Written evidence submitted by Shelter [RSH 047]
- It’s now been over 4.5 years since the devastating Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people. In its aftermath, the Government promised ‘a new deal for social housing’.
- We stand in support of Grenfell United, who have consistently argued for meaningful improvements to the regulation of social housing, so that a similar threat to life never happens again.
- Improved regulation of social housing is important both as a legacy of those who were killed and to help the bereaved and survivors achieve justice and closure.
- Residents of Grenfell Tower had to fight to have their concerns about the maintenance, management and modernisation of their homes heard before the fire. It’s appalling that, nearly five years later, they’re still fighting for stronger regulation and feel that Government appears to be dragging its feet.
- We see no need for the Committee to reconsider how widespread are the concerns about social housing, whether the current regime allow tenants to effectively resolve issues or whether the current regulatory regime is fit for purpose.
- We already have the answers to these questions. The need for more proactive regulation has been well-established and accepted by Government, via wide resident consultation, resulting in both a Green Paper and White Paper.
- There is already overwhelming support for a more proactive approach to regulation. Of the 485 respondents to the Green Paper’s proposals, a massive 79% (383) agreed that the Regulator should adopt a more proactive approach on consumer standards. Only 8% disagreed.
- Subsequently, in the Social Housing White Paper, the Government committed to legislate to ‘remove the ‘serious detriment test’ [which prevents proactive regulation] and introduce routine inspections for the largest landlords (with over 1,000 homes) every 4 years’.
- This legislation was promised ‘as soon as parliamentary time allows’. There is no reason for further delay. It was unacceptable that there was no Social Housing Bill in this year’s Queen’s Speech. The government should introduce legislation as soon as possible or look for opportunities to include these changes as part of other planned legislation.
- We urge the Committee to support Grenfell United, and residents still enduring poor standards, by recommending that the Government should urgently introduce the legislation to allow the Regulator of Social Housing to proactively inspect for and enforce new strong consumer standards.
- But regulation alone can’t improve social housing. It needs investment.
- Government must commit to investing in a new generation of decent social homes to both safeguard the health, safety and well-being of existing residents and the thousands of homeless families and individuals spending months, and even years, stuck in insecure, unsuitable and substandard ‘temporary accommodation’.
- We know that Government and MPs are concerned about the stigma residents of social housing routinely report, which is often evident in media and public prejudice.
- Better regulation of, and investment in, social housing will help remove this stigma – by sending a strong signal that social housing provides genuinely well-managed, well-maintained and modern homes fit for 21st century living.
- We welcome the opportunity to respond to this inquiry.
- Shelter is the UK’s biggest housing and homelessness charity and we exist to defend the right to a safe home and fight the devastating impact the housing emergency has on families and communities across the country.
ANSWERS TO SPECFIC QUESTIONS
Q1 How widespread and serious are the concerns about the quality of social housing?
- Following the Grenfell Tower fire, it was accepted by Government that there were widespread and serious concerns about the way social housing was managed, maintained and modernised.
- In the foreword to the Social Housing Green Paper, 14 months after the fire, then Prime Minister Teresa May stated: “as the 8,000 conversations and submissions behind this Green Paper show, many people living in England’s four million social homes feel ignored and stigmatised, too often treated with a lack of respect by landlords who appear remote, unaccountable and uninterested in meeting their needs”.
- And then Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, stated: “there is a powerful case for strengthening the Regulator”.
- Despite this, widespread and serious concerns remain. For example, ITV News Political Correspondent, Dan Hewitt, spent six months of this year travelling the country uncovering the shocking conditions endured by individuals and families living in social housing, owned and run by both local councils and housing associations. 
- This triggered a damning report by the Housing Ombudsman for England Richard Blakeway, which investigated 142 social housing providers and spoke to hundreds of tenants. Blakeway accused landlords of blaming tenants and not taking responsibility for disrepair. He called for “changes in culture, behaviour and approach; from being reactive to proactive, and from inferring blame to taking responsibility”.
