Written evidence submitted by Dr Mercy Denedo and Dr Amanze Ejiogu [RSH 036]
Re: Call for Evidence on the Quality of Social Housing, the effectiveness of the Regulatory Regime and the Proposals in the Social Housing White Paper
We write as accounting academics with a research interest, and experience in social housing. We are the authors of the Stigma and Social Housing in England report. Social housing accounts for about 17 percent of the UK’s housing, accommodating more than 3.9 million people. Our report explored how tenants, politicians, social housing providers and the media contribute to the construction of stigma, how tenants and those connected to them have experienced stigma and its impact upon them. We also explored how advocacy groups, tenants’ associations and trade bodies have challenged social housing stigma, and understand why these actions have been ineffective. Our study suggests that stigma is complex because social housing stigma intersects with other societal stigmas such as poverty stigma, benefits and unemployment stigma, crime stigma, mental health and disabilities, and race and immigration stigma.
Our interest and several engagements with social housing and council housing tenants, housing professionals, policymakers, board members, trade and professional bodies, and advocacy groups campaigning for an effective regulatory regime, accountability from social housing providers, need for an effective and inclusive tenants’ voice among others underpin our response to this call for evidence. Consequently, we respond to only a selection of the consultation questions below
1. How widespread and serious are the concerns about the quality of social housing?
The concerns about the quality of social housing are widespread. From our study on Challenging the Stigmatisation of Social Housing in England, the quality of social housing was a key concern and the majority of the social and council housing tenants that participated alluded to it being one of the factors that drive stigma.
The Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 went some way to illuminate the stigma experienced by social housing tenants by shedding light on the ineffective discriminatory and dismissive complaints procedures, and the implications of ignoring social housing tenants when demands for repairs were made.
Our study recorded countless accounts from tenants who, when highlighting typically poor maintenance of, or need for repairs to their socially-rented property to the housing providers, were frequently ignored. When repairs eventually did occur, the work was completed with disrespect and disregard to tenants.
Our report also highlighted tenants’ frustrations with ineffective complaint procedures that often made them feel powerless. We uncovered a paternalistic attitude amongst housing associations and their staff, with social housing landlords often portraying themselves as heroes protecting the neediest people, and their tenants as incapable of taking any responsibility. This paternalistic attitude appears to have resulted in a belief that tenants are there to be managed rather than the buildings. This attitude carried over into excessive and assertive control mechanisms. We received several examples of social housing professionals and their contractors stigmatising tenants through their lack of respect when engaging with social housing tenants, ignoring repair requests, ignoring anti-social behaviour complaints and using derogatory rhetoric.
We also received evidence that when requests for repairs are finally carried out, they are often inadequate and the houses (including flats) are often left in a state of disrepair, making them inhabitable.
Construction and town planning have also played their part. The structure and set-up of social homes often provide the opportunity for stigma to occur – whether through poorly designed and maintained houses, or the deliberate construction and enforced use of ‘poor doors’ in housing blocks.
2. Is the current regime for regulating social housing fit for purpose?
The current regime for regulating social housing is not fit for its purpose. The current regime focuses on the proactive regulation of the economic standards and the reactive regulation of the consumer standards. The White Paper paves the way for proactive regulation of the consumer standards and the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) has started work to move in that direction. However, this proposed regime does not make any progress in solving the underlying issue, which is the power imbalance between landlords and tenants and the resultant lack of accountability of landlords to their tenants.
Participants in our study argued that the current regulatory regime is not fit for its purpose because its structure is not designed to ameliorate the concerns of the social housing tenants rather it is designed to create legitimacy for the housing providers. Findings from our study revealed that social housing tenants were made to feel helpless with nowhere to go to have their concerns addressed and often are unable to demand accountability from their housing providers when ignored or disrespected. A few participants in our study who have had their complaints logged with the housing ombudsman (HO) informed us that they have to wait a longer period before their concerns are either investigated or addressed.
The current regulatory regime has value for money at its core. The regulatory regime needs to be restructured to focus on improving the experiences of social housing (including council tenants). Promoting the lived experience of tenants should be at the core of their operations. As evidence from ITV’s investigations, tenants lived experience has been placed at the peripheral. For instance, social housing tenants have often used social media platforms to make public complaints when their housing providers have been dismissive, or where several efforts taken to get their housing providers to respond to their complaints have been futile.
3. How clearly defined are the roles of the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman?
The housing ombudsman (HO) was created as an avenue that should enable social housing tenants to seek redress and resolve disputes between social housing tenants and their housing landlords. Our study revealed that the mechanisms for seeking redress through the HO is often not clear and the complaints system is dysfunctional. When complaints are submitted, the process of seeking redress is really slow and this further makes social housing tenants feel helpless.
