Written evidence submitted by South West London Law Centre [RSH 098]
South West London Law Centre (SWLLC) are a law centre helping local people access justice. We provide free and independent legal advice on social welfare issues including housing, debt, immigration, and employment. SWLLC also run pro bono clinics and deliver the housing Duty Advice Scheme across 3 County Courts with a catchment area wider than our 6 London Boroughs.
This evidence submission of SWLLC includes cases of tenants who have asked us to share their experience in hope it will bring systematic change. SWLLC have changed the names of these tenants. The tenants who have chosen to share their experience reflect the
enquiries we receive daily.
How widespread and serious are the concerns about the quality of social housing?
The quality of social housing across south west London is a huge concern. As a law centre that helps tenants access and keep safe housing, we are regularly asked to represent cases where the properties are not safe or secure. Often it is the most vulnerable tenants who are left in properties where the social landlord is failing to meet their duty.
Although levels of disrepair within properties are of concern and vary from broken windows to collapsed ceilings these issues are exacerbated by the wait times tenants are subject to when trying to improve the quality of their homes.
*Emelina is a tenant of Clarion Housing – the UK’s largest housing association.
The block that Emelina lives in has extensive infestation that affects multiple properties in the block. Emelina has been told that she must pay for the cost of any work to address the infestation herself.
Neither of Emelina’s front doors work, including the chain and peephole to her property and the communal entry system has been broken for over 3 months. As the entry system is broken tenants use items to wedge the entrance door open. This has allowed people who are not associated with the block to access the block and is causing anti-social behaviour.
This causes great concern and insecurity to Emelina who has previously been subject to domestic violence and is in the process of finalising a legal non-molestation order against her ex-partner who lives locally.
Emelina has been making complaints to Clarion, but the complaints keep being closed at a Stage 1 complaint with the landlord stating the issue has been resolved. This prohibits Emelina from continuing through the landlord’s official complaint process and getting her complaints suitably investigated. Emelina has the support of her local MP who has been writing letters to Clarion for over 3 months to raise these issues. They remain unresolved.
SWLLC are aware that this type of issue exists in many properties. It is the handling of something that should be easy to resolve to make tenants secure that adds to our concern of how widespread these issues are and how much tenants are at risk.
*Jo lives with her two children both of whom are under 10. They live in a 2-bed property that is owned by Croydon Council. Jo is registered disabled, and her daughter is believed to have the same condition as Jo and is under hospital investigation for this.
Jo has lived in her property since 2019. Jo’s walls are covered in black mould with mushrooms growing in the corners of the rooms. Jo has swapped bedrooms with her children in hope that moving them into her bedroom will be less damaging for their health.
All three family members have issues with breathing because of their property and Jo’s son has been administered steroids to help his brittle asthma. Their family GP has verified that their home is causing these issues.
The trauma of trying to get these issues addressed for the past 2 years has meant that Jo and her family wish to move from the property as they no longer see it as their home. They are being prevented from doing so by their social landlord.
None of the tenants SWLLC have spoken to were made aware of their rights to access the Housing Ombudsman or told about the Regulator for Social Housing by their social landlord.
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?
Reactionary cases are not good for the tenant and cost the landlord and other statutory services.
Tenants come to the law centre after many months or years of raising complaints against the disrepair in their property. The burden is often pushed onto tenants to deal with the disrepair rather than the landlord addressing it.
Ageing properties that rely on communal heating face annual heating and hot water outages. SWLLC know that people rely on visiting community centres and libraries to keep warm because of these outages, this is vital during the winter. Occasionally social landlords will offer use of a local gym shower when a tenant’s hot water is broken. This option is never suitable, especially during a pandemic. Tenants are offered use of an expensive plug-in fan heater which means the burden of cost is pushed on to the tenant. This also applies when a tenant is told to use a dehumidifier by their social landlord to reduce mould in the property which is caused by the property itself.
Tenants are deterred from claiming compensation from their social landlord and pay £100s out of their pockets when their properties are falling as well as continuing to pay service charges for services they are not receiving, such as hot water. As tenants are left in disrepair and broken properties that won’t be fixed compensation is sometimes the only offering from the social landlord to compensate the tenant for impact or loss. Tenants are sometimes manipulated by their social landlords and told if they claim compensation there will be less money to pay for improvement works to the property.
Tenants should not be put over a barrel and led to believe that them raising a complaint and asking for reimbursement will lead to a prevention of improvement work, tenants also report that they are pitted against leaseholders and told that improvement works will cause their leaseholder neighbour to incur charges.
