Livin has no specific concerns about the quality of social housing for which we are responsible. All our stock meets the Decent Homes Standard and benefits from regular planned programme improvements and reactive responsive repairs investment. We receive positive feedback, have high satisfaction levels and receive low levels of complaints about the quality of our homes. We ensure that when a complaint does arise, tenants are listened to and their concerns are acted upon.
Examples of providers failing to meet the standards expected of them, by the Regulator of Social Housing, Government and tenants, underscores the need for effective governance of the sector to ensure that tenants live in high-quality homes and standards are adhered to.
Social housing providers have a finite amount of income which is regulated by the government. Therefore, any increase in the resources required to meet one priority will inevitably be offset by a reduction in the resources available for other priorities. Livin’s property maintenance and work to ensure Decent Homes Standard and safety compliance is funded from a dedicated budget and this is a priority – other non-DHS planned improvement works such as retrofitting is then funded from the available non-committed budget within the Financial Business Plan. Retrofitting would not be given priority over building maintenance either from a financial or resource perspective.
The ultimate obstacle for retrofitting properties currently is financial. The current spend on maintenance and day to day repairs is significantly greater than that allocated to planned works and this will be more so for smaller housing providers whose ‘left over’ fund will be smaller. A recent report from Saville’s has estimated that getting Housing Association stock to EPC C by 2030, and then replacing gas heating with heat pumps between 2030-2050, will cost £36bn (Savills call this their ‘Base’ case). A full retrofit plan, maximising the energy efficiency of homes and replacing gas heating will cost £58bn. The Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, offering £3.8bn over 10 years, represents just 6.5% of this total and potentially adds additional administrative burden to housing providers due to the competitive nature of the fund.
Funding for decarbonisation will need to be more ambitious going forward and more comprehensive. The ‘Fabric First’ and ‘worst first’ approaches mean that some providers who have already taken the decision to commit to decarbonisation are limited in the level of support that they can receive, effectively penalising providers who have taken this decision. Livin’s housing stock, for example, has an average SAP rating of 70, equivalent to the lower EPC band C rating, putting it above the English average of 66 and because of this, many Livin properties will not be eligible to receive funding, despite the need for them to be upgraded beyond ‘fabric’ measures. Funding should be more flexible, and rather than simply basing funding allocation on a set of criteria from BEIS, decisions should be based on whether proposals represent the best value for a housing provider’s stock. This would mean that providers who have already insulated properties, for example, could receive funding to go even further in making gains to future proof the decarbonising work on properties, rather than the current system which means that providers have to essentially wait until their stock is the ‘worst’ to get funding support.
There is also a regional socio-economic perspective to be aware of. As a provider in County Durham, Livin’s tenants are more likely to be in fuel poverty than the English average (15.5% County Durham average vs 13.4% English average per the most recent data). Funding for energy efficiency measures such as insulation or upgraded windows would be more likely to have a proportionally greater positive impact on the lives of tenants struggling to afford increasing energy bills.
Building safety is a key priority for Livin, and we align with the highest standards in this area. We do not, however, own any high-rise or complex buildings, so concerns about poor quality cladding and fire safety procedures in high-rise blocks are not as significant, but we recognise that regulations are developing further in this area and we will respond accordingly to ensure we continue to meet the highest safety standards. Livin effectively enforces high building safety standards with high levels of compliance across compliance performance metrics.
Another key issue is the availability of skills in the supply chain and reskilling trades people to deliver retrofit at the pace required. This requires Government, local authorities, education providers and housing associations (and their partners) to work together.
One final limitation on the retrofit and decarbonisation of properties is the construction characteristics of the type of stock we own. For a significant number of properties there is an upper limit as to how much you can improve the energy efficiency of the home, either due to the property’s construction method making it physically impossible (e.g. no cavity in the wall to insulate), or because it is economically prohibitive to bring the property up to the highest EPC band. This latter issue is especially prominent in a region such as County Durham, where house prices are lower than the national average. To take a rough example, to fully insulate a property, replace windows, install PV cells and replace a gas boiler with an air source heat pump could cost tens of thousands of pounds, on a property that is worth c.£50,000.
We are supportive of the current regime for regulating social housing and we also support the RSH’s overall approach to developing consumer regulation and the proposals for the tenant satisfaction measures that have been issued this month. We feel the RSH delivers a proportionate approach to regulation and we would welcome this approach continuing as new consumer regulation is implemented.
In relation to the ongoing development of consumer regulation, we feel that open consultation on the proposed approach is key to achieving the appropriate balance of regulating the work we do whilst enabling the delivery of our Business Strategy and encouraging innovative and modern ways of delivering services, to continuously improve the customer experience at every touchpoint.
These roles of both the RSH and the Housing Ombudsman are generally well defined and we are supportive of the approach adopted by both organisations. Furthermore, we are supportive of the wide-ranging consultation the RSH is undertaking in relation to consumer regulation. The expectations of providers are clear and providers are aware of the possible actions that can be taken against them if these expectations fail to be met.
The White Paper also explains clearly how the two bodies will work together on areas of regulation.
The Codes of Practice make clear what is expected of providers and they have been used to formulate Livin’s policies.
Livin is supportive of the current proportionate approach to regulation which requires effective resolution of complaints. Livin has clear and effective complaints and feedback processes that ensure tenants are listened to, their concerns acted upon, and that they are kept informed and updated on any subsequent action taken (“we listened…we acted”) evidenced as follows:
Livin analyses transactional surveys and feedback to spot issues early and where trends emerge undertakes extensive engagement with tenants which includes focus groups, workshops, surveys and other forms, to ensure that we can best understand their priorities, concerns and ambitions, and act upon them when required. As an example, we implemented 108 service improvements in 2020/21 directly as a result of feedback and concerns expressed in transactional survey data.
