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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