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.
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.
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.
ITV’s releases ‘Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame’ on Sunday at 10:15pm. Unquestionably highlighting some of the most horrific housing conditions endures by people and families living in social housing in the UK.
Red Brick has long forewarned about the return of squalor. The national scandal that has been the neglect of housing. But as housing associations and local authorities are the only owner operator game in town, is it time for a rethink?
For many, these conditions are everyday norms. The perpetrators are not rogue private landlords, but housing associations and local authorities. And calls for regulatory intervention are falling on deaf ears.
Some of the worst offenders are receiving the most funding
The need for social housing has never been starker. So stark even the Tory Government has made an allocation to fund 30,000 new social homes. Notably following a recent funding announcement under the Affordable Homes Programme. In London, Sadiq Khan has seen £3.46bn distributed. The bulk of the funding is conditional on an emphasis towards social rent.
This funding comes with new conditions attached. These include all new buildings requiring sprinklers and that no combustible materials exist in the facades. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the biggest beneficiary for funding affordable housing in the capital was not a local authority. Instead Europe’s largest housing association, Clarion Housing will receive £240m to deliver 2,000 homes, of which 1,250 are for social rent.
Previous concerns over controversial mega mergers are coming home to roost
Clarion Housing was a merger between Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing Group in 2016. This occurred under the then Minister of State for Housing and Planning Gavin Barwell. Two of the housing associations in the Circle group had chronic problems with its repairs and maintenance services.
Circle had found itself downgraded as a result of ‘serious issues of disrepair’. Nevertheless, the mega merger went ahead. This was despite John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, condemning the lack of local accountability in the transfer to Clarion of Old Ford (Circle). The original stock transfer from the local authority crucially had this as a term in the original transfer agreement, which was completely disregarded.
Highlighting local concerns about the merger, and lack of local accountability, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali questioned the Government. In response, Barwell argued that the housing associations involved believed the merger “will create a more efficient organization”.
Red Brick has long argued for the Mayor to undertake a full audit of board membership of housing associations. While not against those with private sector experience, we need to balance this with expertise in social housing, alongside experiences of tenants and residents.
Clarion Housing continues to dodge regulator judgement despite serious controversies
Clarion Housing have been constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. Not least down to the tireless campaigning of those affected, particularly across London. ITV Political Correspondent, Daniel Hewitt, has been legendary in his journalism. In particular through coverage of the appalling conditions on a housing estate of 500 homes in South London.
It appears too many residents in 2021 are living in squalor. In this situation finding themselves infested with vermin and plagued with damp issues. The scale of the most recent case prompted consideration whether Clarion Housing breached standards by the Regulator for Social Housing (RSH). The RSH had cleared Clarion just three months prior following an investigation into a major repairs scandal 5 years before. That time concerning buildings in Tower Hamlets.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg, red tape and bureaucracy in the Housing Ombudsman is holding back a tide of cases
Last November, Clarion featured in another investigation, this time by the BBC, investigating how they manage complaints handling and service charges. To date, further action has been actively delayed by the Housing Ombudsman, giving excuses such as not being able to take it on given the different tenures of those effected within a group complaint. The Housing Ombudsman is the ultimate gatekeeper to the RSH.
Still to this date, both shared owners and social tenants continue to pursue their case with the Housing Ombudsman. Almost three years after originally raising concerns with the landlord. Yet these recent regulatory judgements do not fill them with much hope.
But what does this achieve? Cases with the Housing Ombudsman can take up to in excess of a year to process. Even after having to slog through a complaints process that can be manipulated to take over a year in itself. Experiences all too familiar for those whose landlord is Clarion Housing. Along with other dysfunctional housing associations and local authorities.
Sector needs to do more to prioritise existing housing conditions
But what is the sector doing to tackle the problem of poor housing conditions? The short answer is not enough. Co-Founder of the Social Housing Under Threat campaign (SHOUT), Tom Murtha, aptly pointed out something did not quite sit right as to why housing conditions were not even on the agenda at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s ‘Housing 2021’ annual conference. This was an event that Housing Minister Christopher Pincher could not be bothered to attend in person. Coupled with Daniel Hewitt’s lack of invitation to speak, as pointed out by Tom Murtha below:
What was on the agenda was housing’s role in health and wellbeing. In addition to this was a panel featuring the RSH’s new Director of Consumer Regulation. Since January 2021 Kate Dodsworth has taken up the mantel. She has also talked about “the road to consumer regulation”, Although called for housing associations to fix their issues now and to “not wait for the regulator to come round in a couple years”.
Perhaps after ITV’s ‘Surviving Squalor’ is released they should come knocking somewhat sooner.
