Opinion: Why are we waiting? | News

Opinion: Why are we waiting?

By Colin Wiles, Housing Consultant.

It is over three years since the Social Housing Green Paper was published, offering to “rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords”. 

Over two years later the Social Housing White Paper was published, calling itself a “Charter for Social Housing Residents” and offering a menu of seven key principles: safe housing, more transparency and accountability, swifter resolution of complaints, stronger consumer standards, empowered residents, good quality decent homes, and (they couldn’t resist) support for homeownership. 

In launching the White Paper, Robert Jenrick promised that “never again would the voices of residents go unheard”. In their 2019 manifesto the Conservatives promised to “empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes”.

So far so good, but here we are over a year after the White Paper appeared and there is still no legislative timetable for social housing reform.

In the interim, ITV and others in the media have become de facto regulators, exposing horrendous conditions on social housing estates, and now moving on to examples of alleged racism in the way that social housing is run. 

The reputation of the sector is being shredded day by day.

Why are we waiting?

To fill the vacuum, the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) has published two recent reports that have some bearing on the White Paper. First, an updated sector risk profile was published on 19 October.

It highlights recent changes in the economic outlook (inflation up, interest rates up, labour shortages up, supply chain problems up) and the impacts of the pandemic and Brexit.

But its focus is almost exclusively on the economic standards: debt finance, diversification, income insecurities, labour shortages, pensions, and fraud, with only a passing mention of service delivery. 

I was told a while ago that the RSH had around 250 people working on the economic standards and only two working on the consumer standards.

Whether that balance is still the same I do not know but if the ratio is still anywhere close to 125 to 1, then it tells a sad story about the lack of urgency with which the regulator treats consumer regulation. Money talks.

Last week, like a nervous dinner guest filling an awkward silence, the RSH published some “preliminary ideas” about how the consumer standards might look in the future.

“Reshaping consumer regulation: our principles and approach” is a strange document because, not only is it badly written, but it says very little of any consequence other than setting out some vague principles about how regulation might work in the future.

The paper accepts that “most of these changes can only be made when parliament has passed legislation to change our objectives and legal powers” but it calls upon boards to pre-empt any legislation by looking at “how they can improve their services and engagement with tenants”. 

I would imagine any half-competent board is already doing that. But the “principles” and the “vision” set out in the report are also hardly new. We read that “landlords (should) maintain tenants’ homes so that they are safe and of a decent standard and that landlords provide a quality service. Where things go wrong, complaints are handled effectively, and things are put right. The relationship between tenants and landlords is underpinned by shared expectations of fairness and respect and a shared understanding of their respective rights and responsibilities. Landlords demonstrate that they understand the diverse needs of the communities that they serve, and their services reflect that.” 

Does this even need to be said? All of this can be found in the existing standards and guidance.

The report says that the key themes to be included in the consumer standards are safety, quality, neighbourhood, transparency, engagement and accountability, and tenancy. Again, is any of this new?

Probably the most encouraging proposal in the paper is a scheme to measure tenant satisfaction, and presumably this could be used to rank landlords in some way, and perhaps apply sanctions, although there is no clarity on how it could be implemented.

If the experience of Trustpilot is anything to go by, it could be open to manipulation by some landlords.

One of the key criticisms arising from the ITV reports is that the RSH does not talk to tenants. Daniel Hewitt of ITV tweeted about this in August: “So when we exposed the appalling living conditions on an estate in Mitcham owned by Clarion, the regulator launched an inquiry. It spoke to Clarion to get their side, but didn’t speak to any tenants or visit the estate. The regulator then cleared Clarion.”

The most telling diagram in the RSH report is this one. As you can see, there is no direct link between the RSH and tenants.

RSH image

Unless the long-awaited legislation allows the regulator to show some teeth, and make direct contact with tenants, I fear the criticism will grow louder.

The strange thing is that the regulator has the teeth, it is just that it has chosen not to bite. It also has the power to visit tenants in their homes. If you read this RSH document (‘Guidance on the regulator’s approach to intervention, enforcement and use of powers’) ,the 2008 Housing Act gives it a wide range of enforcement and regulatory powers.

It can instruct Homes England to stop grants, it can demand information, it can arrange surveys of properties (meeting tenants in the process) and re-charge the provider for the privilege.

It can order inquiries, impose fines, and require compensation to be paid. It can impose a manager, remove or impose board members, freeze bank accounts, and enforce mergers. To my knowledge, apart from imposing board members, the RSH seldom uses many of these powers. I would be happy to be told otherwise.

Perhaps if it actually sank its teeth into a handful of habitual offenders – pour encourager les autres – it could galvanise the sector to a degree that any number of inspections could never do, and be a lot cheaper to boot.