The Regulation of Social Housing – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

Related inquiry: The Regulation of Social Housing

Date Published: 20 July 2022

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The current debate about the quality of social housing in England began after survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 accused their housing provider of marginalising and belittling residents and repeatedly ignoring their concerns about the building’s safety. More recently, a series of media reports, particularly from ITV News, has revealed appalling levels of disrepair in some social housing, including serious damp and mould. In response, the Government has announced a series of measures to raise standards in the sector. In particular, it is currently legislating, through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, to reform the regime for regulating the quality of social housing and has instructed the regulatory body, the Regulator of Social Housing, to review its consumer standards, which all registered providers are supposed to meet.

On levels of disrepair, we conclude that most social housing in England is of a decent standard, as evidenced by the most recent English Housing Survey, but that the condition of some homes has deteriorated so far as to be unfit for human habitation. We also note with concern the extremely serious impact on the mental and physical health of those affected. Whatever the precise extent and causes of housing disrepair, we call on everyone in and connected to the sector to prioritise above all else the quality of housing being provided to existing tenants.

In some instances, housing disrepair can be attributed to factors that are not entirely within the control of housing providers, such as the age and design of the existing stock and the overall shortage of social housing. For this, some blame must attach to successive Governments for not investing enough in new homes, which has increased the sector’s reliance on outdated stock, and for not providing funding specifically for regeneration. We therefore call on the Government to introduce funding specifically for regeneration and to deliver on its commitment to increase the supply of homes for social rent.

We also have concerns about the proposed extension of Right to Buy to tenants of private housing providers. The existing policy has reduced the number of homes available for social rent and increased the proportion of the social housing stock that is hard to maintain, as most of the properties bought have been in suburban areas, rather than inner-city areas, where much of the harder-to-maintain stock is concentrated. To prevent the further erosion of the social housing stock, we recommend that the Government present a fully-funded plan for ensuring the one-for-one and like-for-like replacement of every home sold under Right to Buy.

The social housing sector must still take much of the responsibility for the condition of some social housing, as it is clear that some providers have contributed to disrepair by managing their housing badly. In particular, too many are guilty of:

  • not responding quickly enough to requests for repairs or investigating the structural causes of disrepair;
  • preferring quick fixes over proper remediation work;
  • neglecting sites earmarked for regeneration; and
  • relying too heavily on tenants to report problems, rather than proactively monitoring the condition of their stock.

To remedy the latter, we call on the regulator, as parts of its review of the consumer standards, to require providers to routinely audit the condition of their stock.

The condition of tenants’ homes does not exhaust the grounds on which they complain about their provider; of equal concern to them is the quality of service they receive and how they are treated or spoken to by their provider. In many cases, we believe the poor treatment of tenants can be attributed, in particular, to:

  • a lack of respect for tenants arising from a stigma attached to being a social housing tenant, or to other forms of discrimination;
  • the power imbalance between providers and tenants; and
  • the commercialisation of the sector, which has distanced some providers from their tenants and from their original social mission.

To reduce stigma and discrimination, we call on providers to ensure their boards and senior management teams better reflect the diversity of their communities, and on the regulator to incorporate this requirement into its revised consumer standards. To strengthen tenant voice, we call on the regulator to require providers to support the establishment of tenants and residents associations that are led by tenants and residents and not unduly influenced by providers. We also urge the Government to establish a permanent national tenant voice body to send the clearest possible signal that it intends to involve tenants in the national conversation about how to drive up standards in social housing. To reverse the trend of some providers becoming too remote, we also recommend the regulator strengthen the wording of its tenant involvement and empowerment standard to require providers to deliver housing services that are genuinely local and tenant centred.

Whilst the role of the Housing Ombudsman is to investigate individual complaints against providers, the primary responsibility for resolving disputes lies with providers themselves. Too often, however, their complaint handling processes are inefficient and obstructive, and it is understandable if tenants sometimes conclude they have been specifically designed to prevent them from ever referring their complaint to the ombudsman. It is also quite clear that, as well as adding insult to injury, the inefficiency of some providers’ complaint handling processes is itself contributing to levels of disrepair, since repeated requests for repairs will nearly always also be complaints, and satisfactory resolution will usually involve the completion of remediation or repair work. All providers that have not already done so must immediately review and where necessary improve their complaint handling processes.

To drive improvement and greater consistency in how providers deal with complaints, the ombudsman has been given the power to publish a complaint handling code and to issue complaint handling failure orders to providers that fail to deal with complaints properly. It published its first code in July 2020, and has asked providers to self-assess against it, but it cannot compel them to do so. We welcome the ombudsman’s new powers but recommend that it more proactively monitor providers’ compliance with the complaint handling code. We also recommend either that the Government legislate to require providers to self-assess against the code and to implement complaint handling processes broadly in line it, or that the regulator introduce a new standard to the same effect.

If, when it investigates a complaint, the ombudsman finds a provider guilty of maladministration, it may order the latter to compensate tenants for financial loss and avoidable inconvenience, distress and detriment. In 2020–21, the average level of compensation awarded was just £260. This clearly does not come anywhere close to reflecting the detriment to tenants. In its recent White Paper on reforming the private rented sector (PRS), the Government promised to establish a new ombudsman for the PRS with the power to award compensation of up to £25,000. We call on the Government to amend the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to give the social housing ombudsman the same power. To tolerate a situation in which social housing tenants are not receiving the same levels of compensation as tenants in the PRS would amount to blatant discrimination. Significantly increasing levels of compensation should also help to concentrate the minds of boards and senior management teams on improving service standards.

The regulator regulates the quality of social housing through its consumer standards. Since 2011, this regime has been subjected to the ‘serious detriment’ test, according to which it may only find a provider in breach of a consumer standard if the failure being investigated caused, or could cause, serious detriment to tenants. It is universally accepted that the ‘serious detriment’ test has prevented the regulator from properly regulating the consumer standards, and for this reason the Government is now legislating to repeal it, which we strongly welcome.

The regulation of the consumer standards is also governed by a ‘systemic failure’ test, which is based on the regulator’s interpretation of its statutory duty, set out in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, to minimise interference and act proportionately. Under the ‘systemic failure’ test, the regulator only intervenes where there is evidence of systemic failure within the organisation concerned. This is perhaps the most passive interpretation of its statutory duty imaginable and has resulted in providers that are responsible for serious mismanagement affecting dozens of tenants nonetheless being found compliant with the standards. It has also introduced a regulatory gap between the regulator and the Housing Ombudsman. For all these reasons, we call on the regulator to reconsider its interpretation of the duty to minimise interference and act proportionately, and to abandon the ‘systemic failure’ test.