The guidelines for complaints processes provided by the Ombudsman are very useful and the Ombudsman effectively enforces complaints processes, ensuring that tenants’ concerns are listened to and acted upon. However, when complaints are elevated to the Housing Ombudsman, communication and responses from them can become very slow. To take one example, a tenant raised a complaint with Livin in September 2020. After exhausting the internal complaints procedures without a positive resolution, the Ombudsman became involved in May 2021. The Ombudsman has recently confirmed that there should be a resolution to this issue by April/May 2022, nearly 18 months since the initial complaint arose.
We believe the regulator and the ombudsman have the appropriate powers to act against providers if required and it is our view that these powers are applied proportionately.
We believe that the Charter for Social Housing Residents makes a number of welcome changes that should improve outcomes for tenants and residents and ensure a fair playing field for housing providers.
We are supportive of the RSH’s overall approach to consumer regulation issued in November 2021 and the specific proposals for the tenant satisfaction measures that have been issued for consultation this month which will provide greater transparency across the sector.
In terms of progress we have made following the publication of the Charter we believe we have made a strong start. We undertook a gap analysis to better understand where we already met the obligations presented by the Charter, and where changes will be required. Overall, many of the requirements aligned closely with our current practices and there were no major areas of concern. We are keeping the gap analysis live as new guidance emerges and have a live ‘Charter Action Plan’ which we report to Board.
The Decent Homes Standard should be updated to include energy efficiency levels and decarbonisation requirements, in order to reflect the increased focus that the housing sector places on these areas, as well as the scale of work required to decarbonise the nation’s housing stock. The Standard should also address the quality and safety of communal areas and clearly define what communal areas are, setting out expectations to meet defined standards.
A practical step would be to ensure that the Decent Homes Standard at least aligns with the government targets in relation to properties achieving a minimum EPC ‘C’ rating by 2030 and should also align with the key requirements and milestones set out in the Heat and Buildings Strategy which should ensure the necessary foundations are being put in place ahead of 2050. However, it is important to consider the affordability of incorporating net zero measures into the Decent Homes Standard given that it is currently unaffordable for us and the sector as a whole.
Setting minimum SAP ratings for a property within the Decent Homes Standard would go some way to addressing fuel poverty. The setting of any SAP levels should enable tenants on a low income to be able to adequately heat their home.
Livin has previously been asked about the possibility of including interventions to address over-heating in the Decent Homes Standard. Our view on this topic is that it would be impractical to include a blanket requirement nationwide, as the issue of high temperatures are more common in some regions (London and the South East) than other colder regions (North East and Scotland). The Decent Homes Review could, however, assess whether it would be helpful to put a requirement in place for providers to have suitable arrangements for monitoring over-heating and to demonstrate any steps taken to address significant issues.
On heating and efficiency, Livin would recommend that the Standard is updated to include:
In relation to water efficiency, Livin would recommend the Decent Homes requirements include:
In relation to extreme weather conditions, the Decent Homes Standard could consider putting in place additional measures for properties in areas with a high risk of flooding such as mitigation plans, nearby soakaways, and permeable ground surfaces instead of tarmac, where possible. Unfortunately, it will not always be possible to replace hardstandings with green space on existing schemes as a high proportion of the hardstanding will be in-curtilage, which has been constructed to alleviate on street parking issues that are common to a high proportion of social housing estates built in the mid-20th century. For new developments, the Decent Homes Standard could ensure green space levels that act as natural flood defences.
Livin is supportive of the Decent Homes Standard playing a role in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours. This should include:
A critical factor in encouraging these behaviours is effective communication and engagement with tenants, to ensure their views and needs are reflected in the Decent Homes Review. It is important to work with them to deliver practical solutions which they will willingly adopt.
The Decent Homes Standard could also consider whether any practical requirements should be included to target scope 3 emissions to drive greener supply chains and increase the use of responsibly sourced materials.
As this is a priority for the sector and for society, it would make sense for this to be incorporated into the Decent Homes Standard and there should be direct alignment between the Heat and Buildings Strategy and the future Decent Homes Standard. The Standard already makes references to a number of individual ‘hazards’ that come under the wider remit of ‘energy efficiency’ such as ‘excess heat’, ‘excess cold’ and ‘lighting’, and building on these the Standard could be used to focus and direct the sector’s decarbonisation efforts. The answers to the previous question have outlined some practical suggestions on how the Standard could be updated.
While this may be useful for encouraging further decarbonisation and sustainability efforts, it is vitally important that financial support for housing associations to meet decarbonisation goals is provided. As has been mentioned previously, a full retrofit plan, maximising the energy efficiency of homes and replacing gas heating will cost £58bn, whereas the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund offers £3.8bn over 10 years on a competitive bidding basis with strict criteria attached. In some cases, these criteria are not helpful as not all properties can have certain measures applied to them, such as exterior cladding, either because it is not suitable, or because the property’s façade is of significant architectural or aesthetic value. In such cases, funding should not be denied to decarbonising this stock, but should be made available for other energy efficiency or energy generation measures such as the installation of Photovoltaic Cells. This would allow the stock to reduce its environmental impact, while also supporting the Government’s stated goals to support the construction and maintenance of ‘beautiful’ buildings.
Regulation plays an important role in ensuring the requirements and aspirations of the White Paper are delivered in a way that can benefit all social housing residents. We are supportive of the current regulatory arrangements in relation to which organisations are required to register and there may be other ways of raising standards in small non-registered organisations, where it would not be viable or proportionate to deliver against all aspects of regulation due to their size.
Livin has no plans to diversify and as such has no comment to make in this respect.