A cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, in a new report, identifies serious problems in the social housing sector, but private housing does not come out unscathed.

The condition of some social housing in England has deteriorated to such an extent that it is “unfit for human habitation”. The Levelling Up Committee concludes that social housing providers in England must significantly improve their complaint handling processes.

The Committee’s Regulation of Social Housing report addresses a whole series of issues relating to the supply, quality and regulation of social housing in England.

The Committee is now calling for compensation for tenants in ‘appalling’ social housing conditions, some of which has fallen into such disrepair and it has been deemed “unfit for human habitation”.

Can’t get their house in order

The very people who monitor and enforce the regulations for housing health and safety in the private rented sector (PRS), local authorities up and down the country, in some cases, it seems, are struggling to get their own house in order.

The latest Government report on social housing supply and conditions has identified a severe shortage of social housing, along with ageing housing stock in the sector, some of which is in decay, due, the report says, to a lack of government investment.

These “subpar living conditions” identified in the sector can cause serious ill-health, both mentally and physically, for those tenants living in these conditions, including damp and mould, the Committee says.

What is social housing?

Social housing in England is housing that is rented to tenants at below-market rates by housing associations, local authorities and in some cases private providers.

Clive Betts, Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, says:

“Social housing plays a vital role in giving people a secure and affordable home, offering those in social housing protection from the rising costs and insecurity of private renting.

“Too many social housing tenants are living in uninhabitable homes and experiencing appalling conditions and levels of disrepair, including serious damp and mould, with potential serious impacts on their mental and physical health.

“The poor complaint handling of some providers not only adds insult to injury but the resulting delays in resolving tenant complaints actively contributes to the levels of disrepair. Sadly, beyond the distress of experiencing poor living conditions, it is undeniable that tenants also face poor treatment from providers who discriminate and stigmatise people because they are social housing tenants.

“This must change. Providers need to up their game, treat tenants with dignity and respect, and put tenants at the centre of how they deliver housing services, including by regularly monitoring the condition of their housing stock. Where they fail, providers should face the prospect of tough action from a more active regulator. Given the financial loss, inconvenience, and distress caused to tenants from serious cases of disrepair, the Government also needs to equip the ombudsman with the power to award far higher levels of compensation to tenants when there has been serious service failings.”

So, contrary to a general perception that poor housing conditions exist solely in the private rented sector, this report lifts the lid on what’s happening in social housing, a shocking tale of dereliction, risks to health and a lack of good customer service.

The report says that albeit the sector is suffering from “serious financial pressure” and that there is a general shortage of social housing, it blames in part, some of the disrepair to the age and design of much of the social housing stock.

Ageing housing stock

Much of the housing stock in the social sector is now ageing, “some of which was never built to last and is now approaching obsolescence”. To address this reliance on outdated stock, the report recommends the Government introduce more funding specifically for regeneration in the sector.

The report identifies an imbalance in power between social housing tenants and housing providers as “one of the biggest problems facing the sector today”. It goes on to recommend that providers of social housing throughout the sector be required to support the establishment of genuinely independent and representative tenant and resident associations. It calls on the Government to establish a national social housing tenant body to give a voice to tenants and to drive up standards in social housing.

The report makes a series of recommendations to the Housing Ombudsman, the body set-up to handle tenant complaints:

  1. The Committee recommends that social housing providers and the Housing Ombudsman address the lack of public awareness of the ombudsman and how tenants can bring a complain to the ombudsman.
  2. It recommends that the Government empower the ombudsman to order providers to award compensation for tenants of up to £25,000.
  3. The report recommends giving more power to the regulator. “Since 2011, the Regulator of Social Housing has been prevented by the ‘serious detriment’ test from proactively regulating the consumer standards.”
  4. The report welcomes the fact that the Government is now legislating through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to repeal the ‘serious detriment’ test. This it argues, will remove a significant barrier to proactive regulation, but it criticises the regulator for its interpretation of its statutory duty to “minimise interference”.
  5. The report gives the example of the case of Clarion and the Eastfields estate, where the regulator, in line with its interpretation of the rules, only finds providers in breach of the consumer standards where there is evidence of systemic failure. “This has resulted in the most passive consumer regulatory regime permissible under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008,” it says.
  6. The report also calls for the regulator to be more proactive in defending the interests of tenants and calls on it to make more use of its enforcement powers, especially in the most serious cases.

This is a senior committee of MPs claiming that it’s just “too difficult for renters to realise their legal right to a safe and secure home”. In the social housing sector there is a major problem, but the private sector does not escape attention: local authorities and government are failing to protect private tenants, the report says.

The all-party Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons claims that around 13 per cent of the private rented sector stock poses “a serious threat to the health and safety of renters” which is costing the NHS an estimated £340m each year.

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