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Surviving

For someone involved in housing for 50 years, it is impossible not to feel embarrassed and ashamed by the appalling conditions lived in by some social tenants as exposed by Daniel Hewitt’s ITV documentary, Surviving Squalor.

The ‘regulator’ (sic) should be throwing the book and the ‘Ombudsman’ (equally sic) should be down on them like a ton of bricks. Sadly, they are both ineffectual. I would like tenants to be able to sue for damages more easily and for landlords to be prosecuted. But where are the highly paid Executives, and where are the Boards and where are the councillors who run these organisations?

We are rightly angry at some of the cases shown and it is excellent journalism especially when the tenants themselves are allowed to speak. Once again, we see people who are articulate but totally exasperated, just wanting a decent service in return for their rent and service charges.

But equally fine journalism and campaigning has also exposed many a bad private landlord over the years. The cases of many badly treated lessees and shared owners have also had wide coverage recently. And I recall that some of the worst housing conditions and poverty I ever encountered were amongst elderly homeowners. So, the issues are broader, not confined to a single tenure, and must be properly examined.

Across all tenures, our standards and expectations are just too low – and falling behind all the time, especially when health implications and climate change are considered – the remedies are just not good enough, and accountability is totally inadequate.

At the core, we just don’t invest enough of our national wealth in homes, and we don’t invest because we do not value highly enough the human dignity that comes with living in a decent, appropriate, warm, dry, affordable home.

There was plenty to be annoyed about in the programme. The practised apologies seemingly written by PR people. The disgrace that urgent action is taken when a bad case gets on the telly – ITV might quickly find itself inundated as the country’s leading housing advice agency. The lack of intervention by people who should intervene. The quick return to normality that inevitably follows.

But one thing above all made me feel sick. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, said it was nothing to do with the government, it was all down to bad practice and mismanagement. However guilty we feel, rightly, housing people should condemn this oleaginous brass-necked man.

His Party abolished the regulator, abolished the Audit Commission, abolished the National Tenant Voice, cut housing by 60% as its first act in 2010, ended new funding for social rented homes, introduced chaos into rent setting so no-one could plan, and pushed landlords into taking money out of housing management, maintenance, and capitalised repairs to ‘cross-subsidise’ new build as the only way of getting new homes built.

This is not an excuse for landlords, and it is not all about money – some of the worst disrepair cases in the programme seemed to be in blocks that had expensive new cladding – but for Jenrick not to admit that government drives this increasingly rickety machine is buck-passing of the worst kind.

I do think social landlords have lost sight of the bread and butter, their first duty, that homes must be properly managed and properly maintained. I know only too well that it is possible for things to go wrong even when you think you are doing it right. But now there is too much emphasis on shiny new schemes, sparkling financial products, innovative new structures, and fancy regeneration.

Development is seen to be exciting and strategic, management boring and messily detailed. Housing Association Boards do not have enough people on them with experience of running social housing in which people with relatively small incomes live. They are stuffed with people interested in development and finance, important skills but not enough. I suspect many of them never meet a tenant. I know quite a lot of dedicated councillors and I have almost no explanation as to why local councillors in the boroughs depicted were not up in arms.

Of course, some people jumped at the opportunity to denounce social housing. This is where the greatest peril lies. All too often, social housing has been made to fail by government, even if too many social landlords have also been complicit. Yet the sector has rallied due to the efforts of tenants and campaigners, and it has survived an attempt to end it altogether.

It is still the case that millions of people would be delighted to get a social rented home. Most social tenants are satisfied with their homes, the vast majority are in reasonable condition but lacking investment since the end of the decent homes programme.  

Social rented housing is still the main hope in the search for a solution to the housing crisis. But the sector must stop shooting itself in the foot, speak out for tenants, be more competent, be more caring, and be more focused on the core task of running what we already have well.

<strong>Steve Hilditch</strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick blog.
Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

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Tenants' complaints: another hurdle to jump

On Friday the chief executives of the National Housing Federation, TPAS and Shelter had a letter published in the Independent (go here and scroll down) concerning an aspect of the Localism Bill that has not so far attracted much attention: tenants’ complaints.
Specifically, the Bill’s new arrangements for making complaints to the Housing Ombudsman will prevent tenants from being able to complain directly: in future they will have to get a referral from an MP, councillor or a ‘designated tenant panel’.  The authors of the letter say this will be disempowering, costly and bureaucratic, causing delays and ‘red tape’.
Under current arrangements, tenants can only take a complaint to the Ombudsman if they have exhausted the landlords’ own complaints process, which can often take many months in itself.  They then have to go through the Ombudsman’s own filtering process (they decline requests to investigate complaints in many cases) and then wait for an investigation and report.  Many MPs and councillors are highly accessible to their constituents and no doubt would do the job as quickly and conscientiously as they can:
others are not, do not deal with correspondence effectively and sometimes do not even have ‘surgeries’ for tenants to attend.  We do not know what processes a ‘designated
tenant panel’ might adopt and there is a danger that they will not be very independent of the landlord.
Either a councillor or MP will just pass the complaint on, which is a complete waste of everyone’s time, or they will act as a filter of some kind, either refusing to pass it on for their own reasons or making their own enquiries, which will require the tenant to explain the matter all over again, including revealing their personal details.  Tenants may well feel that MPs and councillors are not always neutral when dealing with such matters, especially a complaint against the council as landlord*.
There can only be one motivation behind this process: to reduce the volume of complaints going through to the Ombudsman because it will be under-resourced for the job it should be doing.  But the procedure will put additional burdens on MPs and councillors that they are often not geared up to handle, and will undoubtedly act as a disincentive to tenants to take their complaint forward.
An effective complaints process is one mechanism for ensuring the accountability of landlords.  It is therefore encouraging that the NHF, as the landlords’ trade body, is opposing this change.  Good landlords welcome complaints, pursue them properly and seek to learn lessons from them.  There has already been a damaging reduction in regulation and independent inspection of service quality in the housing sector.  Making it harder for tenants to complain to the Ombudsman will make it easier for poor landlords to ignore their tenants.
*The Bill creates a unified service for investigating housing complaints, transferring
responsibility for council housing from the Local Government Ombudsman.