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730 days later - where are we two years on from the Social Housing Green Paper?

Posted: 14/08/2020


The sector waited for the Social Housing Green Paper (the SHGP) with bated breath and we were promised it would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. However, its arrival saw little meat on the bones of the commentary which preceded its arrival.

Although the follow-up white paper - which was promised for spring 2019 - is yet to arrive, delayed in the mire of Brexit negotiations, we are told that we won’t have to wait much longer. In the interim, how has the housing sector fared in addressing the key principles identified in the SHGP and what’s next?

The SHGP set out the Government’s five principles for “a new deal for social housing” and this article revisits them in turn below.

Decent and safe homes

Published 14 months after the Grenfell Tower fire, the SHGP noted that the last review of the Decent Homes Standard was in 2006 and asked, as part of the consultation, whether this should be reviewed.

Today, 26 months after the Grenfell disaster, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry rumbles on and, while we have seen a consultation on the Future Homes Standard (which proposes to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes), no steps have been taken to consult on or review the Decent Homes Standard.

We have seen the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 come into law in March 2019 which, while operating under a different remit to the Decent Homes Standard, was aimed at ensuring that rental homes were safe. The Act empowered social housing tenants to take action against their landlord where the property failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard. We are yet to see the full impact of the Act and assess its full impact, given that it has only applied to nearly all existing tenancies since 20 March 2020.

Most recently, the draft Building Safety Bill was published. It aims to improve building and fire safety and is the result of Dame Judith Hackett’s proposals following her review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety published in May 2018. Alongside proposals to introduce a new Building Safety Regulator, the bill would impose more stringent requirements on the built environment sector around building safety standards.

Effective resolution of disputes

The SHGP emphasised the need to improve and speed up the resolution of complaints, particularly in the light of evidence of Grenfell residents’ complaints falling on deaf ears for years before the tragedy occurred. The handling of complaints was one of the prevailing concerns raised by tenants during the then housing minister(s) roadshow in the build up to the SHGP.

The Housing Ombudsman has recently published a new Complaint Handling Code, which was developed in conjunction with sector stakeholders and provides greater powers to the Housing Ombudsman. It is intended that the code will enable boards to foster a culture of learning which can then be used to drive improvements in service delivery and, ultimately, lead to better relationships between landlords and their tenants.

The code certainly has teeth when it comes to addressing landlords whose compliance with the code is of “significant concern” and creates a direct link between the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman. Our useful article answering key questions about the code can be read here.

Empowering tenants and strengthening the Regulator

The SHGP raised the question of giving the Regulator “sharper teeth” and suggested the introduction of league tables relating to performance of services such as repairs and neighbourhood management. Housing associations’ performance would be scored against key performance indicators with the possibility of penalising low-performing landlords by limiting their ability to apply for grant funding.

After the SHGP initial consultation closed in November 2018 there was widespread push back against league tables following warnings that they could prove counter-productive and encourage the wrong priorities. As a result, it’s now understood that it is unlikely that league tables will be introduced.

Regarding regulation, the SHGP linked to an accompanying consultation on the ‘Review of social housing regulation’ which specifically focused on the consumer standards. This closed in November 2018 and, according to the Government website, the feedback is still being analysed.

The current role of the Regulator and its statutory obligations to ‘minimise interference’ and act in a way which is ‘proportionate, consistent, transparent and accountable’ is prescribed in legislation. Any move away from this, particularly when strengthening the Regulator’s powers in relation to how it enforces the consumer standards, would require a change in law.

Given Brexit, trade talks, Covid-19, a worldwide economic crisis etc, any legal amendment to give effect to a strengthened regulatory role has, understandably, not been tabled. Similarly, the Regulator simply doesn’t currently have the resources available to absorb a proactive approach to regulation of the consumer standards.

But the Regulator has reiterated that all housing providers should be able to demonstrate compliance across all aspects of the consumer standards. This includes how providers engage with tenants, how neighbourhood issues are dealt with, and that tenants’ homes are safe and meet the full range of statutory health and safety obligations.

The 2018/19 English Housing Survey concluded that private tenants were more satisfied than social tenants. There’s plenty of discourse as to why this is so but, in short, the results arguably demonstrate that there’s still a lot to be done when it comes to empowering social housing tenants.

Since the SHGP, there has been a lack of Government action in relation to this point but the sector is leading the way regardless. Lots of organisations are prioritising tenant engagement within business plans. The National Housing Federation’s ‘Together with Tenants’ charter launched with 133 early adopter housing associations signing up to it.

The charter aims to make housing associations more accountable to tenants. The National Housing Federation also released the final consultation on its Code of Governance (the draft code) in early August. The draft code, which was built on the back of sector responses to the initial consultation, contains more emphasis on accountability to stakeholders, including residents.

It includes new explicit requirements for:

  • opportunities and information to be provided to allow residents to scrutinise the work of the organisation and to hold it to account; and
  • people with direct experience or particular insight into the communities services by the organisation to be represented in board or committee structures.

Compliance with the charter will go some way to evidencing this.

Addressing stigma

A common thread running through the SHGP was stigma. Two years on, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement highlighting worldwide problems with prejudice, the uncomfortable truth that ‘institutional indifference’ lives on sadly continues to ring true.

