Written evidence submitted by Abri Group Ltd [RSH 105]
As Abri Group, one of the largest housing providers in southern England, we have a customer base of 80,000 people. We exist to create thriving communities and empower lives. It’s our central mission and one we fully believe in.
But what does that look like in real terms? Between 2020 and 2025 we’re investing £15m in communities to increase employment, improve health and wellbeing and empower people to take the lead where they live. And it means building at least 12,500 new homes by 2030. We believe everyone has the right to a safe, warm, and sustainable home, and to be part of a community where everyone has the opportunity to belong, grow and thrive.
With that in mind we welcome the opportunity to respond to your inquiry into the regulation of social housing.
It would be fair to say that there are undoubtedly widespread issues in the quality of social housing in the UK that desperately need to be addressed.
Recently, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) published their report on ‘The Hidden Housing Crisis Exposed’ which reflects on many different contributing factors to the housing shortage across England. This report highlighted how poor quality and overcrowded accommodation contributes to social inequality and deprivation.
We believe that while there are undoubtedly widespread concerns about the quality of social housing, there are also reasons for optimism due to the level of commitment already being made by Abri and our fellow housing associations, across the country.
To maintain financial viability, a finite level of resources can be invested each year. The increasing level of investment required for building safety has impacted on the level of planned maintenance that we have undertaken in the short to medium term. The same pressures will be felt as we increase our investment in energy efficiency and decarbonisation targets. Ultimately the increased investment in building safety and retrofitting will reduce impact the number of homes that we are able to deliver.
Making homes more energy efficient
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing our generation. For the housing sector, the challenge is even closer to home, as it will be one of the top four sectors most affected by the UK’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Currently, the built environment is responsible for around 40% of the UK's total carbon footprint. And, because the social housing sector accounts for 17% of all UK homes, housing providers like Abri have a big part to play in making sure we get our journey to net zero right, first time, for our customers, communities and colleagues, as well as the planet.
There is no question that achieving net zero carbon in UK homes will require a significant investment over the next 29 years – largely to retrofit and decarbonise existing stock. Nationally, by 2050, around 80% of the homes that already exist today will be still here, and every single one will require some level of retrofitting.
A robust financial plan will be needed to prioritise investment, and some compromises will inevitably need to be made. Abri has no intention of reducing the number of new homes we have committed to build. Embracing Modern Methods of Construction at scale could provide cost efficiencies for the sector, as well as delivering new, sustainable homes.
Taking a fabric-first approach to a home or building is a crucial first step of any retrofit project and will be our first point of investment for decarbonising stock. Without this investment, poor insulation could mean that many of the benefits of low carbon heating and power are lost, and the running costs more expensive as a result. As a housing provider, we’re keen to play our part in driving demand for clean energy solutions and tackling climate change, but we’re also mindful of our core purpose in providing affordable homes and avoiding fuel poverty for our customers. Before we install any forms of low carbon heating or power, we’ll be making sure that addressing fabric of our homes – both new and existing – is at the top of our list. Similarly, well-insulated homes will need improved ventilation to make sure we prioritise air quality for customers, mitigating the risk of damp and mould.
The sector is working hard to reduce the costs of retrofit technology (such as heat pumps and solar energy), improve supply chains and increase the number of skilled operatives for both installation and ongoing maintenance. However, it’s recognised that these are still a little way behind aspiration. There are huge opportunities for jobs, growth and levelling up as part of a greener future and decarbonising our homes and buildings, and this has to be a focus for the sector. As a housing provider, we have a commitment to make sure we have the right teams to fit and maintain low carbon technologies to keep our customers’ homes warm, safe and efficient. We also want to make sure we retain our current trades colleagues and provide green upskilling opportunities for career progression.
A huge element to the uptake and demand for low carbon technologies is consumer engagement. It’s fair to say that many people are hesitant to the idea of low carbon solutions such as heat pumps, with concerns around installation costs, running costs and stepping into the world of new, unfamiliar technology, as perceived barriers. As a housing provider, we have a unique opportunity to lead the way with changing the narrative on decarbonisation and low carbon solutions. We can work with customers to explain the benefits, take care of the installation, and provide a high level of support to help customers through the process.