On the other hand, the role of the RSH is to regulate housing providers in England via ensuring effective economic and consumer regulations. The RSH is seen by participants in our study as not being an independent body and has no distinct power to speak to tenants or on behalf of the tenants. Also, the RSH does not have the power to visit properties when complaints are made by tenants, except where the failure to comply with the standards has caused serious harm to the tenants. However, it has the power to engage with the housing providers because the housing providers are expected to pay a fee to access their services (see Cross, 2020).
While the distinction is clear, the lack of a direct relationship between tenants and the Regulator means that they are not active participants in the Regulators’ co-regulatory approach. This lack of tenant participation in regulation further entrenches the power imbalances in the sector and drives landlords’ stigmatization of tenants.
4. Does the current regime allow tenants to effectively resolve issues?
As highlighted above, findings from our study revealed that the current regime does not allow tenants to effectively resolve issues. The majority of the social and council housing tenants that participated in our study suggested that the lack of accountability and their state of helplessness means that they do not have any effective voice at their housing providers, regional and national levels to effectively resolve issues that affect them, their identities and their experience of being social housing tenants.
The aim of the Green Paper and subsequently the White paper were to amplify the voice of social housing tenants and the opportunity for their voices to be heard by their landlords and to ensure that housing providers are accountable for their performance. We were fortunate to interview social housing tenants who identified themselves as “involved and engaged tenants” and our findings reveal that although they are members of a community or housing board, or belong to scrutiny panels, they still feel they are not being listened to.
Furthermore, at the heart of the White Paper is the plan to give more powers to the RSH by adopting a proactive consumer regulation. The effectiveness of the proposed consumer regulation is still unknown because tenants are often being placed in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis poor quality accommodation and services from their housing providers. This was a key concern from participants in our study, and emphasis was placed on the need to have a consumer-driven tenant body established to monitor consumer standards, advocate and lobby for the tenants.
Our participants stressed that addressing the stigma associated with social housing would require a substantial shift in the current regulatory regime to enable tenants to resolve issues and to speak on issues that affect them, also knowing that they will be listened to. Our participants suggested that tenants are often ignored and not respected.
5. Do the regulator and ombudsman have sufficient powers to take action against providers?
Participants in our study highlighted that why the RSH has the power to set consumer standards, they do not have the power to police them to enable housing providers to provide quality services, improve the quality of homes or hold them accountable. The RSH is not seen as having the power to enforce the consumer standards and neither is the regulator believed to have the interest of the tenants at the core of their services because their services are partially funded by the housing providers. This, our participants (i.e. social/council housing tenants) believe is to the detriment of their lived experience.
On the other hand, the HO is seen as having the power to investigate complaints submitted by the tenants, which would have to be supported by the landlords. Participants in our study argued that there is no independent route for them to access the HO except through their landlord and this creates a sense of powerlessness. This process makes seeking redress really slow, stressful and sometimes, complaints are ignored. Our participants posited that the HO has the power to adjudicate and give orders/recommendations to housing providers but the process is slow and stressful due to the poor complaint-handling culture by the housing providers.
A few participants in our study revealed that they were only able to secure a prompt response from their housing providers when they mentioned that they would go to the press. While those participants, who have submitted complaints claimed there is no clear complaints-handling policies/procedures through the housing providers and the HO because they were required to log their complaints through their housing providers, thereby making the complaint-handling procedure inaccessible. This lack of clear-cut complaints-handling policies/procedures led to delays in dealing with the tenants’ complaints, and this creates a massive hole in ensuring a tenant-focused regulation, where complaints are not ignored.
6. Will the reforms proposed in the Social Housing White Paper improve the regime and what progress has been made on implementing those reforms?
The Social Housing White Paper put forward new measures to enhance the regulatory power of the RSH to hold housing providers accountable and to enable them to proactively manage the sector. The White Paper re-introduced the consumer regulation. This, many claimed is a welcomed move. The RSH recently published its proposed consumer regulation and this revolves around six themes: safety, quality, neighbourhood, transparency, engagement and accountability, and tenancies. This many hope should be a proactive regulation into housing providers’ accountability, proactive inspections and improved and quality accommodation, and should promote interactions between the housing providers, the tenants and the regulator.
However, it is not clear how the stigma briefly highlighted in the White Paper but extensively discussed in the Green Paper following the Grenfell disaster would be addressed. Following the publication of our Stigma and Social Housing in England report, this has been a key concern from our engagement with wider stakeholders in the housing sector. It seems the White Paper has been deliberately designed to ignore the impact of social housing stigma on the everyday realities of social housing tenants and policy measures have not been designed around the recommendations put forward in the Green Paper to tackle the stigma in social housing (including council housing).
