Altair’s Guide to the Social Housing White Paper

On 17th November 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government  (MHCLG) published the long awaited social housing white paper: ‘The Charter for Social Housing Residents: Social Housing White Paper”; a paper seeking to improve the experience of the country’s 4 million households living in social housing, representing 15% of households nationally.

It introduces tactical measures to ensure residents are safe, listened to and empowered, with access to information and redress to hold their landlords to account.

Our guide is arranged into three main themes: transparency, accountability and empowerment. Under each theme, we have listed the new requirements of social housing providers.

“It does not overhaul the social housing system – it contains tactical requirements for existing players, shaking up responsibilities and making it clear to providers they must operate with material consideration of residents. It summarises recently announced policies – on building safety, shared ownership and the new relationship between the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) and Housing Ombudsman – and it commits government to look at other areas. It delegates a lot of responsibility to the RSH for both developing and actioning the way forward for consumer regulation. But despite this lack of monumental, inspired policy change – it will require providers to plan, respond and operate differently. And a changing consumer regulation regime, with an emphasis on slick, effective complaints resolution and requirements for performance reporting mean providers should not only deliver a high quality service, but also capture comprehensive and representative feedback on service. Therefore providers will require high quality data and regular challenge on performance to maintain regulatory compliance.”Cassidy Curls, Consultant and research and insights lead.

Theme 1: Transparency

Now, more than ever, landlords will be monitored from two directions: residents and regulatory bodies. Providers should update their performance frameworks, data governance and reporting practices to ensure they are robust and provide adequate, pro-active assurance to residents and the RSH.

1. Landlords will be required to collect and publish tenant satisfaction measures annually to residents, at a minimum.

Both objective quantitative and tenant perception measures will be included in these exercises. The regulator is expected to develop the full set of reporting measures. An example set is provided at Figure 1. It is likely providers will need to strengthen their routine and annual tenant and complaints surveys, and to ensure performance is regularly reviewed and challenged, report more regularly to their boards on these measures.

2. Government will create a new Information Scheme for residents to request information from private registered providers with ease to assist residents with complaints or legal proceedings.

Information requested may relate to management services and may include information held by sub-contractors. It will resemble the existing rights granted via the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for local authority residents to access information about their landlord. The programme means housing associations will require trained resource and data management systems fit to respond to requests within set timeframes or to respond with legally-backed rationale for why the landlord may not provide information. More details about the scheme are expected from MHCLG.

3. Safety and Transparency will be added explicitly to the Regulator of Social Housing’s (RSH) consumer standards.

Strengthened regulation is a major theme in this white paper. Providers are already expected to comply with four consumer standards:

Now, New standards are coming – this time explicitly referring to transparency and safety. Providers will therefore require effective information systems and strong data governance to ensure they are able to provide the regulator with assurance and evidence of compliance.

  • In addition to these areas, the RSH will require providers to have a policy setting out how they should tackle issues surrounding domestic abuse.

Theme 2: Accountability

The paper seeks to introduce new ways social landlords may be held to account, by residents and regulatory bodies. Consumer regulation is to be enforced proactively by the RSH, which appears to reverse the 2010 coalition government’s decision to shut the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) formed in 2008 as part of its “bonfire of the quangos”. This is being done in efforts to balance regulation of the consumer standards with regulation of the economic standards, which sees the RSH take a more proactive, proportionate and risk-based approach to regulating its economic standards.

Despite this shift, the government encourages the RSH to maintain the principle of co-regulation as a means to drive good outcomes and ensure fundamental responsibility for effective service delivery lies with providers.

4. There will be quadrennial ‘routine inspections’ for landlords with over 1,000 homes and legislation to remove the ‘serious detriment test’ to remove barriers for the RSH.

The test, outlined in the current Regulating the Standards (2019), prevents the RSH from using regulatory or enforcement powers unless a failure has resulted in or there is a significant risk that the failure will result in serious detriment to the provider’s tenants (or potential tenants). The government has committed to removing this test through legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Next, government expects the RSH to develop a new system of routine inspections to obtain assurance from landlords at least once every 4 years that they are complying with the consumer standards. This will be based on a risk profile of those providers most at risk of failing.

The RSH will also undertake reactive investigations or inspections where they need to. Some of the information that could feed into this will come from the Housing Ombudsman’s new powers (detailed below).

