Offering a deeper insight into his recent HD Social presentation on repairs and maintenance, resident involvement specialist Phil Morgan talks with Liam Turner about how the Social Housing White Paper and new regulatory requirements are changing the landlord-tenant relationship
In light of the Social Housing White Paper and tightened scrutiny within the sector, will we see the regulator more eager to take action?
I think it’s fair to say that the regulator has been slightly hamstrung by the current legislation, and the Regeneration Act 2011 introduced the split between economic and consumer regulation, consumer regulation backed up by various safeguards, including the concept of serious detriment and complaints.
And this, for repairs, has only been breached openly with one landlord, and it’s the same situation repeated. It was a catastrophic failure on the part of Circle 33, in which they rather poopoo-ed the regulator and said, look, this it wasn’t as bad as you think. And it was worse.
Then they said it got better when it hadn’t, and that resulted in a second downgrade for Clarion, the new landlord, who’d inherited quite a lot of this stuff and caused them some discomfort at the beginning. That’s been the only serious sustained issue really around property service system the regulator has done.
Looking forward, I think the removal of the serious detriment clause or effective removal will mean the regulator can get more involved, and it doesn’t have to go through quite the same process as it did previously.
With a more active regulator, will extreme cases such as Circle 33, as rare as they are, even be possible?
I certainly think that it will help prevent things getting that bad. Nobody will give a guarantee on that at all, but I certainly think it’s allows the option to do that. It does depend a bit about the resources the regulator has, and it does depend about its balance of being a proactive and a reactive regulator – the balance of that it does in terms of its new inspection regime, balance of what it does in terms of receiving reports from landlords.
And of course landlords themselves have the ideal opportunity. They can do this themselves – they don’t have to wait for the regulator to come along and wave sticks at them and say, why aren’t you doing this?
Good landlords should be checking about their performance, repairs and maintenance, and property services anyway. They should be doing a check on the current consumer regulator compliance. There’s nothing stopping a landlord doing that at the moment.
Will the Ombudsman‘s increasing willingness to name and shame make landlords more proactive, rather than waiting for the regulator to tell them what to do?
Yeah, it’s a lot of embarrassment. Why would you want to be named and shamed either by the Ombudsman or by the regulator, when you can do what you’re meant to be doing and do a good job in the first place. It seems to be fairly self-evident that nobody really wants to go down that road. And there’s great opportunities for landlords to do the right things in the first place.
“Landlords don’t have to wait for the regulator to come along and wave sticks at them and say, why aren’t you doing this?”
And if they do get named by the Ombudsman or they do get approached by the regulator, hold your hands up, admit you got it wrong, do things to put it right, show everyone you’ve done so.
Have you seen evidence of landlords being more willing to engage with tenants in light of the Grenfell tragedy and publication of the White Paper?
Yeah, I think so, in think that Grenfell has made people more willing to embrace cultural change around safety involvement. I think initiatives like the NHS and the Together with Tenants initiative have also given people a root by which they can move away from saying here are things we can do.
There is a series of things now that a landlord can do to demonstrate they’re responding to this and to tick boxes along the way, which I think is important. Signing up to Together with Tenants being one, introducing the new code of governance from the NHF, and putting that in place, and responding to the new compliance handling code and demonstrating compliance with that.
These are all things that people can do now and don’t have to wait for the legislation changes.
The Ombudsman seems to be leading the way on tenant engagement by showing housing associations what they can do to improve, would you agree?
Yeah, it’s about learning from those complaints, which all housing associations and councils should be doing, about it having the best kind of procedures in place around compliance originally.
And it’s about, again, learning from particular when things have gone wrong. Here’s some misquoted thing about doing something over and over again expecting to get a different result. Without the willingness to embrace and learn from complaints, landlords will be condemned to repeat them again and again. That’s not the place to end up.
Do you entertain the possibility that there could now be too much regulation and too much legislation for housing associations to deal with?
I don’t think so. The building safety bill and the fire safety bill are important. They’re to make people safe, and as someone who myself, lives in a tower block with inflammable cladding, I think in broad terms that’s right, correct, and what I would want to see.