Lacking transparency, Housing Ombudsman statistics are massaged to cover the backs of its largest members
Kate is the former CEO of Gateway Housing, who topped the tables in the Housing Ombudsman own “complaints failures index”. This is despite only having found to be 9 times at fault between 2017/18 and 2019/20. Clarion Housing in comparison were at fault a staggering 129 times.
Oddly, the index weights the number of determinations by how many homes each social landlord manages. In a way, this makes larger landlords appear lower down the rankings, despite having higher total numbers. Larger organisations claim they are more efficient – as aforementioned by Lord Barwell. But if true, bigger organisations should be indexed more heavily based on size. As opposed to the other way round.
In the latest landlord performance data published by the Housing Ombudsman, complaints received on Clarion Housing about complaint handling has seen a 250% increase in 2019/20 compared to 2017/18. Over the past three years Clarion Housing has received 1,899 complaints, of which 42.5% are related to property conditions.
What is not transparent from these figures is the number of tenant’s and leaseholders impacted by the complaints. By way of example, over 500 homes were affected in the ITV investigation, but these are not logged as individual complaints. Nor are they split out by tenure.
Social media is making prevalence of cases harder to ignore
In Channel 4’s ‘Grenfell: The Untold Story’ the poor treatment of residents by both landlord and local politician was all too revealing. It revealed how the then MP Victoria Borwick urged a mother concerned about being without water for days to “take baths with people next door”. This exemplifies the growing sense of the “us and them” society that we know is so deeply corrosive to our cohesion as a nation.
This remarkable footage emerged from a meeting concerning repairs and maintenance. It provides such crucial evidence of the plight put forward by many residents, many of whom are no longer around.
Snippets from this weekend’s ‘Surviving Squalor’ also highlight the ineptitudes of some local authorities too. Chronically ill Mehdi was living with water leaks contaminated with “significant faecal contamination”.
Lewisham Homes – a recent nominee for the Tpas England Awards Shortlist. While TPAS expressed their shame at the conditions some tenants are having to endure, they highlighted that their awards cover a range of categories. Admittedly, not just “managing homes”.
Real capitalism in the interest of humanity can help solve our low-income housing issues
So herein lies Sadiq’s funding conundrum. At present grant can only be provided to local authorities or housing associations. Some of which face reputational damage resulting from serious causes of concern and ESG related controversies.
Under the Labour-led Wheatley Act 1924 we as a country subsidised private builders to create homes for those on low-incomes. If we are to provide grant to the private sector conditional on owner operation at social rent levels, we would enable funding packages to be less reliant on those guilty of such poor management. Instead, we see the lion’s share of London’s funding for example go to a housing association with the most complaint determinations against its name. Clarion Housing.
At present we are dealing with the inability of the country to meet the heavy burdens now placed upon it. Back in 1924 private enterprise had little to no interest investing money in houses for letting purposes. Yet today we see operators indeed willing to invest. Whether this be through the burgeoning Build-to-Rent sector, or the nascent Single Family Rental sector, the local authority and housing association is no longer the only possible investment partner to bear these costs.
We need to diversify who owns and operates social housing
At present, only Registered Social Landlords can own and operate affordable housing under the eye of the regulator. Often forward funding from housebuilders and developers who do not have a long-term interest in the construction of the property. We have seen Clarion Housing’s own Group Director of Development highlight the “lack of commerciality in the sector”. It comes as no surprise that we see just as many issues with new build social housing, as we do with buildings coming to the end of their life.
In America federal states fund the construction of affordable rental housing for those on low-incomes through conditional tax credits. They provide this to both for-profit and not-for-profit owner operators through its Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) programme. By being sector agnostic both state and federal government drive competition, and thus commerciality, into funding programmes.
We should explore progressive innovative new funding models of low-income rental housing. For those on the left we cannot shun the private sector. We must work progressively with it to provide more options for those in most housing need. This will allow government to be less reliant on some of the worst offenders to deliver housing for those on low-incomes.
The ultimate goal?
To make fewer people have to survive squalor.
Editor of Red Brick.
He sits on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee, is Chair of Poplar and Limehouse CLP, and co-hosts the Priced Out podcast.
Leading housing associations are losing their integrity as charitable organisations. They continue to trade on a set of myths about the sector that no longer hold true – writes Suz Muna.
Housing Associations Build Social Housing
Associations are increasingly indistinguishable from private developers and landlords, and their activities are increasingly focussed on market-level rents and sales. The result is that the interests of tenants and leaseholders trail in the wake of the board’s need to generate large surpluses and satisfy their lenders.
