The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee (LUHC) has published its first report of session 2022-23, and it makes for interesting reading. Its 55 paragraph summary contains 24 recommendations covering four topics:
The committee’s conclusions do not always make for comfortable reading and reinforce several matters raised by recent issues over the poor state of some social housing, the inadequate response by some social landlords (meaning both local authorities with housing stock and housing associations) to complaints made, and the issues exposed by the Grenfell inquiry.
The LUHC makes its most important recommendation here: ‘Whatever the extent and causes of housing disrepair, we call on everyone in and connected to the social housing sector to work together and prioritise above all else the quality of housing being provided to existing tenants.’
However, there is no accurate estimate of how many homes within the social housing sector are in disrepair or even dangerous. As a result, the committee has advised on social landlords to put in place systems to regularly monitor the condition of their stock, and for the RSH to make this a regulatory requirement.
The treatment of tenants
The committee believes there is a stigma attached to being a social housing tenant and has called on all social landlords to take this seriously. With the recent adverse press reports and the evidence from the Grenfell inquiry, it is hard to disagree. In particular, it is recommended that the government and the RSH work together to ensure that the new regulatory tenant satisfaction measures, and the new access to information scheme, enable tenants to hold their landlord to account.
The report also recommended that the government should keep the Social Housing Quality Resident Panel on a permanent basis, and ‘send the strongest possible signal that it is determined to involve [tenants] in the national conversation about how to drive up standards in social housing’.
Part of social landlords’ poor performance was blamed on the increased commercialisation of the sector. The report recommended that all social housing providers, especially the larger ones, prioritise putting tenants at the centre of how they deliver housing services, including by relying far less on impersonal and remote methods of communication and increasing the number of local offices with staff who know the area. This would be a complete reversal of current policy and practice.
Lastly, the LUHC joined the chorus of people advocating the need for housing staff to have qualifications and professional training in order to ‘stop the wrong people from entering into the profession’.
The Housing Ombudsman
The committee noted that some social landlords’ complaints processes seemed to be more focussed on ignoring complaints than resolving them, and recommended that they immediately review and where necessary improve them.
It was also recommended that the ombudsman more proactively monitors social landlords’ compliance with the code and encouraged it to continue to investigate systemic failings across the social housing sector.
The report noted that the amount of compensation that the Housing Ombudsman could award was pitiful, and far below the amounts that tenants in the private rented sector could receive. It recommended that the government increase the amount awardable to £25,000 or publish its reasons for treating social housing tenants differently from private sector ones.
he committee recommended that social landlords do more to make their tenants aware of the Housing Ombudsman, including adopting a ‘co-ordinated strategy’ and including information about the ombudsman in all of its correspondence with tenants.
Lastly, the report welcomed the government’s confirmation that local authorities do have powers to inspect properties suspected of being in a dangerous state that are owned by social landlords, and can issue enforcement notices where necessary. The committee stated: ‘Perhaps more than anything else, these inspections could provide social housing tenants trapped in potentially unsafe homes with the reassurance that they can turn to someone independent of their landlord who will advocate on their behalf.’
The Regulator of Social Housing
While welcoming the removal of the ‘serious detriment’ test (thus putting consumer regulation on the same footing as economic regulation), the committee considered that the RSH’s interpretation of its regulatory duties and, in particular, its application of the ‘systemic failure’ test, was far too passive and had effectively neutered the consumer regulatory regime. The committee called on the RSH to take a more robust stance when investigating breaches of the consumer standards and to abandon the systemic failure test.
The committee was most concerned to find that the RSH does not engage extensively with tenants as regards its regulation of the consumer standards and recommended that the government legislate to force the regulator to change its ways (as well as calling on it to do so anyway).
There was also concern about the RSH’s ability and capacity to regulate the largest social landlords and their complex corporate structures and financial dealings. The committee recommended that government ensures the regulator has the resources, skills and capacity to regulate the economic standards properly, and to consider increasing its regulatory powers as regards the economic standards.
In particular, it was recommended that the government give the RSH more of a role in monitoring mergers to ensure tenants are at the centre of any decision to restructure.
The LUHC was very keen on the RSH using its proposed new powers to carry out inspections and surveys on social landlord’s housing stock and wanted this placed at the centre of the new proactive consumer regulatory regime.
The report also found the regulator to be ‘extremely reticent and passive’ in the use of its enforcement powers and urged the government to make it clear to the regulator that it should make more use of them.
Lastly, the committee expressed concern that extremely vulnerable residents in receipt of unregulated support services do not currently benefit from the protection of regulation by the Care Quality Commission and gave advance notice of its intention to say more on this in its upcoming report on exempt accommodation.