Despite the unprecedented challenges the country has faced over the past year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 is still very present in the memories of people living and working in social housing.
With the ongoing public inquiry, the setting up of the Building Safety Regulator, and the new Social Housing White Paper, much has been done to respond to the lessons of the tragedy. But there remains more to do.
Last November’s White Paper was the culmination of a significant process of consultation by ministers and officials.
The fact it was welcomed by almost everyone in the social housing sector – including tenants and their representatives – and commands much cross-party support, is a testament to the groundwork that was done with a wide range of stakeholders.
At its heart, the White Paper seeks to rebalance the relationship between social landlords and their tenants, and ensure that social tenants get a fair deal from their landlords.
This ambition is set out in the White Paper’s charter for tenants, describing the expectations that tenants should have of their landlord.
I think most people who live or work in social housing will find much to agree with in the charter. The challenge will come from ensuring that the ambitions are delivered for the people living in the 4.1 million homes owned and managed by more than 1,500 social landlords across the range of providers.
For the Regulator of Social Housing, the White Paper agenda will require a review of our regulatory standards and changes to the way we work, including proactively monitoring local authority landlord performance against the standards. Many of these developments require legislative changes.
The White Paper sets out the principles that will need to underpin those changes, including the need to operate in a co-regulatory way.
For local authority landlords, co-regulation means that councillors are responsible for ensuring that their local authority complies with the outcome-focused consumer standards set by the regulator and can provide assurance to demonstrate that compliance.
We think there are three clear tests that the new consumer regulation regime must meet: it must make a meaningful difference to tenants; be deliverable by landlords; and we must be able to regulate it effectively.
The first test is vital. If these changes do not make a meaningful difference for tenants across the country, then, clearly, the aspirations of the White Paper will not have been met.
However, we also know that asking landlords for the impossible will not actually help tenants. The outcomes set out in the standards must be things that landlords can deliver in a world of constrained resources, increasing demands, and a backdrop of continued economic uncertainty.
Finally, we want to design a system that builds on the best of our current approach; outcome-focused, co-regulatory, proportionate, and risk-based.
While these changes require legislation, there is nothing to stop landlords, including local authority landlords, responding now to the vision and expectations on transparency, accountability and tenant engagement in the White Paper.
The way that social landlords have responded to the current pandemic demonstrates their willingness and ability to adapt to change and continues to demonstrate that they put the needs of their tenants at the heart of what they do.