What’s gone wrong with social housing? - RSA Comment - RSA

What’s gone wrong with social housing?

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  • Picture of Paul Eastwood
    Paul Eastwood
    Dynamic Chief Executive with 40 years experience withn the affordable housing sector
  • Public Services & Communities
  • Housing
  • Fellowship

Social housing has a long and noble history in the UK of providing decent homes for people on low incomes, but recent years have seen scandal after scandal. Paul Eastwood argues for structural change in the sector.

What is commonly referred to as ’social housing’ had its origins in the late 18th century, when philanthropic trusts such as Peabody, Guinness, Samuel Lewis, and William Sutton began providing homes for people on low incomes.

The common aim was to provide decent, affordable accommodation, as one way of improving health. Council housing only really got underway in a sizeable way after 1919, but the underlying aim was the same – good quality homes let on rents that people could afford to pay.

The link between housing and health continued through most of the last century with Aneurin Bevan and Harold Macmillan both holding ministerial roles which embraced both housing and health.

Grenfell: an avoidable tragedy

Roll forward to 2023. There are now 1,500 housing associations in England, most of which are regulated by the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) and many of which are members of the trade body the National Housing Federation (NHF).

Housing associations come in all shapes and sizes, and while they share the same basic function as managers of residential accommodation there are wide differences in performance and resident satisfaction.

My career in housing began in 1980, and I cannot recall a time until recently when there were so many negative news stories about social landlords. It began with the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in summer 2017, a tragedy that could have been avoided if reports and complaints from residents had been listened to and acted on by their landlord.

Nobody listened to the tenants’ warnings

This lack of responsiveness runs like a continuous thread through more recent cases of landlord mismanagement. From a series of ITV Evening News reports in late 2021 into 2022 on residents being failed by their landlord the Clarion Group, through to the death of a little boy in Rochdale. With proper management none of these situations would have occurred.

How did we arrive at the position of residents living in properties that are prejudicial to their health? The answer is a philosophical one. If a landlord genuinely cares about its residents and responds to their views and concerns, service failures would have been identified early and rectified.

In 2023, The Housing Ombudsman reported on a sharp increase in landlords to whom it had issued complaints handling failure orders, up from 22 between April and June 2022, to 45 between July and September 2022.

How to start fixing the problems

All this points to failures in management, failures in governance and failures of regulation. To respond to this, I believe the following have to take place:

  • A commitment to excellent customer service has to come from the top in any landlord body association – from the board or council members and chief executive. This commitment cannot be delegated or diluted. There has to be a restlessness to make things the best, and have reporting methods in place to measure this.
  • Housing associations that provide poor service should not receive funding for future development. At present, poorly performing associations are still being rewarded with millions of pounds in public subsidy. Would this happen in any other sector? I think not.
  • Poorly performing landlords should be encouraged to outsource their management services to proven good, local managers. In extremis, the regulator should have the power to enforce this. In other times and other sectors, empires ran their course, broke up and life went on – from the Greeks and Romans through to Woolworths and Blockbuster.
  • Board members and senior staff have to be properly held to account where there is evidence of serious service failures. So far this has not been so.
  • It would also be good for the NHF and the professional body for housing managers, the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) to also speak up about bad practice, and place sanctions on those responsible. To date, both the NHF and CIH have been largely silent. A 2022 report sponsored by these two bodies – The Better Social Housing Review – is both reactive and prescriptive, telling landlords how things should be done. Nearly six years after Grenfell it shows that lessons have not been learned.
  • And is it time to ask a fundamental question: can associations be effective as both developers and as managers? If the main priority and driver of an association is to constantly get bigger, can it also deliver excellent customer services? Recent evidence suggests not.

There is an argument that the larger associations cannot ‘be allowed to fail’, as the government relies on them to deliver its building targets. However, this is perverse logic. With unprecedented pressure on public finances, why should bad landlords be supported by the government?

Unfortunately, service failures seem most common in large housing associations. These are organisations that in the past had an implied duty to set best practice. One of the key motivations for the mergers that created many of these large landlords was to deliver great services. It was a promise made to residents, a promise that by being part of a bigger entity things would be better. But, critically, no one ever checked that this promise was being honoured. The time for this scrutiny is long overdue.

A final word from Winston Churchill, who said: "My tastes are simple, I am easily satisfied with the very best." If we apply this to housing management and all commit to it, we can all move forward with confidence and our residents and their families can feel both valued and safe.

