Millions of tenants could be offered greater protection from wrongdoing by landlords in long-awaited social housing reforms to be announced this week, more than three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster.
The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is preparing to unveil new policies for England, which are expected to include a strengthened regulator with a mandate to check council and registered social landlords in England, listen to tenants and maintain standards of homes.
Under a parallel reform, tenants are also set to be given a more direct way of raising complaints without having to go through local councillors or MPs.
The planned changes were prompted by the June 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower, which followed a refurbishment project beset by tension between residents and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management organisation.
People who raised concerns about the renovation were branded “rebels” by the council’s contractor, according to evidence heard at the public inquiry, and were dismissed as “persistent and aggressive”. Ed Daffarn, a survivor who spent years trying to engage with the landlord about the works, labelled the social housing regulation system “the dog that didn’t bark”.
The reforms have been repeatedly delayed as they have passed through the hands of three different housing secretaries and were held up by the pandemic. In August 2018, then housing secretary James Brokenshire published a green paper setting a goal to “rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords to ensure issues are resolved swiftly and residents’ voices are heard” and “address the stigma that for too long has been associated with social housing”.
But housing campaigners fear the social housing white paper, which will apply only to social housing in England where it accommodates about 9 million people – is unlikely to address the wider problem of a shortage of supply. On Sunday, the Local Government Association said council housing waiting lists could nearly double to 2 million households next year as a result of the economic impact of Covid-19. While unemployment is set to drive up demand, completion of social housing fell to its lowest level since at least 1978 this spring. In 2019, 34,000 new council and housing association homes were completed, according to official figures.
Social landlords told the Guardian they are braced for a new system involving more inspections of consumer standards, ranging from the safety of homes to their quality and how well landlords listen to and respond to residents. Currently the regulator of social housing is only reactive. Five million households live in social housing in the UK and in the last year the regulator identified 15 cases that required its intervention because of problems that threatened serious harm. Problems with electrics, fire safety and asbestos were among the most common. They are also poised for indicators to be published spelling out how well landlords are doing.
James Prestwich, policy director at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said he expects inspections of consumer standards “to be more proactive”. Currently the regulator has to be satisfied that a landlord’s conduct threatens “serious detriment” to tenants before it steps in. This threshold is expected to be lowered.
“This will set out proposals about how tenants’ voices can be heard,” he said. “We are keen to see how that focus on consumer regulation is going to work. Greater consumer regulation is a good thing but when we’re talking about social housing we need the government to grasp the nettle and invest in more social housing.”
The tenant engagement service TPAS has said it believes the white paper will “ask organisations to evidence their performance to show that they are listening to and engaging with tenants”.
Leslie Channon, a tenants’ rights campaigner who helped the government stage consultation events about the policy, said landlords should have to show, for example, that they have taken tenants’ views into account when they are deciding how to spend money – for example whether better lifts are more important than landscaping.
She wants regulation of consumers’ rights to finally be put on a par with the regulation of social landlords’ financial stability and good governance.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was approached for comment