Finally, the RSH will be expected to report its findings publicly.

5. Providers are required to self-assess themselves against the Housing Ombudsman’s new Complaint Handling Code by 31st December 2020 and maintain compliance going forward

All registered providers automatically are enrolled in the Housing Ombudsman’s scheme. All scheme members will be required to self-assess and take action on the new Complaint Handling Code published in July. This will likely require, at a minimum, providers to update and publish new complaints policies and procedures. It will also likely require providers to designate a single, trained and sensitive “complaints officer” to take ownership of the complaints function and resolve disputes authoritatively and autonomously. This role may or may not be designated to complaints handling.

Failure to comply will result in the issuing of a complaint handling failure order. In addition, the ‘democratic filter’ that delayed complaints being raised directly with the Housing Ombudsman will be removed to improve the resident experience of progressing a complaint.

Focus On: More power for the RSH and Housing Ombudsman To assist with all these activities, the powers of the Housing Ombudsman and RSH will be strengthened, for example there will be no cap on the level of fines the RSH could issue, and the Memorandum of Understanding between the two bodies has been broadened, improving their joint-working arrangements. Accountability measures will be applied to these bodies; for instance, an independent reviewer of the Housing Ombudsman will be set up and more information will be required to be published online. Landlords should expect a more powerful, proactive and involved regulator. Consumer standards will be held in similar regard to economic standards and landlords will have to adjust their practices; accordingly, ensuring internal policies and processes are vigorous and complied will be paramount.
Figure 2: New social housing complaints processes showing the role of the Housing Ombudsman

6. Providers are required by the RSH to designate a ‘Responsible Person’ who will ensure compliance with the consumer standards and be known to the RSH, residents and the Housing Ombudsman.

All landlords will be obligated to undertake this designation, regardless of size or type. This individual will be tasked with ensuring the provider delivers good quality customer service and drives culture change where it is needed. The RSH will introduce this role as part of guidance on clearer roles and responsibilities of senior level staff.

Any failures to comply with the consumer standard will result in landlords having to produce a Performance Improvement Plan, as instructed by the RSH.

Theme 3: Empowerment

The paper seeks to improve the ways in which residents are empowered to be involved with and make decisions on the services provided to them. Empowerment is to be utilised not only to drive better standards, but also to reduce stigma and to improve respect for social housing residents.

7. Government will review appropriate skills, qualifications and abilities of social housing staff.

This will include a review of professional training and development to consider the appropriate qualifications and standards for social housing staff in different roles, including customer service and senior staff. While details are unavailable at present, providers may in future be required to implement structured recruitment, onboarding and training programmes. Some re-skilling may also be necessary.

The review will be informed by a Working Group consisting of residents, landlords, professional bodies and academics, which will explore the relevance and value of professional qualifications. It will also consider best practice support for mental health.

8. Providers are to identify and make public a nominated person responsible for compliance with their health and safety requirements.

The health and safety responsible person should be sufficiently senior to drive a culture of safety throughout the landlord organisation, and would have specific responsibility for issues such as:

  • driving a strong culture across the organisation for prioritising and delivering health and safety requirements;
  • ensuring robust health and safety systems are in place; and
  • providing assurance that health and safety risks are being managed effectively.

There is already a requirement from the Fire Safety Bill, which clarifies that under the Fire Safety Order 2005, a responsible person or duty-holder for multi-occupied residential buildings must assess the fire safety risks for the structure, external walls and fat entrance doors as part of the fire risk assessment process.

Proposals also include an expectation that the RSH will prepare a Memorandum of Understanding with the Health and Safety Executive to ensure effective sharing of information with the Building Safety Regulator.

In addition to the above requirements of providers, the white paper also sets out that government:

  • Will create a new Opportunities and Empowerment Programme for residents;
  • Will review the Decent Homes Standard to reflect energy efficiency, safety and green space;
  • Will ensure the RSH asks local authorities with arm’s length management organisation (ALMO) or tenant management organisation (TMO) contracts to ensure they do not prevent the regulator from taking action in the event of non-compliance with its standards;
  • Recommends providers allow tenants to have pets to foster positive mental health and wellbeing;
  • Clarify the role of providers in tackling anti-social behaviour;
  • Make recommendations on changes to the current local authority allocations system; and
  • The Shared Ownership model and the new Right to Shared Ownership, as well as a review of a Decent Homes standard.