A cross-party race-to-the-top, housing and communities committee, in a new report, identifies serious problems in the social housing sector, but private housing is not unscathed.
The condition of some social housing in England has deteriorated to such an extent that it is “unfit for human habitation”. The Leveling Up Committee concludes that social housing providers in England need to significantly improve their complaints handling processes.
The committee Report on social housing regulation addresses a range of issues relating to the supply, quality and regulation of social housing in England.
The Committee is now seeking compensation for tenants in ‘appalling’ conditions of social housing, some of which have fallen into such disrepair and have been deemed ‘unfit for human habitation’.
Unable to put their house in order
The very people who monitor and enforce housing health and safety regulations in the private rental sector (PRS), local authorities across the country, in some cases, it seems, are struggling to put order in their own home.
The government’s latest report on social housing supply and conditions identified a serious shortage of social housing, as well as an aging housing stock in the area, some of which is in decline, due, according to the report, to lack of public investment.
These “sub-average living conditions” identified in the area can lead to serious health problems, both mental and physical, for tenants living in these conditions, including dampness and mold, the Committee says.
What is social housing?
Social housing in England is accommodation that is let to tenants at below-market rates by housing associations, local authorities and, in some cases, private providers.
Clive Betts, Chair of the Leveling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, says:
“Social housing plays a vital role in providing people with safe and affordable housing, offering people living in social housing protection against the rising costs and insecurity of private renting.
“Too many social housing tenants live in uninhabitable homes and experience appalling conditions and levels of disrepair, including severe mold and dampness, with potentially serious impacts on their mental and physical health.
“The poor handling of complaints by some providers not only adds insult to injury, but the resulting delays in resolving tenant complaints are actively contributing to levels of disrepair. Unfortunately, beyond the distress of living in poor living conditions, it is undeniable that tenants are also badly treated by providers who discriminate against and stigmatize people for being tenants of social housing.
“That has to change. Providers must up their game, treat tenants with dignity and respect, and put tenants at the center of how they deliver housing services, including regularly monitoring the status of their housing stock. If that fails, providers would face the prospect of tough action from a more active regulator. Given the financial loss, inconvenience and distress caused to tenants by serious cases of decay, the government must also empower the ombudsman to award much higher levels of compensation to tenants in the event of serious defaults. on duty.
So, contrary to a general perception that poor housing conditions exist only in the private rental sector, this report lifts the veil on what is happening in social housing, a shocking story of dereliction, health risks and a lack of good customer service.
The report says that although the area is suffering from “serious financial pressures” and there is a general shortage of social housing, it attributes some of the dilapidation in part to the age and design of much of the social housing stock.
An aging building stock
Much of the housing stock in the social sector is now aging, “some of which was never built to last and is now approaching obsolescence”. To address this reliance on stale stock, the report recommends the government introduce more funding specifically for the regeneration of the sector.
The report identifies a power imbalance between social housing tenants and housing providers as “one of the biggest issues facing the sector today”. It then recommends that social housing providers across the sector be required to support the creation of truly independent and representative tenant and resident associations. It calls on the government to create a national body of social housing tenants to give tenants a voice and advance social housing standards.
The report makes a series of recommendations to the Housing Ombudsman, the body responsible for handling complaints from tenants:
- The Committee recommends that social housing providers and the Housing Ombudsman address the lack of public awareness of the Ombudsman and how tenants can complain to the Ombudsman.
- It recommends the government allow the ombudsman to order providers to award tenants compensation of up to £25,000.
- The report recommends giving more power to the regulator. “Since 2011, the social housing regulator has been prevented by the ‘serious harm’ test from proactively regulating consumer standards.”
- The report welcomes the fact that the government is in the process of legislating through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to repeal the ‘serious harm’ test. This, he argues, will remove a significant barrier to proactive regulation, but he criticizes the regulator for its interpretation of its legal obligation to “minimize interference”.
- The report gives the example of the case of Clarion and the Eastfields Estate, where the regulator, in accordance with its interpretation of the rules, only finds suppliers in breach of consumer standards where there is evidence of systemic failure. ‘This has resulted in the most passive consumer regulatory regime allowed under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008,’ it says.
- The report also calls on the regulator to be more proactive in defending tenants’ interests and invites it to make more use of its enforcement powers, especially in the most serious cases.
This is a senior committee of MPs saying it is simply ‘too difficult for tenants to realize their legal right to safe and secure housing’. In the social housing sector, there is a major problem, but the private sector does not escape attention: local authorities and the government do not protect private tenants, the report says.
The House of Commons’ cross-party Public Accounts Committee says around 13 per cent of private rental sector stock poses ‘a serious threat to the health and safety of tenants’, costing the NHS around £340million each year.