Associations generate larger profit margins by developing for market sale and rent than from any other activity. Inevitably, the profits are greatest in London where house prices are higher. The boards of Associations increasingly gravitate towards construction, and especially in the South East. They are aided and abetted by government policy, regulatory institutions and finance houses.
Analysis of the sector shows that there has been a considerable shift in its stock profile over the last few years. For example, in 2019 the category of housing with the largest percentage of growth was in market sale (non-social leasehold), jumping almost 16% (8,500 units) on the previous year.
The change in profile over a seven year period spanning 2012 and 2019 illustrates a sharp jump in Low Cost Home Ownership (LCHO) units, and a corresponding decline in supported housing. The ring-fencing of grants under the Supporting People programme ended in 2009.
Stock profile changes include conversions from the more secure types of tenancy with cheaper rents attached such as social rent which is capped at 50% of market rents. Often these are converted to less secure tenancies with higher rents.
Property lawyers Savills captured this trend in May 2019 when they noted that “the amount housing associations generated from new open market home sales increased 16% (£221 million) to £1.61 billion between 2016/17 and 2017/18, with 37,000 homes for sale contractually committed to be built in the 18 months from December 2018”.
Housing Associations Fund Their Activities from Rents
This is a myth that should be busted, not least because it implies a stability that is absent. In fact, house building in particular is funded through debt leveraged on existing homes. The Regulator for Social Housing anticipates that debt of £42 billion will be added to the sector’s debts over the next five years. And ratings agency Standard & Poor predicted that the need for housing associations to rely on debt to fund their activities will increase not decline in the future.
Housing Associations are Governed by People with a Commitment to Social Housing
One trend drives another. The focus on development means that associations deliberately attract board members with backgrounds in equity and finance, squeezing out those with any genuine commitment to, or experience of, social housing. The exceptions are occasional hand-picked and often financially reimbursed ‘tenant board members’ with no democratic mandate.
Many housing associations publish brief biographies for their board members. What these show is just how widespread board-level involvement has become by people whose careers span financial services, planning, development, property markets, private finance initiatives, and insurance industries.
There also exists a golden circle whereby the housing association and housing sector institutions populate each others’ boards. One Housing Group, St Mungos, Clarion, Paradigm, and Onward Housing for example, are all led by ex-employees of the Regulator of Social Housing. The Chair of Peabody’s board, Lord Kerslake, previously headed the Homes and Communities Agency.
The corporate plans developed by associations inevitably reflect the highly commercial interests of its board members, and the vicious circle is complete.
Associations Have Inclusive Cultures
An inclusive culture would in fact be a terrible hindrance to an ambitious housing association, and frowned upon by its institutional backers. To help ensure that associations are unchecked in their commercial direction of travel, they are moving away from democratic influence by tenants and residents, preferring methods of engagement over which the landlord has almost exclusive control.
Tenant and Resident Associations (TRAs), the most democratic of engagement models, are being replaced by Tenant Scrutiny Panels whose members are appointed by the landlord. This is akin to the derecognition of a trade union in favour of an employer appointed staff council – something that many associations also seek to do.
The Greater London Assembly noted in 2018 that the Grenfell Tower fire had “brought into sharp focus the lack of effective mechanisms for social housing residents to have their concerns addressed and to hold their landlords accountable for property standards and management.” The Assembly also noted that TRAs were being actively undermined by having recognition by the landlord made contingent on adoption of the association’s model constitution.
What these trends produce for tenants is inadequate repairs and maintenance services, high rents and service charges, anti-social behaviour problems, discrimination against those with disabilities, unsafe homes, and the cladding scandal. Despite huge leaps forward in communication technology, alerting the landlord to a problem is becoming increasingly difficult, and attempts to find a resolution too often feel like a war of attrition.
It Doesn’t Have to be Like This
It is all too clear to the tenants, residents and staff of housing associations that this sector has undergone a fundamental transformation, but that public perception has yet to catch up. It is wealthy, powerful and almost wholly unaccountable. Remedy is needed in the shape of much firmer, independent scrutiny and regulation, rent controls, and a supply of genuinely affordable housing through local authorities.
The Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC) is a democratic, voluntary network of tenants, residents, and workers in housing associations and cooperatives. It campaigns to improve the lives of those who live in HA accommodation and reduce the commercialisation of the sector. SHAC is keen to build links with Labour councillors and MPs with an interest in housing. It is developing a political representatives network and would welcome contact via email@example.com.
Suzanne Muna has worked in housing for the last 20 years, serving continuously as a trade union representative alongside her paid work. She is secretary of the Social Housing Action Campaign, a trustee of the Public Interest Law Centre, and a member of the Unite Housing Workers branch committee