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Social housing white paper proposes increased landlord accountability and expanded role for Housing Ombudsman

The social housing white paper released today will herald major reforms to complaints procedures, boost regulator powers and strengthen the Housing Ombudsman, the government has said.

'The Charter for Social Housing Residents' white paper lays out measures aimed at speeding up the complaints procedure for tenants by improving access to the Housing Ombudsman, reducing decision times and ensuring effective resolution.

According to the government, expanding and strengthening the Regulator of Social Housing and Housing Ombudsman service will be an essential means of driving the culture change required for the reforms, backed by legislation where needed.

As part of the plan, landlords will be held to account for their services through access to a new information scheme for tenants of housing associations and the introduction of a set of tenant satisfaction measures that landlords will have to report against.

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The Regulator of Social Housing will develop the process for collecting and publishing the new satisfaction measures for all social landlords. The measures will follow the themes set out in the social housing Green Paper around properties being in good repair, building safety, engagement and neighbourhood management, including measures on anti-social behaviour. They should include both objective quantitative measures and tenant perception measures, the white paper adds.

To further ensure accountability, the Charter will introduce new requirements asking landlords to provide a clear breakdown of how their income is being spent, including levels of executive remuneration.

Expansion of the Ombudsman's role will start with a commitment to reviewing the Ombudsman's powers. Legislation will be brought forward to strengthen its role where necessary.

The watchdog's powers will be further bolstered through making the memorandum of understanding between the Ombudsman and the Regulator statutory. According to the Ombudsman, this will give greater weight to information sharing, plus make the Ombudsman a statutory consultee for future reviews of the Regulator's economic and consumer standards to harness the knowledge and expertise of the service.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: "We have a central and positive role to play in the government's plans to evolve the sector. The white paper recognises the key role we perform and the work we are doing to create a cultural shift in the sector. There are a number of new areas featured in the paper which combined seek to strengthen and embed our existing role as well as potentially expand our scope."

Overall, the government said the measures contained in the white paper would "deliver the following:

  • Ensure that homes are safe. We will reinforce the Regulator of Social Housing's consumer regulation objective to explicitly include safety and legislate to place an obligation on landlords to identify a nominated person responsible for ensuring compliance with health and safety requirements.
  • Increase transparency allowing residents greater visibility of how well their landlord is performing and the decisions it is making. We will deliver a set of tenant satisfaction measures for social landlords to report against on issues that matter to tenants.
  • Ensure swift and effective resolution of complaints by speeding up decisions. We will build on the changes already agreed with the Housing Ombudsman Service to improve its performance and reduce its decision times.
  • Transform social housing regulation by creating a new, proactive consumer regulation regime for social housing, delivering robust oversight of all social landlords. We will establish a new arm of the Regulator of Social Housing to proactively regulate on consumer standards including quality of homes, repairs, meaningful engagement with tenants and complaints handling.
  • Empower residents by requiring landlords to improve tenant engagement. We will deliver new opportunities and empowerment programme for social housing residents, to support them in engaging with and holding their landlords to account.
  • Encourage investment in neighbourhood, place and decency. We will review the Decent Homes Standard and support the quality of and access to green spaces. We will tackle anti-social behaviour by enabling tenants to know who is responsible for action and who can support and assist them."

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: "We are delivering on the commitment we made to the Grenfell community that, never again, would the voices of residents go unheard. This white paper will bring transformational change for social housing residents, giving them a much stronger voice and, in doing so, re-focusing the sector on its social mission.

"I want to see social housing tenants empowered by a regulatory regime and a culture of transparency, accountability, decency and service befitting of the best intentions and deep roots of social housing in this country.

"The new approach and regulatory changes we set out in this white paper will make a measurable difference to the lived experiences of those living in England's 4 million social homes in the years ahead."

In response to the white paper, Cllr Darren Rodwell, Local Government Association housing spokesperson, welcomed the reforms but said the white paper still failed to address the "severe" shortage of social housing facing the country.

Rodwell said: "Councils are proud of their housing and the individuals and families that call it home. It is paramount that the voice of all social housing residents is heard, and councils are committed to improving standards and empowering and supporting tenants. We support measures that will make the existing redress process clearer, equitable and accessible for all tenants, regardless of the tenure they are living in.

"Councils are also determined that their tenants should have the security of a safe and well-maintained home with any issues quickly and satisfactorily addressed. Tenants of all housing tenures should expect that their landlords will consistently work towards improving living conditions."

Cllr Rodwell added: "Now is the time to reverse the decline in council housing over the past few decades. As important as these reforms are for tenants, they will not help to tackle the severe shortage of social housing the country faces.

"Every penny spent on building new social housing is an investment that has the potential to bring significant economic and social returns. We have set out how handing councils the powers and resources to build 100,000 social homes for rent each year would help to reduce spiralling council housing waiting lists and deliver a £14.5 billion boost to the economy."

Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, dubbed the publication of the Social Housing white paper as a "milestone in the country's response to the fire at Grenfell Tower."

Henderson said: "The sector has been unwavering in its commitment to strengthening the relationships between housing associations and their residents. The white paper offers much needed certainty as we continue this work.

"We are pleased that the government acknowledges again here the vital role of social housing in building lives and communities. This is true now more than ever, as the country navigates the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, with social housing landlords being critical partners in delivering frontline services to people who need these most."

She added: "Housing associations have demonstrated commitment to being more accountable and transparent, and we believe that the white paper represents a natural progression of the work we have been doing. We look forward to working closely and collaboratively with the government to deliver on these welcome reforms."

Responding to the White Paper, Tonia Secker, partner and head of affordable housing at Trowers & Hamlins, said: "In the light of the challenges for social housing highlighted by Grenfell and Covid-19, nothing in the substance of the Social Housing White Paper should come as a surprise.  Residents need to be protected, heard and respected; social housing landlords need to be accountable – but they also need to be supported to do their job in challenging circumstances. The introduction of beefed up powers for the Social Housing Regulator  - inspections, metrics, balancing consumer regulation with economic regulation - has addressed some of the previous gaps in the system that impeded its operations and will provide greater clarity.

“If this more rigorous system is to work, a new compact between residents, social housing landlords and the Regulator is required with all three contributing to its design. The need for primary legislation will - given competing political agenda - mean implementation will take time. The temptation to view that negatively should be resisted - this is a significant change in the approach to social housing and time will be vital in creating a sustainable system which is fit for purpose and in which all stakeholders have confidence."

Adam Carey

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