Remediation of building safety risks
The impact and approach we are taking at Abri is very much safety first. We have clear programmes in place for building safety across our buildings with systematic processes. Customer safety will always be our priority.
We are experiencing a skills shortage and because of the commitments across the whole sector to building safety there aren't enough trained people available. We believe it could take another three years for the industry to catch up and get the skills needed. Looking outside our sector when we've been recruiting we’ve found that there just aren’t people with those skills available. At Abri we’re nurturing existing talent, training them to the required level.
The Housing Ombudsman
For Abri, the Housing Ombudsman appears very responsive. By running podcasts and holding spotlights on recurring themes such as damp and mould, the Housing Ombudsman drills into areas the sector is failing, not only holding us to account but helping put measures in place to improve customer services.
The Regulator of Social Housing
The Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) also plays a vital role in ensuring a viable, efficient and well governed housing sector that can deliver homes that meet a range of needs. Its focus on the customer is welcomed, with both registered providers and the RSH sharing a common objective of ensuring that all residents live in good quality, well managed, homes.
There is always room for improvement, for example, we’d welcome more clarity over self-regulation, particularly around the criteria for self-referrals to the RSH. There is little assurance sought by the RSH on the self-regulation approach adopted by registered providers.
From Abri’s perspective, we believe the roles of the RSH and the Housing Ombudsman are clear, but perhaps not as clear to our customers. We ensure access to our processes and the Housing Ombudsman’s support is easily accessible to our customers. But there is still some confusion, with customers contacting the Ombudsman first. We’ve also seen examples where customers are logging dissatisfaction with the Housing Ombudsman that isn’t in their remit, and would be better suited to others like the Financial Ombudsman or a local authority.
Whilst roles seem clearly defined if you look at each in isolation, it’s not as straight forward to ascertain (particularly for those that are not housing professionals such as the customer), how the roles fit together and subsequently where a complaint or concern should be directed.
Housing professionals will be able to look at how each defines its role and interpret what that means for them and their organisation, but it would be a challenge for a customer to understand what this means for them. Clearer information could be available for the customer about how the RSH and the Housing Ombudsman work together, when to get in touch with them, and when to direct their query elsewhere.
We feel the information contained within the Memorandum of Understanding between the Housing Ombudsman and RSH could be put into layman’s terms and published on their respective websites for the benefit of customers.
At Abri we believe the current regime does allow tenants to effectively resolve issues. Looking at the Housing Ombudsman, we believe they position themselves well. They ensure the customer has worked through Abri’s own complaint handling procedure and exhausted all options first, meaning only exceptional situations are investigated by the Housing Ombudsman.
By being empowered to follow our own procedures, Abri can actively engage with customers through our “critical friend” the Resident Scrutiny Group. This group holds us to account, through consulting with customers on improvements or changes to services, and in the complaint handling process itself by engaging with a panel of customers to help resolve issues in the best interest of the customer and Abri.
The Housing Ombudsman
Yes, the new complaint handling code and definition of ‘complaints’ has broadened the Housing Ombudsman’s powers.The Housing Ombudsman now has powers to issue Complaint Handling Failure Orders, alongside the ability to conduct investigations beyond an individual complaint. The basis of referrals of cases from the Ombudsman to the RSH has also been broadened to include repeated handling failure or potential systematic failure. And where an investigation raises a potential breach of a regulatory standard, the Housing Ombudsman will now notify the Regulator on findings of severe maladministration.
Since the new code has been in place, we’ve seen an increase in accountability from the Housing Ombudsman. We’ve also noticed how influential the Housing Ombudsman is for our customers. The Housing Ombudsman ultimately want to do everything in their remit to support a resolution between the housing association and the customer first. At early contact from customers they have several stages of their process that encourages a resolution with the Abri process first and foremost which we welcome. Their new process also uses mediation as a tool, again to encourage and support local resolution.
