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Social housing tenants’ complaints of ‘uninhabitable homes’ must be addressed

20 July 2022

The condition of some social housing in England has deteriorated so badly as to be unfit for human habitation, and social housing providers must significantly improve their complaint handling process, says the cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in a report published today.

The Committee’s Regulation of Social Housing report addresses a series of issues relating to the supply, quality and regulation of social housing in England. Social housing is housing rented at below-market rates by housing associations, local authorities and private providers.

Clive Betts, Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, said:

“Social housing plays a vital role in giving people a secure and affordable home, offering those in social housing protection from the rising costs and insecurity of private renting.

“Too many social housing tenants are living in uninhabitable homes and experiencing appalling conditions and levels of disrepair, including serious damp and mould, with potential serious impacts on their mental and physical health.

“The poor complaint handling of some providers not only adds insult to injury but the resulting delays in resolving tenant complaints actively contributes to the levels of disrepair. Sadly, beyond the distress of experiencing poor living conditions, it is undeniable that tenants also face poor treatment from providers who discriminate and stigmatise people because they are social housing tenants.

“This must change. Providers need to up their game, treat tenants with dignity and respect, and put tenants at the centre of how they deliver housing services, including by regularly monitoring the condition of their housing stock. Where they fail, providers should face the prospect of tough action from a more active regulator. Given the financial loss, inconvenience, and distress caused to tenants from serious cases of disrepair, the Government also needs to equip the ombudsman with the power to award far higher levels of compensation to tenants when there has been serious service failings.”

The report recognises the social housing sector is under serious financial pressure and that there is a shortage of social housing. It also attributes some disrepair, in part, to the age and design of the housing stock, “some of which was never built to last and is now approaching obsolescence”. To reduce the social housing sector’s reliance on outdated stock, the report recommends the Government introduce funding specifically for regeneration.

The report points to the power imbalance between social housing tenants and housing providers as one of the biggest problems facing the sector today. It recommends providers be required to support the establishment of genuinely independent and representative tenant and resident associations and calls on the Government to establish a national tenant voice body to drive up standards in social housing.

The report makes a series of recommendations in relation to the Housing Ombudsman (who handles complaints brought by tenants against individual providers). It calls on providers and the ombudsman to bring forward a strategy to address the lack of public awareness of the ombudsman and how tenants can complain to the ombudsman and recommends that the Government empower the ombudsman to order providers to award compensation of up to £25,000.

The report also criticises the regime for regulating the quality of social housing. Since 2011, the Regulator of Social Housing has been prevented by the ‘serious detriment’ test from proactively regulating the consumer standards.

The report welcomes the fact that the Government is legislating through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to repeal the ‘serious detriment’ test, as this will remove a significant barrier to proactive regulation, but criticises the regulator for its interpretation of its statutory duty to minimise interference and act proportionately. As highlighted in the case of Clarion and the Eastfields estate, the regulator, in line with its interpretation, only finds providers in breach of the consumer standards where there is evidence of systemic failure. This has resulted in the most passive consumer regulatory regime permissible under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.

The report calls for the regulator to be more proactive in defending the interests of tenants and calls on it to make more use of its enforcement powers, especially in the most serious cases.

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