The release of the Social Housing White Paper (now titled The Charter for Social Housing Residents) is, on balance, to be welcomed. Although the publication has taken too long, progress has already been made around building safety and dealing with complaints. The Regulator of Social Housing has made encouraging noises around landlords needing to respond to the cultural challenges, and stakeholders have also set up initiatives that, in part, anticipate those challenges.
For me there is a sense of déjà vu. Issues such as resident voice, safety and service delivery were all part of the 2010 Regulatory Framework that I co-authored following the National Conversation. The failure to proactively regulate these is now being rectified, and rightly so.
In taking forward the Charter the main obstacle is that proactive consumer regulation requires legislation and there is no sign of when this might take place. In the interim I would expect to hear more about landlords being challenged to abide by the future cultural and regulatory challenges contained on the Charter. In part these are covered in initiatives such as Together with Tenants, and the Sector Scorecard, but more will be needed for the sector to be ready for the new approach.
The first objective, particularly poignant post-Grenfell, is around resident safety. Progress has already been made in the wake of the Hackitt report including funding removal of ACM cladding, engagement of residents in high-risk buildings and the setting up of the proposed Building Safety Regulator. Health and safety are already included in the Regulatory Framework, as a result of feedback from residents in the National Conversation, and make up the bulk of the consumer regulation currently in place. Whilst legislating for safety to be contained in the Regulator’s objectives is welcome the need for legislation may cause undue delay. I remain unsure about why safety of residents is not a governance issue and regulated proactively.
The second objective is around transparency on performance. This will see a set of satisfaction measures, a breakdown of how income is spent and annual reporting to residents. In addition there will be three financial measures to identify ‘excessive administration costs and executive pay’.
More surprisingly there will be a new access to information scheme ensuring housing association residents access to information paralleling the ability of local authority residents through the Freedom of Information Act. Challenge if this is not met will be initially through the landlord but can escalate to the Housing Ombudsman (who can in turn report systemic breaches to the Regulator).
The third objective is around complaints. Progress has already been made in proposing to remove the unnecessary and unhelpful ‘democratic filter’, again subject to legislation. There is a new Complaint Handling Code with the requirement for self-assessment by all social landlords by 31 December. Where landlords are unduly slow, as some are, in resolving complaints, they face both complaint failure handling orders and reference to the regulator.
There has already been discussion on the key area of raising awareness of residents of the role of complaints and the Ombudsman. Severe maladministration cases are being published and from March 2021 all cases will be published.
The fourth objective is around the role of the regulator. Currently consumer regulation is constrained, in law, by the ‘serious detriment’ test and the need for the regulator to be reactive and not proactive. The most significant part of the new Charter would be that the regulator would proactively regulate consumer standards – which means the removal of the serious detriment test. However this will require legislation and may be delayed for some time.
Inspections will take place every four years or as needed. A code of practice can be published which would allow the Regulator to engage with residents, landlords and stakeholders on its contents and allowing the regulator to co-regulate through such a code.
There’s a proposed removal of the cap on fines that the Regulator has, although the power to fine has never used and may impact on services to residents. More helpfully, there are proposed ‘performance improvement plans’ to help ensure compliance. The Regulator will publish where a landlord is non-compliant, although this seems to stop shy of an obvious C1/2/3/4 rating system as for governance and viability.
One of the casualties of the split of economic and consumer regulation has been that local authorities, and more importantly their residents, have been largely untouched by regulation, excepting a few regulatory notices. The changes will mean proactive regulation of local authorities, who in some cases have paid little attention to compliance with the existing consumer standards, let alone the enhanced ones above.
There will also be a responsible person for compliance with the consumer standards within every landlord. However there is no requirement to carry out an annual self-assessment (as for the economic standards) which could form an important part of proactive monitoring by the Regulator, and support their inspections.
Finally, the Charter sets out its view that this new consumer regulation function is best held within the current Regulator, but within a new function within the Regulator. This puts paid to the discussion around a separate regulator, and recreates the approach I originally took in 2009 of a dedicated consumer regulation team within the Regulator. There will need to be close liaison between the two regulation teams.
Chapter 5 is around resident voice. This sees the Regulator requiring landlords to seek out best practice, a new opportunities and empowerment programme and reviewing professional training and development. There is reference to the NHF’s Together with Tenants initiative, and an expectation on landlords to show how they have sought and considered engagement (but not the far more useful concept of impact of engagement which avoids getting into mechanisms and focuses on outcomes).
Chapter 6 is about home and neighbourhood. There will be a review of the Decent Homes Standard where 12% of social homes remain non-compliant. The review will also cover decarbonisation, which will need to consider how the costs will be met, and access to green spaces. There are also references to physical and mental health, supporting residents facing anti-social behaviour and housing allocations. Landlords will also be expected to have a policy in place about tackling domestic abuse.
The final chapter covers home ownership, advocating shared ownership, affordable home ownership and Right to Shared Ownership. It touches on the Voluntary Right to Buy pilot in the Midlands although the evaluation is unlikely to support one-for-one replacement in a national scheme.
Whilst there will continue to be discussions around some of the above content and timing, the overall direction of travel is welcome and the sector should take up the challenge well before the new regulatory approach is published.
Phil Morgan was executive director of tenants services at the Regulator of Social Housing between 2008 and 2010.