The combination of these changes, particularly the broadening of the scope if issues that can be reported to the Regulator, gives the Housing Ombudsman a real opportunity to get a positive outcome for customers – far more so than the compensation payments that have historically been awarded.
The ability to publish online both Complaint Handling Failure Orders (including the name of landlords and reasons for the orders) and maladministration findings is also a powerful tool and sends a clear message to the sector.
The Regulator of Social Housing
Yes, the powers are very clear and extensive for the RSH. The Housing and Regeneration Act and the “Approach to Regulation” clearly sets out the powers of the Regulator and the circumstances under which such powers may be used and when approval of the Secretary of State may be required. However in recent years there is little evidence of intervention beyond regulatory downgrades /notices compared to during the financial crisis when appointments onto Boards was more prevalent as well as negotiated amalgamations. This may be due to the increasing number of voluntary mergers by registered providers that have recognised the need to work in partnership and merge with other registered providers as a mechanism to improving their financial strength and resilience.
The sector is also being faced with a deluge of County Court claims from claims farmers. It is common practice for the complaint to be closed and instead the matter to be dealt with by following the county court process (known as the pre-action protocol). The Housing Ombudsman wants registered providers to keep complaints open in these scenarios, but this results in duplication of effort and a risk that the way in which the complaint is handled will compromise the court case, (for example premature admission of liability during complaint handling when there is pressure to deal with and close complaints quickly, which could scupper defence of the court case). The Housing Ombudsman could at the impact their guidance is having on registered providers to see if this area could be improved.
This is not for a moment excusing the need for registered providers to ensure their stock is free from disrepair, but currently tenants are being targeted by these claims farmers to bring claims which typically might result in £2,000 of compensation for them but £15,000 of costs which go to their solicitor. Does the Housing Ombudsman understand this from the registered providers point of view?
With regards to the Housing Ombudsman, the new complaint handling code has been positively received and is already started to make improvements. As an early move to a more consumer-based focus, it’s given us an early indication on the approach the White Paper is going to take.
Having the new code in place ahead of other White Paper reforms has allowed us to understand the impact these changes will have on our business, and sector, and be better prepared for future changes.
The White Paper’s direction of travel towards enhanced consumer empowerment, increased service expectation and broader powers of regulation has been fully welcomed by Abri.
See question two – from a retrofit and sustainability perspective, these questions are asking the same thing and our answer is the same for both question two and question eight.
Focusing on improving the fabric and sustainability of homes would be a welcome addition to the Decent Homes Standard to help tackle the climate emergency as well as making sure customers have a warm and efficient home.
This addition should be balanced with the need to plan and implement over a period of time. If targets are required prior to 2050, it would mean bringing forward investment which could impact on other services. Works should be done in accordance with PAS2035, and further investigation would be recommended to know where the focus should fall. The focus could be on reducing demand (by improving fabric and ensuring adequate ventilation requirements to avoid poor air quality) or on heat producing appliances (which could result in fuel poverty implications).
Yes, absolutely if there is to be consistency of approach, standards, compliance regime and equality of housing standards for all social housing customers. The custodians of social housing should always be financially viable, properly governed and able provide decent, well managed homes and therefore able to meet the RSH requirements (and sustain them). This requirement helps instil confidence in lenders and other stakeholders, promoting investment in social housing, with lenders continuing to provide (and price) accordingly.
Diversity in itself does not pose a challenge for the Regulator. There are already examples in the s sector of registered providers that have diversified and this has not presented a problem so the challenges are already known, as well as the risks. There is no recent evidence to suggest that diversification is a risk.
What is important is that before diversifying into new activities, the Boards of those registered providers make sure that members and the executive team are highly skilled in the new business areas to be taken on to ensure strategic overview, ongoing control, scrutiny and operational management. There needs to be acute financial awareness of the new business area, which should be fully modelled through the business plan and stress tested to ensure that the organisation’s social housing assets are not put at risk or reputational damage is caused to the sector.
Diversification into areas that are not fully assessed by registered providers is the risk, not diversity itself.