By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO

True to his word, Michael Gove has brought back inspection for social housing – thus reversing the mistake Grant Shapps made by abolishing it in the first place. But Shapps never learns. As defence secretary, he’s cutting troop numbers while puffing out his chest to boast of our might. Nothing to worry about here, is his message.  Now, where have you heard that cuts without consequences line before? Shapps’ antics were a disaster for tenants, so I fear for the safety of the whole country with him in charge.

Anyway, back to housing. From 1 April (I know) inspection does in fact return. I’ve been working with landlords large and small all over the country to get ready and these are the tips I would pass on.

Every contact matters

Let’s keep it simple. The RSH’s new standards cover just about every contact you have with tenants and shared owners. So, make sure the folk taking calls, writing e-mails and repairing homes are spot on.

Ombudsman reports are full of examples of careless emails. How can we avoid these own goals? Training is the obvious answer. But it takes a while to cut in. Many places I go directors are directors in name only. They’re having to spend much of their time checking and checking again the quality of letters to make sure they get to the point. This is plugging the gaps but sucking out the thinking time that directors need to drive real change.

Data is king – for now

The RSH is really good at probing data for flaws. They have years of experience of checking the quality of safety data from their in-depth assessments. You’ve got to make sure that you calculate the measures for gas, electrics, fire, asbestos, water and lifts accurately. Be sure to get the work vetted by qualified experts.

Inspectors will want to look at the data you hold on all your homes. Do you know what works need doing where? How up to date is your stock survey? How many homes does it cover? And, crucially, are you acting on the findings? Are you dealing with damp and mould effectively? Where’s the cash coming from to pay for all the works?

Do you know who’s behind every door? is a question the RSH will pose. Are you tailoring the service around the challenges an individual tenant might face?

Many landlords are disappointed by the low satisfaction ratings they’re getting for dealing with complaints and ASB. This may not be the end of the world so long as the figures are accurate and you have credible plans to get better.

Landlords with poor-quality data will fail inspections. We expect there will be lots of cases like these in the early years.

Leaders – check yourself before you wreck yourself

The way it’s supposed to work is that boards or councils must satisfy themselves that they’re meeting the consumer standards. Then the RSH will come in from time to time to inspect that your system is watertight.

So, the big question for chairs, lead members and chief executives from the RSH is this – Can you prove that you’re meeting the standards? In all honesty, few will be saying yes, we are for all services. That’s when the robustness of improvement plans will come to the fore.

Take a critical look at your performance reports. Do they really get to grips with the standards? Show the workings – state the evidence for the assessments. And a plea from my heart: can we have realistic improvement plans, not wish lists. We don’t want keyword bingo – instead we need plans that are (you know what’s coming) specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound (SMART).

Tenants, shared owners and frontline workers spot things first – so listen

The Audit Commission’s Housing Inspectorate of yore pushed for SMART plans. They also coined the phrase ‘Seeing is Believing’ to sum up their approach. And they were right to do so. The RSH will go down the same road in the end.

As sure as eggs is eggs, the RSH will come across cases where the board sounds sublime and the data shows nothing but green lights. Yet the tenants and whistleblowers tell a very different tale. That’s when it’s time to deploy shoe leather (or vegan alternative) and get out to meet and greet on the estates.

Since the demise of the Housing Inspectorate and the start of the new regime, we’ve seen a sharp hike in the number of large associations covering many localities. It’ll be tricky for the RSH to write a report that’s recognisably the truth for all tenants wherever they are. But it’s their duty to do so.

It’s not difficult for HQN to identify what’s going wrong at a landlord. Call centre workers, operatives, managers, tenants and shared owners are very happy to talk to us. Pedalling around the homes tells you a lot about the management of shared spaces, ASB and investment needs. The RSH will have to do much the same. No official body can rely on second-hand information.

Years ago, when I was at a firm that became PwC, I watched floors of young graduates pore over leatherbound volumes of Soviet production data. It was of no help at all in finding out what was really happening with railway bogie production in Kazakhstan. Of course, our data is better than that, but we must all get out more for a sharp intake of reality.

Don’t wait to be inspected – many landlords don’t meet the standards yet

If you don’t comply with the consumer standards it may be time to tell the RSH. They expect you to be self-aware and to self-refer. It’s a legal obligation, so you’ve got to do it. On the plus side, it demonstrates that you’re honest and that could go in your favour with the RSH when it thinks about what to do next. Ministers are chomping at the bit for the RSH to pass on huge fines and step in to do the repairs. Don’t give them any excuse to do this. It seems the RSH is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Try to give them the heads up.

Inspection is an opportunity to shine

In effect, the RSH will be doing a stocktake of the quality of management in our sector. Everyone knows that many (maybe even most) landlords don’t meet the consumer standards as of today. That raises the question: could someone else do the job better? Based on my extensive travels, the answer is a firm ‘no’. Staff I meet are truly capable and are more often than not going the extra mile. But they need a big injection of cash to get things right. If an official body like the RSH arrives at the same conclusion, that’s powerful evidence to place before a new government. So, get to it.

Last word

People are telling me that if you think safety and quality is bad in social housing, take a look at temporary housing for the homeless. That’s the bigger risk. You’ve got more vulnerable people enduring worse conditions. Surely the RSH should be inspecting this too?! There’s such a lot to do to overturn the years of malign neglect triggered by Shapps and his ilk.