SWLLC are unclear why seemingly simple tasks such as fixing someone's front door takes months to do. SWLLC are not aware of housing associations that have recently gone bankrupt which implies that they should have the resources to resolve tenant issues. Tenants are paying rent for properties that should be suitable for them as they are fulfilling their side of the tenancy.
The BRE group reported in November 2021 that poor housing costs the NHS £1.4 billion a year. 
Investment in existing housing stock and housing legal advice will reduce the greater cost of poor housing. Dame Hazel Genn’s report entitled ‘Law for Health : Using legal services to tackle determinants of health’  states poor quality damp housing leads to chronic asthma which results in medication and a referral to a specialist clinic. Dame Hazel Genn’s report finds that the legal remedy for this is for us to compel the landlord to comply with their legal duty to provide healthy safe housing.
*Julie has told us that she has been trying to get her local authority landlord to make adaptations to her home due to her disability, so she is safe to move around her property. The social landlord has not been forth coming with adaptations which means Julie is at risk of failing or being stuck inside her property.
Is the current regime for regulating social housing fit for purpose?
A step in the right direction.
SWLLC are pleased that for the past few months the Housing Ombudsman has been more vocal about its work and its disappointment in social landlords. SWLLC are pleased to see the Housing Ombudsman speaking more on the news to highlight the issue of disrepair and SWLLC feel that the Ombudsman should continue in this direction. Tenants who access the Ombudsman have reported that the resources recently created have been useful.
SWLLC feel that the Ombudsman should create a more extensive list of tenant panels who act as a delegated person as the existing list doesn’t include hundreds of tenant panels that exist in London.
SWLLC encourage tenant self-referrals to the Ombudsman and regulator as political delegated persons have been reported to block referrals.
How clearly defined are the roles of the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman?
The role of the Regulator of Social Housing is not often referenced by tenants who are pursuing a housing case although some tenants when seeking advice have already gone through the Housing Ombudsman. When SWLLC reached out to our community network to develop this evidence submission all the people who responded had not heard of the Regulator of Social Housing.
When trying to communicate the role of the Regulator and the Ombudsman in helping community members know which resources are available to them our Community Engagement Manager uses the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’. This information isn’t accessible and creates more question than it does provide answers. SWLLC feel that clearer communication is needed to define the roles to the community.
Does the current regime allow tenants to effectively resolve issues?
SWLLC know from experience that the Housing Ombudsman doesn’t mean the tenants’ housing issue is resolved. Clients who contact us have sometimes been to the Ombudsman, but nothing has happened as a result.
In some cases, it won’t matter what penalties the landlord incurs, if social landlords do not have the resources to fix the properties tenants lives or health will not improve, and the issue will not be resolved.
Properly funded free legal advice is crucial in enabling tenants to ensure they are getting the best result available to them.
Do the regulator and ombudsman have sufficient powers to take action against providers?
No, the recommendations made by the Housing Ombudsman to social landlords do not legally oblige them to take action or incur any financial penalties. SWLLC know from ‘repeat offender’ landlords that the issues are not resolved as a result of recommendations made by the Ombudsman, sometimes legal advice and representation on behalf of the client is the only suitable remedy and this should be suitably funded and available to tenants.
When tenants come to SWLLC they are desperate for resolve. Although tenants may have accessed their MP, local Cllrs and the Ombudsman to improve their housing situation in some cases law will be the only enforcer.
The reduction in funding to legal aid for housing disrepair cases means that tenants are turning to ‘no win, no fee’ solicitors who target estates and take a high percentage of their case settlement and have little interest in ensuring improvement works are completed – unlike SWLLC.
The reduction in legal aid however, has made it more challenging for community law firms to take disrepair cases. The number of disrepair cases has dramatically reduced and as such disrepair and poor housing has flourished.
In some cases, the social landlord does not have the finances to carry out the level of repairs needed to improve the property. SWLLC believes this burden is than passed on to the tenant who is expected to use items like a plug-in heater as the local authority landlord does not have adequate funds to permanently fix the heating. A further burden is passed onto the health sector as the consequences of poor housing increases the societal cost for everyone.
As highlighted in Emeline’s case tenants are also expected to pay for treatment of infestation despite the issue affecting her entire block.
Although the Regulator and Ombudsman can make recommendations to social landlords, if there is not adequate central government funding to fix housing problems beyond reactionary repairs the issues will keep returning. Tenants will continue suffering.
Tenants although need to be listened to, they also need action.
