Written evidence submitted by Citizen Housing [RSH 102]
•How widespread and serious are the concerns about the quality of social housing?
Citizen believes the concerns about the quality of social housing is are well founded. We do not consider that poor quality social housing is widespread across the sector, however, there are significant issues that need to be addressed.
The media spotlight and the Housing Ombudsman’s recent spotlight study into damp and mould has highlighted some of these issues, including:
Related to the above point, there is limited recognition of the need to regenerate large parts of our social housing stock where homes are no longer fit for purpose, where the investment required to bring homes to a modern standard is either technically impossible or unviable.
Quality - The Decent Homes standard from the outset is a very low standard. The quality of some social housing has been adversely impacted by years of under-investment.
Investment in existing stock needs to be funded and there is no rent flexibility to help meet the cost of improvements, particularly for landlords where rent levels are low.
There is no subsidy funding available to fund regeneration schemes – demolition of obsolete stock and redevelopment to provide modern, good quality homes.
•Is the current regime for regulating social housing fit for purpose?
Citizen does not believe additional regulation is required. Citizen recognises there have been many changes in regulatory identities over the years and believes the Regulator would benefit from a deeper focus on the issues facing social housing providers, like the quality of, and investment in, existing homes.
While some information is provided via the Statistical Data Return (SDR) on the number of homes meeting the relatively low Government Standard, there is limited regulation or requirements on Registered Providers to report on their planned investment and regeneration programmes, the focus is often on the number of additional homes.
Citizen believes that an increased focus on investment levels and Asset Strategy plans would strengthen the role of the regulator, particularly focussing on the customer/consumer view.
•Will the reforms proposed in the social housing White Paper improve the regime and what progress has been made on implementing those reforms?
Citizen welcomes the reforms proposed within the White Paper however Citizen believes the quality of homes, finding ways to increase the voice of the customer to be heard and finding ways of helping tenants become homeowners are not new issues that the sector, government, and regulator need to tackle. In this regard, Citizen believes progress in implementing these reforms is sporadic and fragmented. There are examples of good practice across the sector in terms of customer engagement, providing quality homes and services, however, these are not consistent across the sector.
•Should all providers of social housing, not just councils, be required to register with the regulator?
Citizen believes that all providers should be subject to regulation to mitigate some of the issues we have seen in the sector over recent years. For example, we have seen the collapse of several small exempt accommodation providers in Birmingham. With stockholding below 1,000 units, these providers were not required to register with the Regulator.
•What challenges does the diversification of social housing providers pose for the regulatory system?
The diversification of social housing providers will pose challenges because the Regulator will need to, for example:
•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?
The impact on resources will be about how providers use their limited resources to fund competing priorities. With a lack of subsidy available to make homes zero carbon ready, additional costs faced to comply with the future Building Safety Bill and likely additional investment to comply with the outcome of the Decent Homes review, some social housing providers will be required to prioritise investment in their existing homes at the expense of building new homes because they will not be able to fund both.
Citizen recognises there will be an issue in that some homes cannot easily be retrofitted due to the nature of the building’s construction, potentially rendering a proportion of social housing homes obsolete, exacerbating the need for new homes at the same time as some providers are having to curtail investment in new homes at the expense of investment in its existing homes. The lack of recognition and public subsidy to help deal with poor quality and obsolete stock will hamper the strive to improve the quality of social housing.
•What changes, if any, should the Government make to the Decent Homes Standard?
Citizen believes that the original Decent Homes Programme was a low standard and didn’t include anything about the external environment of our homes; neither did it address things such as internal communal areas so any future version of the Decent Homes standard would need to include these.
We would want any future version to look at ‘homes’ in the round that include the communal interior and exterior areas.
We believe that the views of tenants should be considered in setting the new standard – what’s a priority for tenants. These priorities would need to be in the context of the investment required by the landlord to maintain and protect the building asset.
•Should the Decent Homes Standard be amended to include energy efficiency and other means of mitigating climate change, and if so how?
Citizen believes it would be helpful to have a definition and measure for energy in addition to the SAP ratings and EPC classifications.
We would also welcome guidance on those buildings that cannot easily be retrofitted to reach the higher energy ratings due to their construction and/or the cost of retrofitting rendering them unviable.
We would welcome recognition that subsidy will be needed for registered providers to deliver energy efficiency and climate change measures.
•How clearly defined are the roles of the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman?
The role of the Housing Ombudsman Service (HOS) is clearly defined and understood by customers and housing colleagues alike. The Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) is understood in its role to oversee governance and finance matters of Registered Providers. Citizen believes that the level of knowledge that customers have about the RSH is lower than that of the HOS and this is likely due to the high threshold for intervention around consumer regulation.
Citizen would like to know when the proposed memorandum of understanding with the New Homes Ombudsman will be shared. Some social landlords are also developers for outright sale so is it envisaged that they will be members of both schemes. It would be helpful to understand how these schemes will work together so we can so align our ways of working.
•Do the regulator and ombudsman have sufficient powers to act against providers?
The Ombudsman’s increased powers and remit have been used to take actions against providers who have failed in their duties and the HOS have also used their resources to better support providers and share learning. Citizen would welcome that learning is shared across the sector and clarity on how the HOS, in engaging with the private rented sector, will be able to cope with the extra demands, achieve KPI targets and provide a valuable and value for money service to registered providers and their customers.
The RSH intervention is largely limited to failures in governance or financial viability standards but interventions do often uncover other issues that reveal a breach of the consumer standards; however, these are not proactively managed, and we would like to see this changed.
•Does the current regime allow tenants to effectively resolve issues?
The Ombudsman service allows the customer to have an additional layer of scrutiny independent from the landlord, which is welcomed. However, the speed at which cases are handled could be improved and the Ombudsman’s own performance measures for case handling are not challenging enough. We have also become aware that some case work has been subcontracted out and we have concerns that this may lead to confusion and a lack of consistency in judgements that could negatively impact customers. In addition to this Citizen believes the HOS should set out how it proposes to engage with residents and learning to resolve issues and how the outcomes will be shared with landlords and the sector to improve practices.
Customers are less likely to use the RSH as a route to resolve issues – data shows there were 597 referrals (including self-referrals from providers) to the RSH in 2019-20 compared to 14,900 cases referred to the HOS in the same period. The ‘serious detriment’ threshold means that only the most severe cases will be investigated by the RSH and in 2020-21 out of 591 referrals, 111 were investigated and only one case met the ‘serious detriment’ threshold. Once the RSH is undertaking more proactive regulation it’s more likely to see a higher number of tenants engaging with the service, however it will be necessary to make it clear to residents the accountable body resolving the matter and ensuring duplications in handling do not create inefficiencies for both landlords and the RSH/HOS.