At an HQN session with local authorities at the end of August, Kate Dodsworth, Director of Consumer Regulation at the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH), set out some timescales and key priorities for housing associations and local authorities to help them prepare for the new regulation regime. Jon Land reports.

Changes to the way social housing is regulated have been talked about since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

A government green paper published in 2018, followed by a white paper in 2020, set out the general direction of travel – with the focus on a long overdue desire to recalibrate the landlord-tenant relationship. Priorities around safety, good quality homes and a respectful relationship with tenants are key to the vision.

We are finally starting to see some of the proposed changes turn into something more tangible.

The Social Housing (Regulation) Bill laid before Parliament back in June will change the regulatory approach from reactive to proactive, with a new inspection regime in the pipeline and landlords to be held to account against revised consumer standards. Landlords will also need to publish a set of Tenant Satisfaction Measures (TSMs).

The current time scales around the bill depend on potential amendments. However, there is hope that it might be enacted sometime in Spring 2023. This would then give RSH the green light to consult on the new consumer standards. Although it is unlikely any new inspection regime will be in place before 2024, there’s much to do in the meantime for landlords.

Movement on the TSMs is expected to happen sooner. Kate says a decision statement on the TSMs is due in ‘early autumn’ with landlords expected to get ‘systems in place’ to report on the new measures by early 2023, with the first full year of TSMs running from April 2023 to March 2024.

“When the consultation on the TSMs closed in March, we had more than 1,000 responses,” she said. “We were very encouraged that 55% of responses were from tenants.

“Some tenants expressed concerns that the TSMs could be used for ‘gaming the system’ and lead to unintended consequences (painting a positive picture and hiding reality) but overall, the response was very positive.

“It’s my view that the TSMs will be incredibly useful for tenants and RSH to scrutinise the performance of landlords but they will primarily serve as a ‘can opener’ in that they will help inform our approach to inspection and be useful for trend analysis, for example.”

The consultation and engagement with tenants throughout the process also showed that repairs and communication (often both together) were the main concerns.

“We’ve said this often enough that landlords need to be getting this nailed now,” she said.

One of the key messages delivered at the HQN session was that to deliver the cultural change required to evidence assurance on tenant concerns, all landlords need to have started preparations now.

Kate stressed that getting on top of data collection and management is imperative to meet current and future consumer standards.

“Data needs to be in top notch order – tenants, diverse needs, geography, stock condition, complaints, health and safety compliance. You must be on top of this and getting ready now,” she said.

“There are lots of clues in data on tenants and stock condition that will help you prioritise areas for investment and improvements. But equally, I have seen lots of board reports about satisfaction – identifying some of these issues but there has been no deep dive into these areas and no evidence of assurance. You need to be working on an action plan for this.”

She said landlords need to develop a dashboard that is going to give boards/councillors/senior teams assurance that tenant needs are being met.

“What does your dashboard look like? Put it this way, it cannot be an Excel spreadsheet tucked away in a drawer, it needs to be clear, current and transparent,” she said.

Kate also shone some light on what the RSH anticipates the new inspection regime might look like.

“For local authorities, it might be helpful to understand our In-Depth Assessment process as a starting point for preparation,” she explained.

Here are the key elements:

  • Some notice given that RSH is ‘coming to town’
  • A period where documents are assembled and RSH can ask for specific documents – board papers/audit risk papers etc – often tailored to specific issues for that landlord
  • RSH then gives notice when it will start inspection
  • Interviews of key players – Board chair/CEO/Chair of audit and risk (this can be swapped for councillors in local authorities)

“In the new world, we’ll also engage with tenants and test assurance against what landlords are telling us.

“If we get the green light in early 2023 to consult on our revised consumer standards then we would hope to be out gathering assurance against those in 2024,” she added.

“We have used a range of LA specific organisations as part of our soundings such as LGA, NFA, ARCH, NFTMOs and London Councils etc. We’ll continue to develop our model in dialogue with a range of stakeholders. In terms of symmetry with PRPs, whilst LAs don’t have boards they do have governance with reporting lines from the customer facing side of the service to the top of the organisation. That’s important.”

She emphasised that some councillors would be more knowledgeable than others when it came to housing. This made it essential for data, evidence and assurance to be “really clear and transparent so that people who aren’t from a housing background can see key trends and issues”.

She added that culture is key to both for local authorities and housing associations.

“We encourage self-referrals [where consumer standards have been breached] but sometimes this only happens where there are new teams,” she explained. “It’s helpful to reflect on the culture that is needed to make this happen universally. If that is about facilitating a culture where problems can be surfaced as quickly as possible in order to be put right, then that isn’t going to happen overnight.”

In the pivot to proactive consumer regulation, Kate emphasised the importance of capturing the feedback of tenants. Tenant assurance will be an important addition to the design of any new model of inspection.

“Of the unacceptable examples we’ve seen in the media over the last 12 months, it’s really crucial tenants are clear on how they can seek redress – through the landlord’s own complaints process and, for individual complaints, via the Housing Ombudsman,” she said.

“For senior teams, what evidence do you need to establish to give boards and local councillors their own assurance that none of these issues lurk within your own landlord services. How do you know it isn’t you?”