Will the reforms proposed in the social housing White Paper improve the regime and what progress has been made on implementing those reforms?
Without the funds to improve the quality of housing and the access to legal advice to enforce the improvement of social housing SWLLC can’t see how the commitments in the White Paper will change social housing. The White Paper speaks of using social housing as a springboard to homeownership. 100,000s of tenants choose their social housing as their lifelong home as the market beyond social housing is not suitable. These homes whether lived in for a year or 90 years should be properties that are maintained to a good standard.
Equally the commitment to listen to tenants is meaningless unless social landlords have the resource to act on what the tenant tells them is needed – such as repairing, fixing their property and preventing the housing issues becoming worse.
Adequate funding should be provided to help people without adequate means to fund housing legal advice, casework and representation so that tenants can properly get landlords to carry out their full obligations. Landlords face little risk or incentives to improve their stock as has been highlighted in many recent tv documentaries with the current weak position of tenants.
What changes, if any, should the Government make to the Decent Homes Standard?
SWLLC believe the standards need to be more enforceable. There are positive recommendations made within the Decent Homes Standard to ensure tenants are safe, warm, and secure. On the ground this is not what the tenant experience is.
Tenants deserve greater engagement when developing Decent Homes Standard so it actually reflects what they expect from their homes and neighbourhoods.
A standard should also reflect the needs of tenants with disabilities who are left in homes that meet the ‘Decent Homes Standard’ but are not safe for them as they can’t move around the property or escape in an emergency.
Should the Decent Homes Standard be amended to include energy efficiency and other means of mitigating climate change, and if so how?
Repair to prevent climate waste.
Repairs should be dealt with at an early stage to prevent the issue becoming worse and the climate impact growing.
Repairs not being carried out contributes to climate change. We list below some of the ways which the tenants we have spoken with have been forced by their landlord to waste fuel. Although SWLLC have highlighted particular stories, these are representative of many of the clients we see:
*Zara is a tenant who has young children and lives in a property where the windows and doors do not fit the frames they are build for. This means that hot air escapes the property and cold air comes in. Although there are gaps in the frames Zara has to use a screwdriver to unlock the windows to her and her children's bedrooms and living space. Zara has been reporting this issue since 2018 as her windows let warm air out and let cold air in.
*Tom was told by his landlord that he is responsible for managing the severe mould in his property and should keep their windows open at all times including in freezing weather to reduce the mould.
Tom has been reporting since 2019.
*Val was given an expensive plug-in fan heater by her local authority landlord when her heating system first didn’t work. This issue affects most of her estate. Val used this plug-in heater daily from October – March 2020 as her heating hasn’t worked and will be using it throughout this winter.
It has been reported to us by tenants that are part of regeneration programmes this year (2021) that their properties have been left to fall into such a state of disrepair that demolition is presented as the only option. This is due to the cost and extent of the needed repairs. As widely reported demolition has a huge impact on carbon emissions and is often not the favoured option by tenants.
Estate Watch report that in south west London there is 22 estates at risk of demolition in the boroughs SWLLC have law centres. These estates face the same fate of tenants being moved out of their homes, their homes being demolished, sold off and rebuilt at a reduced level of social housing. Disrepair is cited as a main issue in these regeneration schemes. It is entirely unacceptable that tenants’ homes are left to rot and then presented as the cause of demolition. If tenant complaints were heard and dealt with at a much earlier stage estate demolition would not be required. There needs to be political will to improve social housing and to acknowledge the rights that tenants have.
Social housing is so significantly underfunded that social landlords tell us they are forced to demolish – sell off and rebuild. This process contributes significantly to climate change as highlighted by UCL reports into embodied carbon.
The Housing Ombudsman and Regulator should take a stronger position to force Landlords to prevent demolition and put a stop to managed decline. The Ombudsman and Regulator should also be obliged as bodies to set reduction targets for embodied carbon for social landlords.
Should all providers of social housing, not just councils, be required to register with the regulator?
What challenges does the diversification of social housing providers pose for the regulatory system?
Different tenures may expect different outcomes from a regulatory system. An example could be that a tenant who has such severe disrepair in their property it in uninhabitable and may wish to move somewhere more suitable where a leaseholder may expect to be bought out of their property. Different tenures may also have access to different levels of housing advice. This means that the remedies to resolve housing issues available to tenants and leaseholders are not the same.
Stock transfer from local authority landlords has also caused loss of accountability in social housing as we have seen in Merton and Sutton. In these instances, tenant federations are extremely important in holding landlords to account.