Housing Associations — [Albert Owen in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 3:59 pm, 12th June 2019

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I am also trying to make. The Government’s proposals for a national regulator and beefed-up regulations are sound and welcomed across the sector—the House reinforced that last week during the Grenfell debate—but there is a gap that local authorities could easily fill. There could be local oversight through local authorities engaging with the housing associations that operate in their local authority area, as well as national scrutiny through the national regulator, so there would be a local and national partnership to hold housing associations to account. Some housing associations are getting so big that they are becoming far too remote from their residents.

On that point, local authorities have no official role in formal regulation. If councils were given a role locally, alongside a national social housing regulator that focused on customer service, associations could be held to account and complaints dealt with more directly. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that possibility.

Another concern is the practice of under-the-table mergers between housing associations. Although the Government do not officially play a role in that, they have created an environment that has led to more mergers and takeovers of housing associations. Those have to happen sometimes, but as housing associations get bigger, whether through mergers or national expansion, their ability to be financially transparent and locally accountable reduces. That is a serious problem for residents who pay service charges, as it becomes less clear to them where their money goes. Bigger and more remote associations can also avoid being answerable to residents on other questions about repairs not being done, or not done to a high enough standard, or about costs going up or questionable rent increases.

My worry is that the bigger housing associations become, the more they become like money-driven businesses, rather than locally focused organisations with a social purpose, as my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas said. I am grateful for the commitments in the Government’s Green Paper, which was published last year, and for the matters raised by the Secretary of State in last week’s written ministerial statement, but we need progress to be made through regulation and legislation.

On a separate matter, I agree with Grenfell United, and the recent Labour party paper, that it is high time that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 covered housing associations, rather than just council properties, as mentioned by Tim Farron. Residents and the public should have the right to information about safety standards and the like, to ensure that conditions and costs are monitored.

The Green Paper and the written ministerial statement offer better protection, more transparency and real accountability for residents in social housing, and I would be grateful for any assurance from the Minister that those commitments will be met as soon as possible after the close of the consultation that was announced last week. We want to ensure that our social housing lives up to its purpose of providing comfortable homes that are considerately managed, and that residents feel empowered in decisions made about their homes.

As I said at the start of my speech, I do not believe this issue is controversial or rocket science. There is support across parties and across the housing sector for what the Government are proposing—more transparency in respect of housing regulation, policing and enforcement—through a more powerful regulator. We need a strong commitment from the Government that they will move with speed and efficiency. As we approach the two-year memorial to Grenfell, some recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report have been enacted, but the Grenfell public inquiry will likely not conclude or produce a report until 2021 or 2022.

As I think the Government recognise, they need to take action where and when they can to reassure the public that their safety and wellbeing are paramount. A new regulator would be an easy way to demonstrate that determination, as would the other ideas I have suggested. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I would be grateful if he considered this speech my contribution to the Department’s consultation on the matter.