk of serious detriment for the regulator to intervene. The government should remove the ‘serious detriment’ test for intervention in complaints about social housing, which is a barrier to proper enforcement of consumer standards.
This calls for the ‘serious detriment’ test – a meaningless bar for referral to the regulator at the best of times – to be removed. Tenants should not have to prove that a failing is systemic at an organisation, or essentially life-threatening, for the regulator to act to protect them.
To make it easier for social renters to get redress on individual complaints, barriers to complaining must be removed. The government should remove the democratic filter for referral to the Housing Ombudsman.
This recommendation is specific to the escalation of complaints by tenants to the Housing Ombudsman. Under current rules, a tenant cannot take their complaint to the ombudsman immediately unless they have the approval of their local MP or a local councillor. This ‘democratic filter’ has not prevented the average resolution time by the ombudsman from being eight months.
Tenants who do not refer their complaints through the local MP or councillor – where councils can sometimes also be the landlord – are expected to wait eight weeks for no apparent reason before their complaint is even looked at by the ombudsman.
Each of these recommendations looks at one aspect of the way housing is overseen by government, but, taken together, the implications for what will need to change if these sorts of proposals come through upcoming guidance from government are significant – certainly compared to the way that the relationships between landlords and tenants, but also landlords and the regulator, are conducted at present.