Landlords in England are to be held more accountable, the government has said, as part of social housing reforms three years after the Grenfell fire.
They include a charter setting out what tenants can expect from a landlord, including to be safe in their home and to know how the landlord is performing in areas like repairs and complaints.
The housing secretary says it will give tenants “a much stronger voice”. But Labour said the reforms “appear to water down previous proposals”. Housing charity Shelter warned there was a “chronic shortage of social housing” and that “any new dawn for social renters must come with major investment in new homes too”. The proposals are part of a “fundamental rethink” on social housing following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The first phase of the Grenfell inquiry concluded that cladding put on during a refurbishment fuelled the fire in June 2017, which led to the deaths of 72 people. It is now examining how the tower block blaze could have happened in the first place.
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The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the Social Housing White Paper had been drafted with the views of those devastated by Grenfell in mind. Ministers say they will “deliver on the commitment we made to the Grenfell community that never again would the voices of residents go unheard”. The White Paper – a document setting out proposed new laws before they are formalised in a government bill – pledges that complaints to landlords should be dealt with promptly and fairly, and tenants should expect to be treated with respect alongside the backing of a consumer regulator.
Alongside these promises, residents have also been told they will have a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in. Ed Daffarn, a Grenfell survivor and member of bereaved families and survivors group Grenfell United, said: “If this White Paper is going to make a difference, the (social housing) regulator and the ombudsman need to understand the devastating impact bad landlords can and do have on people’s lives.
“We have little faith that bad landlords will improve themselves – so the responsibility now lies with the regulator and ombudsman to use their new powers to ensure no residents are ever treated how we were.
“Ultimately it will be for residents themselves to determine if these changes go far enough to making their lives better and homes safer – and creating a lasting legacy for the 72 innocent lives so needlessly lost at Grenfell.”
The Social Housing White Paper was born from the shock and grief of Grenfell. The prime minister at the time, Theresa May, told a hushed House of Commons that she would ensure the voice of those living in social housing could never be ignored again “Long after the TV cameras have gone, and the world has moved on,” she said, “let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead to gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process.”
There was to be legislation to ensure her promise would be met. Parliament was told it would be a “wide-ranging top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector” and the “most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. But four housing ministers, three housing secretaries and more than three years later, we have only just seen the government’s proposals for the first time.
Few will argue with the measures to give tenants a greater say and to strengthen their rights. But only last September, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick also referred to how the White Paper would “boost the supply” of social housing. There are, however, no firm commitments to increase the number of council houses in England. In the summer, a senior committee of MPs told the government the country needed a net addition of 90,000 social-rented homes a year. Although the White Paper does refer to increasing the supply of social housing (it could hardly fall any lower), its focus is on general affordability, with particular emphasis on what they call “affordable home ownership”, a product that is out of reach for those on the lowest incomes. For some, this is the great hole in the middle of this White Paper.
The prime minister says the proposals will ensure “social housing tenants are treated with the respect they deserve”, but critics argue there is too little for the 93,000 households in England currently stuck in temporary accommodation, or the estimated 3.8 million people in need of social housing.
Mr Jenrick has also announced a consultation on making smoke and carbon monoxide alarms mandatory in all rental properties. He said the reforms would bring “transformational change” that would give social housing residents “a much stronger voice”. “I want to see social housing tenants empowered by a regulatory regime and a culture of transparency, accountability, decency and public service befitting of the best intentions and deep roots of social housing in this country,” he added. But Labour’s shadow minister for housing and planning, Mike Amesbury, said: “The government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy has been slow at every stage. They were slow to re-house residents, slow to remove deadly cladding, and slow to come forward with social housing reforms. “Two years late, this White Paper appears to water down previous proposals. The government must do all it can to ensure a disaster like Grenfell can never happen again. That means tackling stigma, putting tenants’ voices centre stage, and ensuring the regulator has real teeth.
“Today’s proposals contain nothing to help the thousands struggling in the private rented sector, make up for a lost decade of social housing, or tackle the housing crisis.”