Written evidence submitted by Siobhain McDonagh MP for Mitcham and Morden [RSH 053]
Disrepair and redevelopment
Every single day I contact housing associations on behalf of social housing tenants living in disrepair. This year, ITV led an investigation into the Eastfields estate in Mitcham, run by Clarion Housing Association, reporting on the appalling conditions faced by so many residents. A weekly meeting now takes place between my office and Clarion’s to monitor the progress of each case individually.
The problem in Merton is that a significant amount of Clarion’s stock is at the end of its life. Some of it is on the waiting list to be redeveloped, but a solution years down the line is no excuse for letting paying residents wait and live in squalor. Everyone agrees that Eastfields needs to be regenerated and demolished, but that does not solve the disrepair across the other estates that so desperately also need to be redeveloped.
To make a complaint and see it through to its conclusion is an extraordinary process of bureaucracy that can prove particularly difficult for residents who may not have internet access or phone credit, who may speak English as a second language, or who find it difficult to get time off work in the day.
The complainant starts by dealing with a call centre where nobody knows the tenants or the properties in which they live and nobody is responsible to see a complaint through to conclusion. The call handlers do not have access to the records of contractors and so cannot update tenants on progress or likely scheduled visits.
If people do not get the repairs done, their only option is to go through a two-stage written complaints process. If they ever mention the threat of legal action, they can expect their case to be shut down immediately in order to prevent financial exposure to the housing association making it even more difficult for a distressed tenant to get their repair problems solved.
Historically, housing associations were housing charities born out of their communities in response to the evident social need for good low rent accommodation. In every wave of their development, they involved the local community whether they be through churches or local professionals such as solicitors or surveyors or local charities such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club or disability charities. The people who were on the management committees of housing associations and often those who worked in them were local and knew the residents and the properties – and had a vested interest in maintaining standards. Staff were organised on patch based system with residents knowing the name of their housing officers and, in turn, the housing officers knew many of their tenants. If repairs did not get done, those same housing officers would be held personally responsible when they visited the estate. The abolition of this structure and the increasing size and merger between housing associations seems to have lost all sense of community and place. While the theory of the purpose and nature of housing associations remains the same, the structures, the staff and the boards have all become far more remote and less accountable.
Housing Ombudsman and Social Housing Regulator
After going through the housing association’s multi-stage complaints process. then you start the ombudsman process from scratch only to find that you need a signed form from a designated person such as an MP or a councillor, or to wait eight whole weeks if you do not. And when you eventually reach the burdensome finishing line, the ombudsman is an authority that looks at the process, not the disrepair.
This is an extraordinary process for residents who may have serious disrepair issues requiring urgent attention.
The alternative is to take a complaint to the social housing regulator. However, it states:
“By law, our remit does not include proactive monitoring of how a registered provider performs or complies with our consumer standards…By law, we can only take action against a landlord when it has made significant, systemic failure that breaches the standards we have set.”
“Although our role is not to resolve individual disputes between tenants and landlords we signpost tenants, or their representatives, who have individual complaints, to the Housing Ombudsman Service.”
While the regulator is required to proactively regulate economic standards of housing associations, it can only take action on consumer standards reactively when it finds evidence of “serious detriment” to tenants. It is no wonder that the regulator concluded that no regulatory action was needed when inspecting Clarion on the back of endless complaints from Tower Hamlets councillors five years ago.
“From the information we considered, we could see there were individual incidents of service failures, including in relation to Clarion’s handling of some complaints, but we have not seen evidence of systemic failings by Clarion which would necessitate regulatory action.”
However, the regulator did not meet directly with a single tenant or leaseholder as part of the investigation.
Long term problem
The coalition Government slashing the social housing budget by 50% overnight, reducing it from £9.5 billion to £4.2 billion, slashing capital grants and attempting to make up the difference through the introduction of an unaffordable “affordable” rent, where tenants were to pay a rent of 80% market value.
The whole system relied on those housing associations having ever larger borrowing power and equity in their stock, which in turn forced mergers, taking them further away from their community and their tenants. The coalition Government completely abolished the Audit Commission and the Housing Inspectorate under the bonfire of the quangos.
Social Housing White Paper
The Government’s Social Housing White Paper envisages a thorough strengthening of the regulator’s role in consumer issues of the type abolished by the Government before last. The regulator would be proactive. It would monitor and drive landlords’ compliance with improved consumer standards. It would introduce routine inspections for the largest landlords every four years. It would give the regulator a power to publish a code of practice on consumer standards. It would strengthen the regulator’s enforcement power, and it would introduce a new power to arrange emergency repairs if needed, where a survey uncovers evidence of systemic landlord failure.
But not a single word was given in the Queen’s Speech to enacting those solutions into law.
While I am certain that a strengthened regulator would be a positive step in the right direction, I am under no illusion that it does not build a single new socially rented home. Across the country there are now 1.15 million households on social housing waiting lists, but just 6,566 new social homes were built last year, one of the lowest numbers on record. At that rate, it will take 175 years to give everyone on the waiting list a social rented home.