- The latest English Housing Survey data shows that one in eight social homes (13%) fail the Decent Homes Standard. The social sector has a substantial stock of older buildings, requiring more maintenance, repair and modernisation. Almost three quarters (73%) of local authority homes, and 47% of housing association homes, were built between 1945 and 1980. Just 11% of local authority stock was built after 1980, compared with 38% of housing association homes.
Q2 What is the impact on social housing providers’ resources, and therefore their ability to maintain and improve their housing stock, of the need to remediate building safety risks and retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient?
- Maintenance, repairs and modernisation of homes are usually paid through tenants' rents and service charges.
- However, given the scale and urgency of the challenges the sector now faces in remediating unsafe buildings, tackling disrepair and bringing all homes up to the Decent Homes Standard, not to mention building towards net-zero, government funding is needed.
- It is clear that the competing challenges facing the sector today cannot be addressed with the reserves, borrowing power and rent revenues of social housing providers alone.
- And in addition to the urgent demands of the building safety crisis and the climate emergency, we are also facing a national housing emergency. Shelter estimate that 274,000 people are homeless in England right now, with thousands more at risk of losing their homes and millions more are affected by the housing emergency. 
- Social housing providers have increasingly been expected to shoulder the costs of delivering the social homes needed to tackle our growing housing emergency, alongside their other objectives and responsibilities to tenants.
- Grant funding for social housing has been cut in the past decade and, while social housing providers are delivering new homes through borrowing and their own reserves, the drop in government funding means the number of new social homes delivered is far too small.
- Last year, less than 6,000 (5,955) new social homes were delivered. Nowhere near the 90,000 that many, including the Committee, agree is needed to tackle the housing emergency. Of this 6,000, less than one third were grant funded.
- Delivering on the competing challenges of safety, climate and housing need requires government funding.
- Recommendation 1: The government must invest £12.8bn per year over the next ten years to deliver a new generation of good quality, genuinely affordable social rent homes, and ensure that there is adequate additional funding to bring existing homes up to standard.
Q3 Is the current regime for regulating social housing fit for purpose?
- No. Government Green and White papers, since the fire at Grenfell Tower, make it clear that the current regime for regulating social housing is not fit for purpose.
- The White paper sets out a framework for urgent and long overdue changes to the regime. Shelter welcomed the White Paper when it was published and called for swift progress to be made in implementing the proposals.
- However, progress on delivering the legislative measures needed to move forward in developing a new, proactive system of enforcement of consumer standards in social housing has been unacceptably slow.
- Recommendation 2: We urge the Committee to recommend that, to avoid further risks to the health, safety and well-being of social housing residents, the Government urgently honours its promise in the Social Housing White paper to legislate to remove the ‘serious detriment test’ as soon as parliamentary time allows. The government should introduce legislation as soon as possible or look for opportunities to include these changes as part of other planned legislation.
Q4 How clearly defined are the roles of the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman?
- The roles of the Regulator and the Ombudsman are clearly defined in law.
- The Ombudsman provides redress in individual cases of malpractice, usually by means of compensation.
- The Regulator sets and enforces the regulatory standards, including the enforcement of systemic (rather than individual) breaches of the consumer standards.
- The ‘memorandum of understanding’ between the Ombudsman and the Regulator sets out how the two work together. This includes the Ombudsman’s responsibility to refer ‘systemic issues’ with individual social landlords to the Regulator so that the Regulator can reactively investigate providers.
- However, residents do not understand the different roles of Regulator and the Ombudsman. Shelter’s research across 2018-19 found that awareness and understanding of their respective roles (and in some cases existence) amongst tenants is poor.
- The White Paper acknowledges this challenge, proposing an ‘awareness campaign’ so that tenants know their rights. This is welcome.
- While the Ombudsman’s new complaint handling code requires landlords to make clear their complaints procedure and the role of the Ombudsman in correspondence with residents, this falls short of a ‘campaign’.
- Recommendation 3: The Government should ensure that more is done to raise awareness of the Housing Ombudsman Service, the role of the Regulator and tenants’ routes to redress.
Q5 Does the current regime allow tenants to effectively resolve issues?
- As above, it’s already been accepted by Government that the current regime does not allow tenants to effectively resolve breaches of the required standards. The case doesn’t need to be remade.
