Answers, please: The top five social housing green paper questions

Too Many Questions

By Rob Gershon, HQN Residents’ Network Lead Associate

“A new deal for social housing” trumpeted the consultation, released without too much fanfare while parliament was on holiday back in August.

While there was a deal of surprise expressed about it not really addressing the core issue of the supply of social housing, it did contain quite a lot of questions about what part tenants should play in the future shape of the sector.

In total, the consultation includes 48 questions covering a pretty wide, sometimes technical, sometimes frankly befuddling, range of subjects. Some of the questions seem like rather last-minute advertisements for existing government policy, like the last question, 48, which asks: “How can we best support providers to develop new shared ownership products that enable people to build up more equity in their homes?”

Some of them refer to ideas which have come out of the blue, like the strange idea of improving community cohesion by getting different streets to compete against one another to win a street party as a prize for being the “best neighbourhood”, as question 37 ponders: “How could we support or deliver a best neighbourhood competition?

So, with just a few days left before the green paper consultation closes, and without putting anyone off answering more of their questions if they would like to, what are the five key questions that tenants and practitioners looking to focus on co-regulation and co-production should answer? Here are my suggestions:

One of the key questions is the first the consultation asks: “How can residents best be supported in this important role of working with landlords to ensure homes are safe?

Towards the end of October 2018, the government had already invited landlords to form a best practice group; but what can individual landlords be doing, and, indeed, what are individual landlords already doing to ensure that all aspects of safety are made better by including tenants?

The Grenfell Tower fire prompted this green paper, and concerns around communication between landlords are likely to form a big part of both the formal inquiry and ongoing changes around the separate consultation on what should happen to the regulator for social housing.

The second chapter of the green paper focuses on effective resolution of complaints. The complaints process within social housing is essentially landlord-specific, and referring complaints to the regulator is not how that body really works unless there has been a case of “serious detriment”, which it is still almost impossible to define.

There is a real possibility of making the process for tenants more understandable and the responsibilities of landlords clearer in question 8: “How can we ensure that residents understand how best to escalate a complaint and seek redress?

Chapter 3 of the consultation, on strengthening the regulator and ensuring tenant voices are heard, contains the bulk of the questions, with 25 of them addressing these areas. Some of this chapter contains pre-conceived ideas about league tables and key performance indicators, but the great thing about a green paper is that you can suggest whatever you like.

A good way to start this is to answer question 15: “What more can be done to encourage landlords to be more transparent with their residents?

One of the biggest problems experienced between landlords and tenants is often one of communicating information, so asking and answering this question will focus the mind on what organisations are prepared to share with residents in the interests of improving accountability, efficiency and transparency.

Whilst it would be tempting to include question 19 in this list – which asks whether landlords who are rubbish at handling complaints should be refused government money to build homes – question 20 may be more important, asking: “Are current resident engagement and scrutiny measures effective? What more can be done to make residents aware of existing ways to engage with landlords and influence how services are delivered?

For organisations that are delivering good results already – including tenants at a service design and delivery level – here is an opportunity to offer advice. For the bulk of organisations not doing any harm, it’s a chance to reflect on what they could do to cede power and responsibility to tenants. For those who actively seek not to meaningfully test their own services against the expectations of their tenants, residents and customers, it might be a chance to come in from the cold and put things right.

Finally, a question from near the end of the consultation which touches on one of the most contentious questions in the housing sector today: What are housing providers even for?

With recent government expectation focusing purely on building homes, but recent policy demanding more and more support as local authority services are cut, central government departments are downsized and welfare reforms withdraw support from communities, there is a need to question who should pick up these responsibilities; and if it is housing providers, they should be measuring how and why. Question 41: “What evidence is there of the impact of the important role that many landlords are playing beyond their key responsibilities? Should landlords report on the social value they deliver?

There are a lot of other good questions that demand better answers in the consultation itself, but with so little time left and with uncertainty around how fairly residents have been consulted, these are some key areas where input from tenants, staff and landlords have a chance to influence future housing policy.

Yes, there should probably be a 49th question about whether the government should just get on and invest in the future by providing strings-free grant for social rent homes, but there isn’t. You can still write that in yourself, if you want.

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