Last week we wrote that the Social Housing White Paper was a step in the right direction for residents of social housing – testament to three-and-a-half years of dedicated campaigning.
This blog highlights some of the key changes, and outlines what further work is needed. With the government leaving much of the detail to the Regulator of Social Housing, it’s important the framework set out in the White Paper translates into real improvements in how people’s homes are managed and maintained.
The need for better regulation
For years before the fire at Grenfell Tower, residents had complained that their homes were unsafe. They wrote blogs documenting what they described as the ‘managed decline’ of the buildings they lived in. But the changes needed to make their homes safe didn’t happen.
Landlords may believe they’re meeting regulatory and legal standards, so any system of regulation must make sure that, if residents have concerns, they can report potential breaches to a strong regulator, which will investigate and take action.
Below are some of the important asks we made, and how the government’s proposals measure up against them.
What did we call for, and what did we get?
1. Clearer consumer standards
First, we recommended that the four existing consumer standards are expanded to cover other issues important to residents, such as major works and service charges.
Second, some standards currently require social housing providers to have procedures, rather than prescribing what level of service should be delivered. For example, the complaints standards set no timescales, but require landlords to ‘have an approach’ to ensure ‘complaints are resolved promptly, politely and fairly’.
Vague standards make it hard both for residents to know what to expect, and for the Regulator to hold landlords to account. So, we called on the government to direct the Regulator to set specific consumer standards, with clear, minimum expectations, such as timelines for resolving complaints.
The White Paper says the government will work with the Regulator to review its consumer standards and expects it to introduce a set of tenant satisfaction measures on things that matter to tenants. A draft set of measures is suggested, but ultimately it’s for the Regulator to finalise them and make sure they work.
Verdict: This requirement on the Regulator sounds good, but we don’t yet know how specific the new standards will be. We’re also concerned about landlords self-reporting on tenant satisfaction – it’s important the Regulator responds to residents who report dissatisfaction and investigates and this isn’t just left to landlords.
2. Speedier resolution of complaints
In the past, unresolved individual complaints could only be referred to the Housing Ombudsman via an MP, councillor, or recognised tenant panel – known as the ‘democratic filter’. And once they did get to the Ombudsman, they took a long time to be resolved.
We strongly urged the government to go ahead with its proposal to remove the ‘democratic filter’ and for consumer redress to be sped up.
The White Paper confirms that plans to scrap the filter are being brought forward in the Building Safety Bill, and confirms the Ombudsman has already begun to speed up complaint resolution, aiming to halve resolution times by March 2022.
Verdict: Again, this is positive. The pressure is now on the Ombudsman to deliver. The government must guarantee enough funding for its services – especially as a proposed awareness campaign is likely to lead to many more complaints being referred.
3. A new separate and proactive consumer regulator
Our research revealed the Regulator of Social Housing is distant and unknown to tenants. Its primary focus has been on ensuring the financial viability of social housing providers, only stepping in to enforce consumer standards in cases of ‘serious detriment’ to residents. This reactive form of regulation is wholly inadequate.
We supported the proposed removal of the ‘serious detriment’ test, but – along with Grenfell United – we argued the government needed to be bolder, creating a new consumer regulator, solely focussed on protecting renters via regular, detailed inspection of landlords’ services.
Disappointingly, the White Paper instead promises a ‘new consumer function’ within the existing Regulator to support the removal of the ‘serious detriment test’. But there will be a system of regular inspections for large (over 1000 homes) and ‘high risk’ (such as those providing supported housing) landlords.
Verdict: These measures are a real improvement on the current system of regulation. The onus is now on the Regulator to develop an inspection regime with teeth. We expect inspections to be detailed, at short notice, and to cut through landlord self-reporting by directly asking residents for views.
4. Freedom of Information and transparency
To ensure residents can effectively challenge their landlord on poor service, it’s important they can request timely, useful information, e.g. on maintenance contracts. But housing associations are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (2000) allowing them to withhold information that tenants should reasonably expect to see.
We recommended the government extended Freedom of Information to housing associations and other organisations managing social housing.
Instead, the White Paper proposes a new ‘access to information scheme’, which will ‘allow tenants or their representatives to access information related to the management of social housing held by their landlord, and also relevant information that may be held by sub-contractors.’ Landlords will be able to withhold certain information ‘broadly aligned’ with the exemptions in the FOI Act 2000.
Verdict: While stopping short of extending FOIs to all landlords, this proposal appears to do so in all but name. The government need to be clear about exemptions and justify why the process should be any different for housing associations than for local authorities.
The Social Housing White Paper is a first positive step in winning back vital rights for social tenants. But it is just the start.
Last week we wrote about the importance of listening to tenants, whose expertise by experience cannot be underestimated. This should be the guiding principle for the months ahead. The Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman must commit to working with residents to ensure these proposals for better regulation and redress lead to real change on the ground.