By Roger Jarman, HQN Associate

As purdah kicks in prior to the local elections in May, and Parliament packs up for the Easter holidays, on the 29 March DLUHC announced a raft of developments associated with the implementation of the Social Housing White Paper (SHWP).

After a slow start following the publication of SHWP in November 2020, we have recently seen the department give an update on the Decent Homes review and the launch of its evaluation of the sector’s professional training.

The RSH has been busy too with the publication of its pithy consultation document, Reshaping consumer regulation: Our principles and approach, last November. And between December and March, the regulator consulted on its proposals for reintroducing statutory PIs for the sector (to be known as Tenant Satisfaction Measures or TSMs).

On top of all this activity the DLUHC Select Committee has been examining the regulation of social housing in England. Written evidence was submitted to the inquiry in December and witnesses have given oral evidence to MPs at three sittings since January.

The initiatives announced on 29 March provide more details about what will be included in the Social Housing Regulation Bill, that secretary of state Michael Gove has suggested will be published in either May or June. So, we now know that there will be a ‘naming and shaming’ of landlords that breach the regulator’s consumer standards. A resident panel will also be established so that tenants can have their say on how the quality of social housing can be improved. Another development sees the publication of a factsheet explaining the different roles of the RSH and the Housing Ombudsman Service.

The factsheet is welcome. Since the coalition government effectively abandoned consumer regulation with the provisions in the Localism Act 2011, the interests of social housing tenants have been largely ignored at a national level – by government and the various social housing regulators created after the demise of the Audit Commission and the Tenant Services Authority. With the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 all that changed. Ministers realised the regulation of social housing was not “fit for purpose” and the almost exclusive focus on financial viability and governance was misplaced.

So, the lead up to the prospective changes in the law governing the regulation of social housing was born. But the vacuum associated with the abandonment of consumer regulation was crying out to be filled in the period after the fire at Grenfell Tower. The Ombudsman service was well placed to occupy that space. Nevertheless, it was not until the appointment of Richard Blakeway as Housing Ombudsman in September 2019 that the sector really saw what could be achieved by a proactive service which was focussed on championing tenants’ interests in disputes with landlords delivering substandard services.

In two and a half short years – a lot under lockdown conditions – the Ombudsman has put in place significant reforms to the delivery of the agency’s services. Complaint Handling Failure Orders have been introduced along with an associated Complaint Handling Code. Powers are being put in place so that the RSH can work with the Ombudsman on dealing with systemic failure in the sector. And an Annual Review of Complaints has only recently been published, setting out in a transparent and accessible way how the Ombudsman is discharging his duties.

But, significantly, in the context of the reforms announced on 29 March, the Ombudsman has created a resident panel which “provides an opportunity for residents of member landlords to be involved in the development of our service as well as giving us direct feedback on their experience of using our service and how we can increase awareness”. Furthermore, since March last year the Ombudsman has been publishing the details of the complaints against individual landlords and associated determinations. Previously much of this information was anonymised.

Sound familiar?

Ministers have obviously been impressed by the well-connected Richard Blakeway (former Deputy Mayor of London under Boris Johnson). Many of the new ideas coming out of DLUHC on social housing regulation come straight out of the Ombudsman’s playbook.

It is no wonder we need a factsheet to explain what the respective services do in protecting the interests of social housing tenants. What we do not want are turf wars as the two agencies figure out where they stand in the new regulatory environment. That will be in no one’s interest – least of all tenants hoping that the changes in regulation will deliver what ministers have been promising them.