A new “Tsar” for Social Housing?

Policy Director Marc Francis shares his reflections on the Mayor of London's new draft housing strategy and what it means for low-income tenants, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy

Marc Francis, Policy Director

There’s a lot of really good stuff in the Mayor of London’s draft Housing Strategy, which was published for consultation yesterday. Z2K will take a closer look at the detail over the course of the next few weeks as we put together our own response. But a story in Wednesday’s Evening Standard meant my own eyes were quickly drawn to a small section towards the end of the 236 page document entitled “listening to the views of social housing tenants and leaseholders”.

The strategy identifies an urgent need to put residents’ concerns back at the heart of decision-making by local authority landlords and housing associations. This is clearly in the context of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s inept response. But the accompanying analysis of the problem and the solutions proposed indicates there has been some serious thought about this issue in City Hall.

The strategy first concludes that the current mechanism for residents to escalate complaints to the Independent Housing Ombudsman is unnecessarily complicated as they have to do this through a “designated person” (an MP, local councillor or tenant panel). It says the Mayor will call on ministers to restore the previous position whereby residents could go straight to the Ombudsman themselves once they have exhausted their landlord’s internal complaints process.

Z2K would wholeheartedly agree with that. When it was introduced a few years ago, the “designated person” stage was promoted as a chance to encourage the resolution of complaints locally, to enable the Ombudsman to focus on the worst cases. In practice, however, neither MPs nor councillors have the resources to process complaints, and few of London’s bigger housing associations about whom most complaints are being made, seem inclined to respond positively anyway. It has simply further delayed complaints getting into the Ombudsman’s long queue for a proper independent investigation.  We hope this proposal can be picked up by MPs in the Public Service Ombudsman Bill.

Secondly, the strategy identifies some of the serious weaknesses with the regulation of the social housing sector. The current Social Housing Regulator at the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) is obliged to monitor “consumer” standards like repairs services being provided by social landlords as well as “economic” standards like their balance sheet. In theory, the regulator will take action if the failing causes a “serious detriment” to residents. In practice, however, only 10 of the 1,050 “consumer standard” complaints made to the regulator have resulted in a finding of “serious detriment”. The Mayor reckons that the bar for the “serious detriment” test has been set too high, and so he is calling for ministers to review it to ensure the regulator actually investigates more complaints.

I have a bit of experience of the Social Housing Regulator myself. Last year I made a complaint on behalf of tenants at one of London’s biggest housing associations. For two winters, the gas repairs service their landlord provided was so bad that hundreds of tenants were left without heating and hot water for weeks on end. You couldn’t get a more cut and dried example of “serious detriment”. And yet, the regulator refused to investigate, saying those tenants affected should make individual complaints to the Ombudsman. It was only after the local Member of Parliament raised concerns about the regulator’s stance in the House of Commons six months later that an investigation was begun. It swiftly concluded there had been serious detriment after all and the association was downgraded – too late though to prevent tenants having to endure the same appalling service last winter too.

The strategy’s third proposal is for the Government to establish a Commissioner for Social Housing Residents modelled on the Children’s Commissioner for England. I guess that kind of watchdog or “Tsar” would be a lot better than nothing, but Tsars have a somewhat patchy record here as well as in Russia.  My own preference would be a return to the kind of regulatory regime overseen by the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), swept away in the Coalition Government’s “bonfire of the quangos” back in 2010. Of course, I can’t say for certain the TSA would have ensured Kensington & Chelsea responded properly to the concerns of Grenfell Tower residents about the cladding being hung around their block. But I doubt very much the current Social Housing Regulator would have done so.

Whether its Sadiq Khan’s new Commissioner or the old TSA, the restoration of effective regulation of social housing is desperately needed.

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