Paul Eastwood is a chief executive in the industry, with 40 years experience in the affordable housing sector.

Do you have experiences either working with or being a customer of a failing housing association? What recommendations do you have for improving the sector? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Extremely interesting and relevant read. I have just been offered a social house in a very bad state of repair, mould, dry rot, collapsed ceiling/roof ( to mention a few ) I was recently on BBC Look North ( last week ) as I had no where to turn and I was informed if I did not accept the property I would be removed from the local housing register. Something really needs to be done to improve social housing. We are all humans at the end of the day and regardless of income or background we should not be expected to live in such poor houses. I did a small post on a Facebook group which received over 400 comments and I was so sad to hear of many tenants living in unsafe properties just like this one. If you would like to discuss further, please feel free to reach out. The director of house and home is now in touch with me to correct this ‘error’ as they call it, but I would like to raise awareness, this shouldn’t happen in this day and age.

  • Very interesting report backed by experience. I think there are elements of local government that are actually trying to block and compete in some areas and overstep the lines of commercial drive and self interest in the executives both officers and housing execs. In not for profits surely not? ;-) I know for a fact that attitude from some senior people toward their tenanted flock is less than derisory; an attitude that drives down from the very top. I note the comment here too on PRS as that is something I am closely involved with and where there is a serious chance to build efficiency, health and wellbeing into this sector's ethos. But one of the things that strikes me is the antiquated way in which these organisations engage with their customers (or did I mean tenants?). I love what Mark England at Coastline Housing and the Smartline.org.uk people have been doing in Cornwall: they monitor homes with sensors for not just fabric management but more importantly health a wellbeing and anyone in housing should scrutinise the value of this project. With tenants well engaged in the process, the team will admit that it could be developed a whole lot further. Something I am working on. I have to declare an interest here but we do also need new models in housing to attract ESG institutional funds into large scale provision of healthy and efficient homes managed using much better communications and IOT technology and of course new fintech models. When I see Inside Housing's daily headlines hit my inbox it should make a whole lot of housing chief execs take a good look in the mirror but why do they need to as you quite rightly state in this valuable post. Thank you. Now! Anyone up for establishing 'The Healthy Homes Consortium' ?

  • Thank you, Paul, for your thoughtful article. I have been a company secretary/governance manager for over 25 years in the not-for-profit sector, spending a lot of that time as the company secretary at large London housing associations. I agree with many of your points - in particular the importance of housing management (which seems to be very much the poor relation to housing development), good customer service and good reporting methods. My experience is that boards rarely ask for additional information or combinations of information that give them a fuller picture of what is going on for the tenant. For example, they may look at repairs performance, but not ask whether tenants who do not have English as their first language have lower satisfaction with repairs. I have some sympathy with board members, though. They have usually been recruited for their expertise in other areas - not housing management. I think all associations should help their board members become more effective by investing more time and effort so they really understand the core activities of their association and where problems may occur. Finally, having a strong and effective regulator helps keep associations on their toes. The power to remove and appoint board members and senior managers as part of "special measures" for the worst performers would also help focus minds a lot more than fines or "naming and shaming".

  • I agree with just about all that is said in the article, including the concerns about current amalgamations in the Housing Association sector which is producing fewer, larger, organisations. However, there is a very substantial need for more housing to be provided at social rent, particularly in areas such as the South East of England where sky high prices put market housing out of reach for most young people and key workers such as nurses and teachers. We need a discussion as to how to tackle this issue. Tim Murphy

  • This seems a negative and authoritarian approach that will do nothing to improve the sector in my view. The solution was hinted in "what would happen in other sectors" where it usually comes from the bottom - the customer is always right, not the top. Housing Associations should learn from the emerging purpose-designed Build to Rent (BTR) sector, which is anticipated to expand five fold in the next decade in the UK. The focus is on customer service, where if service levels don't exceed standard levels, the customer walks. Affordable housing is often 'pepper-potted' into these private developments on discounted market rents and in the case of London, at 'London living wage' rents. In the US this goes one step further, where affordable housing eligible 'customers' are awarded housing credits and can go shopping for the best deal in private and public developments, obligated to accommodate a certain percentage of affordable housing households. My point is we need to put the power back into the customer - the tenant in order to drive up standards, not overly regulate and beat housing associations with a stick from the top down, that will just demoralise and disincentivise the whole affordable housing sector.

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