There will be more things for landlords to do as a result a of all this, both in terms of safety and consumer compliance, but the burden is not unreasonable. If you compare it to what had previously been in place in terms of regime, which had somewhere in the region of 1,000 pages of things that housing associations had to do and 30 key lines of enquiry, all which had 30 points in the audit commission for housing association and councils…
Everybody left that behind us when we, myself, and others made the decision that we’re going from non-prescriptive regulatory approach. This is still within that concept of co-regulation, these are still things which are reasonable for people to do. Yes, they all need to do a bit more form filing but that’s actually doing things a landlord should be doing anyway.
“Without the willingness to embrace and learn from complaints, landlords will be condemned to repeat them again and again”
They should be doing things that make people safe, they should be doing things to make more people be more involved. And if there’s a bit of regulatory background around that, well, that doesn’t hurt anybody. In fact, it helps make sure people are doing the right things at the right time.
As we emerge from COVID, to what extent it will the regulator still consider the effects of the pandemic when making a judgment?
There is a balance with all of this. The regulator has been in really close contact with landlords about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Part of that has been the approach to repairs, non-urgent and essential ones, knowledge, and essentials ones.
What’s really interesting is that, I think when the first wave happened, the number of requests for repair services has dropped quite substantially. Tenants knew that there was a national emergency and they were prepared to, if you want, wait for what they would normally ask for because they knew that priorities had to be given to the essential repairs that landlords were able to respond to.
Even now, there’s still some different levels of service. As long as landlords can demonstrate that they have thought through what the different levels of services are and what the implications of that is, then I think that would be okay in terms of sharing with the Ombudsman and with the regulator about, well, this is the situation, this is how we did it. I think that’s particularly the case about the balance of accessing when needing these safety issues as well.
So, I think it’s just making sure you got that kind of evidence trail, the audit trail, there to be able to demonstrate that what we’ve done is fair and reasonable and in line with the rest of the sector.
Has COVID has had a positive effect on tenant engagement?
It has, but with a caveat. I think the widening-out of engagement, the opportunities for people to be involved, who wouldn’t otherwise be involved, is good.
The one thing I think that is really challenging in all of this, though, is that…it’s really difficult to build up the same team ethos as a group of people coming into a room, sharing cups of tea and coffee, chatting to each other, sitting down at the same table, chatting afterwards, getting on the same bus, and going home with the people that they’ve just been in an office meeting with.
That doesn’t exist, and I think there is quite a lot that will be required of anybody that’s new to make sure there’s that same team-working ethos in place that you would’ve had face-to-face.
What should landlords doing while they’re waiting for new legislation to come into force?
I’ve been told, although I haven’t counted myself, that there are 18 different legislation changes in place, and there are four reviews and three consultations. Some of this is not going to happen quickly: this is three or four years until things like inspections come into play.
In terms of what to do now, as with anything, make sure you’ve got engagement structures in place that allow there to be that tenant voice, that that tenant voice is heard on new policies and procedures and changes, that it’s heard at board or councillor level, who is tasked with taking responsibility for making decisions, and that those landlords can demonstrate the impact of that involvement as well.
There’s also some technical things. Having someone responsible for compliance with consumer standards would be one that is helpful to have in place. Again, anticipating things that people will be compelled to do, and there’s no reason why not now.
Is there something to be said about sharing best practice?
Yes, I think there’s two things. The first is that, I suppose having been doing this for over 20 years now, the starting point has to be the culture of an organisation and the values it embraces. And that has to be the first thing that is put in place. So when boards are considering things like their business plans going forward, it’s a chance for them to restate the primacy of service attendance, and whatever words people use for that, it’s for them to decide.
Secondly, it’s the mechanisms you use. And some mechanisms will endure for long periods of time, some will work once or twice, but nobody will have to the monopoly on having the only way of doing something.
Everybody should be magpies, looking at what people are doing, learning from that, adapting it to their own situation and using it. And then be prepared to accept something works twice, then move on doing something else that works just as well from somewhere else.
Phil Morgan is an independent consultant specialising in tenant scrutiny and involvement. He formerly served as executive director of Tenant Services at the Regulator of Social Housing and chief executive of TPAS.
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