- The Ombudsman’s Service has improved in recent years particularly in its speed of delivery, reducing average ‘determination’ times by several months since 2017.
- The Government has also committed to removing the ‘democratic filter’ in the Building Safety Bill currently passing through parliament. The democratic filter requires tenants to raise their complaints with a ‘designated person’ (an MP, councillor or designated tenant panel) or wait 8 weeks to take their complaints directly to the Ombudsman and represented an unnecessary barrier to tenants getting a resolution in good time. The Ombudsman itself has argued that the democratic filter “unfairly disadvantages social housing residents compared to other sectors”, where such barriers don’t exist.
- We called for the removal of the democratic filter in our 2018 response to the Social Housing Green Paper and welcome the Government’s proactive approach to legislating for this change through the Building Safety Bill, currently passing through parliament.
- However, the same cannot be said for the Regulator. 4.5 years from the fire, the Regulator still has no legal power to intervene and enforce consumer standards unless there is reason to believe there’ll be ‘serious detriment’ to residents as a result of a ‘systemic’ breach.
- This sets an unnecessarily high bar for the Regulator to intervene when landlords fail to meet consumer standards. Consequently, very few cases reach the Regulator and even fewer receive intervention.
- The ‘serious detriment’ test also means the Regulator cannot proactively enforce the consumer standards through monitoring and inspection. This represents a major barrier to both the Regulator’s ability to fulfil its consumer regulation function, and to the whole regime’s ability to effectively resolve systemic issues.
- Tenants will continue to face problems until the Regulator can enforce standards proactively, through a rigorous inspection regime and stronger enforcement powers. Failings will then be far more likely to be uncovered and addressed before they become a serious risk to the safety and wellbeing of tenants.
- The Regulator also needs legislation in order to develop new consumer standards. The White Paper sets out plans to legislate to introduce new fundamental objectives to the Regulator’s consumer function and give the Regulator power to publish a Code of Practice on the consumer standards to make clear what is expected of landlords.
- We set out how the consumer standards are not fit for purpose in our response to the Social Housing Green Paper, and this has been recognised by government in the White Paper’s proposed reforms. Yet, without legislation, the Regulator cannot begin designing and consulting on the new, improved consumer standards and guidance that are needed to make the regime effective.
Q6 Do the Regulator and Ombudsman have sufficient powers to take action against providers?
- Again, Government has already accepted that the current suite of powers available to the Regulator are not sufficient to hold to account providers failing the consumer standards, nor in preventing or disincentivising failings from happening in the first place.
- In addition, their use is severely limited by the high bar for intervention set by the ‘serious detriment test’.
- The Social Housing White Paper recognised the need to bolster the Regulator’s enforcement powers and proposes important changes – including removing the cap on fines for failings and the ability to arrange emergency repairs. We welcome these proposals.
- But these changes also require legislation. 4.5 years on from the fire at Grenfell Tower and over year on from the publication of the White Paper the lack of progress in legislating to implement these essential changes to the regime is unacceptable.
- Recommendation 4: We urge the Committee to recommend that the government finds the parliamentary time to deliver the legislation set out in the Social Housing White Paper as a matter of priority, so that the Regulator can set about designing a new proactive and effective regime of inspection and enforcement.
Q7 Will the reforms proposed in the Social Housing White Paper improve the regime and what progress has been made on implementing those reforms?
- Yes. As set out above, the White Paper proposes a large number of reforms to the regulatory regime. Many of the proposals are essential in transforming the regulation of the social rented sector and improving the experiences of residents in their homes. We welcomed the proposals as a step in the right direction.
- The impact that these changes have for tenants will, however, depend on the details of a fully developed regime and on its implementation by the Regulator and the Ombudsman.
- Further, there were many areas of reform – such as enhancing the professionalisation of the sector and amplifying tenants’ voices - that were not set out in detail in the White Paper. While Shelter supports the direction of these proposals, it is vital the changes take full account of the lived experiences and expertise of tenants and deliver real, tangible change.
- Recommendation 5: In designing a detailed regime and building on the less well-developed ideas in the White Paper the Regulator and the Ombudsman must commit to working with tenants meaningfully to ensure the proposals for better regulation and redress lead to real change on the ground.