From our engagement with tenants groups, professional bodies, housing providers, trade bodies, advocacy groups etc, many have argued that the lack of policy measures to challenge stigma could affect the activities of the RSH going forward. It is obvious from the White Paper that tackling stigma falls outside the remit of the current regulatory regime.
In addition, the proposed reforms in the White Paper will not significantly improve the regime as they do not make any progress towards addressing the underlying issues of the power imbalance between landlords and tenants and the lack of accountability from landlords to tenants. What is required is a fundamental rethink of the regulatory framework to recreate governance and regulatory structures, which ensure that tenants have a voice at local, regional and national levels, as well as to ensure that there is effective accountability of landlords to tenants. The sector regulators and housing providers need to build a regulatory frame and approach, which promotes behaviour based on trust, accountability and inclusive collaboration. The regulatory space needs to change to enhance social housing tenants experience and their voices in shaping housing policy. To change the regulatory regime and move the housing sector forward, there needs to be a fundamental accountability shift, which must involve some shift of power to the tenants at the local, regional and national levels.
7. What changes, if any, should the Government make to the Decent Homes Standard?
The followings are the proposed changes that could be made to the Decent Homes Standard
- Ensure the provision of affordable, accessible and safe homes and not a commodity out of reach for those in need of affordable-decent social homes.
- Extensive investment in the construction and provision of quality tenure-blind, safe and affordable homes. This will provide people with the opportunity to have homes that they can afford and meet their needs.
- Ensure strict consumer regulation that will promote the provision of safe and habitable homes.
- Re-introduction of a national tenants’ voice, and the promotion of the regional and local tenants voice to give tenants the power required to lobby and challenge the poor services provided by the housing providers. The tenant voice would enable social housing tenants to tackle and address the negative narratives on social housing being a safety-net for something better – such as homeownership etc.
- Tenants and regulators be given the power to hold housing providers accountable when standards are breached or when tenants are not satisfied with the quality of the services and homes provided.
- Effective complaint procedures that will eradicate the sense of helplessness and powerlessness being felt by tenants, especially social housing tenants.
- There should be deliberate, sustained and genuine efforts by housing providers and the regulators to listen to tenants (especially social housing tenants) and take meaningful actions to consider and address their concerns, and be more proactive and accountable to them.
- National mechanisms to challenge the stigma associated with social housing. This will complement several efforts taken by various advocacy groups, professional bodies and trade bodies to tackle the stigma that makes social housing to be cast as inferior and poorly designed/managed accommodation. Challenging and tackling social housing stigma would require social housing tenants to have a significant and impactful voice to hold housing providers and regulators accountable.
- The need to stop the homeownership rhetoric that stigmatises social housing tenants and make social housing to be seen as a springboard or safety-net for something else. Social housing tenants felt that they were being made to be seen as second class citizens due to the language used to justify government policies on homeownership. Provision of quality, safe, accessible and affordable homes should be for all regardless of the tenure.
- There is a need to pay attention to the intersections between social housing stigma and the other forms of stigmas highlighted in our report and how they affect the experience of social housing tenants. Housing providers, policymakers and regulators could explore how the intersecting stigma affects and is inferred from the quality of homes and services provided to eradicate the feeling of being looked down on, disrespected or social housing being construed as inferior.
We hope that our feedback and recommendations will enable the Select Committee to take proactive actions to ameliorate the plights of many social housing tenants who have felt unheard, ignored or helpless by their housing providers and the regulators. As highlighted in the Green Paper and subsequently in the White Paper, the conversation and actions to challenge stigma in social housing need to continue.
To encourage this, we invited stakeholders in the housing sector to respond to our study by providing their perspectives on our consultation questions. Several housing providers have taken our recommendations on board and are having consultations with their tenants, a few policymakers, housing professionals and board members on how to challenge and tackle the stigma to improve the lived experience of social housing tenants, the quality of homes and services provided. We hope these conversations will lead to the necessary fundamental change.
Our consultation concluded at the end of October 2021 and the findings will be published in the coming weeks. We will do our best to send our consultation report to the Select Committee with the intention that it would further help inform policies.
Thanks for the opportunity to engage with the work of the Select Committee. Please, do not hesitate to contact us for clarification or additional input or future engagement where necessary.
Cross, L. (2020). Regulator confirms plans for £14.7m in RP fees amid 15% rate hike. Social Housing, [Online] (last updated 28 February). Available at: https://www.socialhousing.co.uk/news/news/regulator-confirms-plans-for-147m-in-rp-fees-amid-15-rate-hike-65252 [Accessed 15 December 2021].
Ejiogu, A. and Denedo, M. (2021). Stigma and Social Housing in England. [Online]. Available at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/business/research/management/organisation-society/our-research/social-housing/