Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 27th June 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:33 pm, 27th June 2022

My Lords, I welcome the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, and look forward to hearing his maiden speech shortly.

Before that, Labour welcomes the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which introduces long-overdue changes to the social housing regulation regime, five years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, we regret that what is essentially narrow and largely uncontroversial legislation has taken so long to materialise. Fire safety concerns raised by Grenfell residents had been ignored by their landlord. Residents complained of not being heard and of being treated with indifference. Therefore, we call from this side of the Chamber for higher standards for social tenants. We are extremely disappointed that the Bill does not go far enough in putting tenants at the heart of regulation and governance. The Grenfell tragedy shows that tenants can never again have so little power over their homes.

However, we must set the context in arriving at a judgment on the Bill. There are many social landlords who routinely fall well short on repairs and maintenance and could do far better. However, social landlords do not operate in a vacuum. Years of funding cuts to local authority budgets, as well as the four years during which a Conservative Government imposed a 1% social rent cut on them, have inevitably taken their toll, with the pandemic adding to the problems of housing revenue accounts.

Another major factor is the lack of affordable social housing, which has been exacerbated during 12 years of Tory rule. Successive Governments have not only singularly failed to build the social homes we need over that period but have overseen their loss on an unprecedented scale; 134,483 social homes for rent were either sold or demolished without direct replacement between 2010 and 2021. That is an average net loss of over 12,000 desperately needed, genuinely affordable homes a year.

Unfortunately, the Government’s headline proposals of rating your landlord and allowing a 250-person panel to meet three times a year with Ministers are not the powers residents need. The panel will exist only to scrutinise the measures being proposed in the legislation and will not be able to consider other pertinent issues, such as waiting lists, stigma, rent increases, allocation and housing supply. We need the Government instead to bring forward proper proposals to give tenants more power to take action in both social and private rented sectors. They should look towards the work of the last Labour Government, who introduced the decent homes standard, making available £22 billion of public investment in decent homes and improving the housing conditions of over 1.4 million council homes. By 2009, 86% of all council and housing association homes were brought up to a decent standard.

I reiterate that we support many of the measures in the Bill. However, given the scale of the problem that we know exists in regulating social housing, we want the Government to go further in key respects so that standards in social housing can markedly and rapidly improve and tenants’ complaints can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

We have concerns about the ability of the Regulator of Social Housing to respond in practice to the volume of individual tenant complaints it is likely to receive and whether it will be inadequately resourced to perform its new role vis-à-vis inspections. We will therefore seek to amend the Bill to allow the regulator to retain the proceeds of any fines levied to help fund its work. We want to see the regulator given more teeth than the Bill currently proposes. We will seek to give it a range of wider powers, including the ability to order compensation for tenants.

Even with an enhanced role, armed with greater powers to regulate consumer standards in social housing, the regulator cannot be the sole redress for tenants. We will seek to have the Bill do more for tenants to enforce repairs themselves. We believe it does not go far enough on a national voice for tenants. At a minimum, the work of the residents’ panel could be shaped more directly by tenants themselves. We will seek to ensure that it can be—for example, by enabling its agenda and terms to be developed via tenant input.

An advisory panel with tenants represented on it will be established by the Bill, but to consider only

“information and advice to the regulator about, or on matters connected with, the regulator’s functions”.

This is not a new idea. In the aftermath of Grenfell, the Government and tenants drew up plans to set up A Voice for Tenants, a national tenant group to work with government on issues affecting those in social housing. To the frustration of tenant bodies involved, it never progressed.

Another possible issue is that the Regulator of Social Housing relies on registered providers to let their tenants know of ways to complain, which means that the worst providers are likely to be the ones to inform their tenants of their rights, and therefore potentially reduce complaints. The White Paper committed to routine inspections only for the largest registered providers—those of more than 1,000 homes—every four years.

Beyond this, there is nothing in the Bill on how tenant voice and engagement will work in practice at the local level. It would allow, but not force, the regulator to set standards relating to the information landlords provide to tenants. Examples are mentioned in the draft regulations.

Safety is the greatest of concerns. The Bill would add generic safety to the regulator’s fundamental objectives. This means that the regulator can now set a standard on safety and enforce against it. The Bill further introduces a new requirement for social landlords to appoint a named individual responsible for health and safety. A separate regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, will also regulate all buildings’ safety when the new regime comes into force.

Currently, fines for non-compliance are capped at £5,000. The Bill proposes giving the regulator the power to issue unlimited fines. Larger fines could be a crucial deterrent to bad practice, enforcing the law against poorly performing landlords and disincentivising the poor treatment of tenants, but questions remain about what the fines would mean in practice, particularly in terms of housing associations passing the cost back to tenants.

The Bill also proposes enabling the regulator to enter and inspect properties with only 48 hours’ notice, down from 28 days, which is a significant change. However, short notice inspections need to be carefully thought through. Finally, the Bill proposes enabling the regulator to make emergency repairs where there is a serious risk. The White Paper stated that the Government were

“determined to increase the supply of new and beautiful social homes”,

yet the Bill is silent on the issues of supply.

I leave my final comments to echo those of David Renard, the Conservative leader of Swindon Borough Council and housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association:

“As well as improving existing homes, the social housing supply is not sufficient to meeting the current housing demand, which is why we want to see long-term plans to give councils powers to build 100,000 high-quality, climate-friendly social homes a year, including reform of the Right to Buy scheme, which has made it difficult for councils to build replacement homes at the rate at which they are sold.”