As the Social Housing Regulation Bill (the Bill) makes its stately progress through Parliament, the House of Lords has taken the opportunity this week to introduce two enhancements to the Bill. Neither of them are revolutionary, but both are very relevant to the scale of change that the Bill will introduce and social landlords, therefore, do need to take note of them.
Coming as it has off the back of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the purpose of the Bill is to introduce fundamental changes to the way that social landlords run their businesses so as to make them more customer-centric and accountable. The Regulator of Social Housing (the Regulator) is being given vast new powers to actively police the customer-facing aspects of its regulatory framework (which will itself be given a shake-up), and the bar is being raised for landlords when it comes to the quality of the homes and services they provide.
So, to the most recent changes. They will:
- make it a legal requirement for landlords to ensure their people have the right skills, experience and knowledge to deliver a high-quality service to residents; and
- require the Regulator to lay out details of how often it inspects the conditions of landlords’ properties.
The first of these is a direct carry-across from the Social Housing White Paper (para 98), which trails a review of the professional standards that are expected of frontline staff in particular. In January 2022, the Government announced a Social Housing Professionalisation Review would take place, but since then nothing further has been publicly announced to indicate when and how this is likely to take place. Until the review establishes these new benchmarks for frontline staff, of course, landlords can’t be assessed against them. The change the Lords have made is to renew the mandate for this very significant pledge to tenants contained in the White Paper and create pressure on the Government to drive forward the review.
Landlords are reliant on access to skilled workers to deliver their core services and comply with their obligations including (as extensively profiled elsewhere in the White Paper and the Bill) health and safety requirements including building safety. The Regulator’s Sector Risk Profile 2022 published on 20 October 2022 reports that the current tight labour market continues to exacerbate ongoing skills shortages and this of itself may threaten providers’ ability to deliver their existing programmes and services, let alone when overlaid by a new set of professional standard expectations and regulatory requirements.
The immediate action points for landlords are to work out where they have present gaps and shortfalls in relevant skills and expertise, noting that these may very well become more extensive when the Bill passes into law and once the review delivers its findings. Improving these areas requires either or, more likely both, recruiting (given all of the challenges that poses) or focussing on the existing workforce – upskilling them and paying more attention to performance management. There will be some hard yards to do on this for all organisations.
The second change the House of Lords has made this week is to require the Regulator to account for the frequency of inspections of properties. This supplements the general changes in approach from the current reactive inspection system to a new and far more proactive regime.
Until the Bill becomes law, the Regulator only has the power to adopt proactive regulation of RPs in relation to their 'economic' performance – rents, governance and financial viability. Operational delivery and asset quality have had their own set of regulatory standards, but the way these were policed was purely reactive – in response to a 'serious detriment' to tenants. In contrast, in the health and social care sector, regulatory inspections have been far less bothered about good governance or financial viability, focussing instead on the operational delivery of services which has been considered by CQC to imply a failing leadership. Now, the social housing sector is faced with far more of a regulatory emphasis on the quality of its homes and services, the two different sector-style approaches to inspections are colliding.
We all know that an Ofsted inspection can make or break a headteacher's career! We don't want that to be the case for executive teams in the social housing sector. Fortunately, for social housing providers, at Anthony Collins Solicitors, our regulatory team are well versed in advising on regulatory CQC inspections in the health and social care sector and can combine that with their experience advising housing providers on their safety-related obligations. We also have a great mix of governance, employment, regulatory, housing litigation and management lawyers to assist you. If you would value a conversation about any of this, feel free to contact myself, Katherine Sinclair (Employment) or Tim Coolican (Regulatory).
For most people living in social housing, their experience of dealing with landlords is with frontline staff – whether through a phone call to a customer service centre, visiting their local housing office, or engaging with contractors making repairs. When residents interact with landlords they should expect and receive a professional service from competent and empathetic staff.