So much more still needs to be done when it comes to addressing stigma within the housing sector. Unfortunately, given the lack of tangible suggestions proposed in the SHGP, not much has been done to directly address this. Take a look at our thoughtful article considering ‘Housing’s diversity challenge – time for a bold approach to embracing inclusive leadership’ here.

It should also be noted that the current Government’s focus on home ownership and language about providing renters with the “chance” to own their own home won’t do anything to allay the ‘poor door’ connotations still occasionally linked to social housing. When you compare England’s attitude towards social housing with, for example, the Netherlands where almost one in three houses is a social housing unit, it is clear that attitudes can be very different. But changing the current attitude would require a complete overhaul of the English approach to home ownership.

Design was one area noted with a role to play in reducing stigma. In October 2019, Norwich Council’s Goldsmith Street was awarded the prestigious RIBA Stirling prize, the first time a social housing project has won the award. This was heralded by some as overdue recognition of the importance of good social housing design.

The final report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was also published in January 2020. The report openly challenged some Government policy (for example, it recommends that the Government should stop the sale of public land to the highest bidder) and voiced support for sustainable, affordable and high quality over quantity developments.

January was a lifetime ago compared to where we are now, seven months later. As the Government and the housing market struggle in the wake of Covid-19, we wait to see what steps, if any, will be taken by the Government to truly address these issues.

Boosting the supply of social housing and supporting home ownership

Linked to the need for good quality design, the need for more social homes was also acknowledged as vitally important within the SHGP. Although the Government recognised the importance of social housing in the SHGP, stating: “social housing remains central to our supply ambitions”, we have continued to see shifting uncertainty in the relationship between housing associations and the Government. As mentioned above, the Government has a clear preference to boost home ownership.

A key focus was supporting local authorities to build and, since August 2018, we’ve seen the local authority borrowing cap scrapped and the number of local authorities creating their own house building companies (including some established through a joint venture) increasing. Homes England also announced more strategic partnership rounds with funding of more than £1.74 billion provided to housing associations to assist in delivering housing targets.

It was also announced recently that the Affordable Homes Programme would be extended from 2021 with a multi-year settlement of £12.2 billion to deliver up to 180,000 new affordable homes.

Grant funding as a whole has decreased significantly and, although we’ve seen some grant funding announcements (as above), it’s not enough to deliver the number of social homes needed. Similarly, with reliance on the cross-subsidy model being found to be “vulnerable and likely unsustainable”, a report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has recently concluded that 90,000 new social homes are needed every year. But as this will only be possible with a significant increase in funding support from the Government for housing providers, it appears that we still have some way to go.

The Government has continued to move forward with manifesto commitments which support home ownership including introducing improved routes to affordable home-ownership by implementing flexibility for shared ownership tenants to staircase in smaller increments of equity. However, the shared ownership proposals attracted criticism about the practicality of the suggestion including that, due to the fact that each equity purchase attracts professional fees, this could, in-fact, negate the affordability of the proposal.

The Right to Buy consultation, which closed in October 2018, is yet to produce a report. The Voluntary Right to Buy Midlands pilot, which was due to complete on 31 March 2020, was recently extended to an unconfirmed date later this year. While it was anticipated that the pilot would see 3,000 homes sold, to March 2020 only 1,526 sales had been completed indicating that the demand has been much lower than expected.

The SHGP considered the benefits of housing models including community land trusts, tenant management organisations and house co-ops and openly questioned a stock transfer programme shifting local authority housing to community-based housing providers. However, the Community Housing Fund, which was launched in July 2018, ended in March 2020 and, despite well-co-ordinated lobbying spearheaded by the National Community Land Trust Network, no announcement to extend it was made in the Spring Budget 2020.

Most recently, the Government published the planning white paper ‘Planning for the future’ on 6 August 2020. The white paper was trialled as a complete planning overhaul but plans to scrap Section 106 agreements have dominated headlines and been met with concern by the social housing sector

Section 106 agreements were the single biggest contributor to the numbers of affordable homes being built in 2019. The alternative proposed by the white paper, a new infrastructure levy based on the overall value of a development which will be paid into a pot to fund local infrastructure, has been met with criticism.

Comment

Two years is a long time but what has actually materialised from the SHGP? Not enough, full stop. The housing crisis lives on and the housing sector is juggling more priorities than ever. Baby steps have been taken in the right direction but the proposed scrapping of Section 106 agreements could herald a massive step backwards for addressing the housing crisis and providing enough affordable homes.

The relationship between providers and the Government is, once again, difficult. However, despite previous rent cuts, reduced grant funding, welfare reform etc, the sector continues to innovate to meet need. Hopefully this will go some way to rewriting the message between policy makers and providers. As we free-fall into the second recession in two decades, we cannot underestimate the decimating effect this will have on those most in need in our communities.

Social housing has and always will play a vital role in addressing disparities within society and, in the face of a recession and rising unemployment, we need more social housing available. Despite the somewhat underwhelming impact of the SHGP, I continue to feel buoyed by the enthusiastic and innovative leaders at all levels within the sector. Wherever we are in the next 24 months, I know that we’ll be working together to make things better.


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