Yesterday, the Government published its long-awaited Social Housing White Paper, ‘The Charter for Social Housing residents’.
It is, in large part, because of the Grenfell tragedy and seeks to deliver on the Government’s commitment that the voices of residents will never again go unheard. It is also of timely relevance given the economic impact of Covid-19. Indeed, the Local Government Association recently warned that council housing waiting lists could nearly double to 2 million households next year.
The White Paper follows on from the Government’s Green Paper, ‘A New Deal for Social Housing’, which was published in 2018, and sought to ensure that social housing is safe and decent. Around 1,000 people and organisations responded to that including the survivors and bereaved family members of Grenfell Tower.
The White Paper details three main proposals:
- A new Charter to give social housing residents a greater voice
- A tougher housing regulator to ensure high standards from landlords
- A strengthened Housing Ombudsman to speed up the handling of complaints
The new Charter sets out what every social housing resident should expect from their landlord:
1. To be safe in their home. The Government states that it will reinforce the Regulator of Social Housing’s consumer regulation objective to, explicitly, include safety. Problems with electrics, fire safety and asbestos are among the most common. The Government announced yesterday that it intends to launch a consultation on requiring smoke alarms in social housing and introduce new expectations for carbon monoxide alarms. It will also legislate to place an obligation on landlords to identify a nominated person to be responsible for ensuring compliance with health and safety requirements.
2. To know how their landlord is performing. The Government states that it will increase transparency and deliver a set of ‘Tenant Satisfaction Measures’ for social landlords to report against issues that matter to tenants. This will include repairs, complaints and safety, along with how a landlord spends its money. Landlords will be required to publish executive salaries and management costs. They will also need to be prepared for more inspections and the publication of indicators setting out how well (or not) they are doing. Further, the Government proposes new access to information scheme, similar to a ‘Freedom of Information’ request, for social housing tenants so that information relating to landlords is easily available.
3. To have their complaints dealt with promptly and fairly. The Government proposes to do this by speeding up access to decisions by the Housing Ombudsman. The Housing Ombudsman will publish details of cases determined by it so that landlords are held to account more effectively when things go wrong. It is not clear what funding is available to expand the service. The Government also proposes to legislate to ensure clear co-operation between the Housing Ombudsman and the Regulator of Social Housing.
4. To be treated with respect. The Government will establish a new arm of the Regulator of Social Housing to regulate on consumer standards. This will include matters such as the quality of homes, repairs, meaningful engagement with tenants, and complaints handling. Tragically, residents of Grenfell Tower who raised concerns about the renovation were regarded as “rebels” and dismissed as “persistent and aggressive”. A survivor called the Regulator “the dog that didn’t bark”. Indeed, it identified only 15 cases last year that required intervention. The Government proposes to remove the ‘serious detriment test’ and the Regulator will need to shift from being reactive to proactive. The Government will also look to work with tenants, landlords and other stakeholders to implement the changes to the consumer regulation framework. This is exciting news for tenants and means that they will be able to help shape and implement the changes.
5. To have their voice heard by their landlord. The Government proposes to empower residents by requiring landlords to improve tenant engagement. For instance, it will deliver new opportunities by way of regular meetings, scrutiny panels or for tenants to become board members. It will also deliver an empowerment programme for social housing residents, to support them in engaging with their landlords. This will provide a more direct way of raising complaints without having to engage local councillors or MPs. However, some say there needs to be a national tenants’ voice.
6. To have a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in. The Government will review the Decent Homes Standard, support the quality of and access to green spaces, and tackle anti-social behaviour. The Decent Homes Standard is now likely to include decarbonisation and energy efficiency. The Government will also review the ‘professionalism’ of frontline staff and whether the sector is equipped enough to deal with mental health issues.
7. To be supported to take their first step to ownership. This is in line with the Government’s proposals on a new model of shared ownership, as I previously reported on. However, housing campaigners feel that it misses the mark and does not address the main issue, which is a shortage of supply. Last year, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said that the White Paper would “boost the supply” of social housing yet there is no commitment in it to do so. In 2019, there were only 34,000 new social homes despite 93,000 households in England in temporary accommodation and an estimated 3.8 million people in need of social housing.
The Regulator of Social Housing, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation have already welcomed the proposals. However, as Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, warns:
“With over a million households already on the social housing waiting list, and many more families potentially facing homelessness as the recession bites, any new regulatory system is being set up to fail unless we build many more social homes.”
Despite failing to boost supply, the White Paper is a step in the right direction of protecting tenants. Time will tell whether it will change the balance of the tenant-landlord relationship. No doubt, landlords will have some concerns, particularly as they will soon need to administer the new model of shared ownership as well. Ultimately, as Grenfell United states: “the responsibility now lies with the Regulator and Ombudsman to use their new powers to ensure no residents are ever treated how we were.”