- The Regulator has recently set out its ‘initial thinking’ for implementing the White Paper proposals. But it cannot genuinely begin developing new, improved consumer standards, its proactive inspection regime nor the details of how it will use its enforcement powers until it is directed to do so in legislation. Nor can it consult with tenants on the details of these changes.
- Even once legislation is passed, these processes will reasonably take over a year to complete, meaning tenants are not likely to see real improvements on the ground for a number of years – and certainly not by the five-year anniversary of the fire.
- As such, the implementation of the White Paper’s proposed reforms has been unacceptably slow, despite a clear consensus since the fire at Grenfell Tower that the current regime is not fit for purpose and is putting the safety and well-being of millions at risk.
Q10 Should all providers of social housing, not just councils, be required to register with the Regulator?
- Yes. All providers and managers of both general needs and specialist/supported social housing should be required to be registered with the Regulator and be subject to enforcement of the consumer standards.
- Management organisations, such as Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) and Arms’ Length Management Organisations (ALMOs) should also be required to be registered by the Regulator and subject to enforcement. Grenfell Tower was managed by a TMO.
- Recommendation 5: Consumer standards in social housing should go further – and apply to all providers of accommodation that is offered on a statutory basis, including accommodation provided under: homelessness legislation, social services legislation (e.g. s.17 Children Act), immigration legislation (e.g. to asylum seekers). In the broadest sense, these are all forms of ‘social housing’ because they are provided to people via the state.
- The growth huge growth in the use of temporary accommodation provided under homelessness legislation means it’s effectively become an insecure, poorly regulated form of social housing. Homeless families and individuals can spend months, and in some cases years, in temporary accommodation.
- It’s increasing provided by unregistered private providers, who charge high ‘nightly’ rates and receive large sums of public money. Their websites often describe their services as ‘social housing solutions’.
- People living in accommodation of this sort are often much more vulnerable to poor standards of housing management and maintenance (e.g. having experienced the trauma of homelessness, receiving one offer only, having no alternative options if standards aren’t met, being afraid of the consequences of complaining).
- While such accommodation is subject to the Housing Health & Safety Rating System, there’s no inspection and enforcement from local authority housing standards teams.
- So, accommodation provided to the most vulnerable people is completely unregulated.
Q11 What challenges does the diversification of social housing providers pose for the regulatory system?
- It can be very difficult for residents to know who their accommodation provider actually is and whether they are registered with the Regulator.
- With so many homes let and managed by social landlords having been delivered by planning gain (through section 106 agreements), a scattering of social homes can end up in a block owned and generally managed by an unregistered private developer.
- Private developers can both bid for Affordable Housing Programme funding and be registered with the Regulator.
- Recommendation 6: Residents of social housing need access to a website where they can easily check, via their address, whether their landlord is registered, what standards their landlord is subject to (e.g. whether the Regulator’s consumer standards apply) and what they should do if the standards are not met.
 A new deal for social housing, August 2018, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
 The charter for social housing residents: social housing white paper, November 2020, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
 A New Deal for Social Housing, August 2018, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
 Housing Ombudsman urges zero tolerance approach on damp and mould, 26 October 2021, Housing Ombudsman Service Press Release
 English Housing Survey 2020 to 2021: Headline report, December 2021, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
 Homelessness in England 2021, November 2021, Shelter
 Denied the right to a safe home, May 2021, Shelter
 Live tables on affordable housing supply: Table 1011C, November 2021, Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
 Memorandum of understanding, September 2021, The Housing Ombudsman Service and the Regulator of Social Housing
 Building for our future, 2019, Shelter
 The charter for social housing residents: social housing white paper, November 2020, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
 Complaint handling code, July 2020, The Housing Ombudsman Service
 Annual report 2020-21, November 2021, The Housing Ombudsman Service
 Building Safety Bill: Explanatory notes, July 2021, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
 Building for our future, 2019, Shelter
 Apply for affordable housing funding, November 2020, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
 Guidance for new entrants on applying for registration, December 2020, the Regulator of Social Housing