Opinion: How ITV has forced social housing to take a hard look at itself.
You might be aware that ITV News have over last 6months exposed some terrible failings in social housing in England. ITV's vital regular news features by journalist Daniel Hewitt and his team has rightly shocked the sector, even resulting in cheerleaders of English Housing Associations (NHF) admitting it was ‘unacceptable’.
If you haven’t seen any of their previous features yet, here are a couple of samples:
'Unliveable': The Council flats judged the worst in Britain (3mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HJLqxOFa2Q
Squalor; little short of a Slum (4mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtAo9gFZTeA
This important investigation is culminating with a full-length programme this Sunday evening called ‘Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame’ and is a must watch for anyone with an interest in social housing. I have been able to see a preview of the programme and it was not easy watching, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was in tears listening to the tenants’ stories featured.
Over the last few months, I have been forced to consider 3 questions:
What has failed within English social housing that these conditions existed at all?
Is this happening in Welsh social housing?
How do we ensure this is never a feature of our housing?
So, what has failed in England?
I am only an outsider looking in, but for me it starts at the top – Westminster & its Civil Service. The Regulation, Standards and Leadership are not good enough. Let me explain:
'Quality of Home' Standards – Low minimum standards set by English regulation does not help. A Wales Audit Office investigation concluded that England's equivalent of WHQS (called Decent Homes Standard) was far less demanding than WHQS. Also worrying, it was easier to ‘pass’ this lower standard. I’m told a property can fail 3 out of the 6 criteria and still pass the English Decent Homes Standard. In Wales, every one of the 42 boxes need to be ticked to pass WHQS. I don't hear any landlord complaining in Wales that these standards are unrealisitic, so why have lower standards in England?
Regulation - Regular readers might know Dr Steffan Evans of The Bevan Foundation (doing amazing work there). He did a PHD in Housing Regulation before joining TPAS Cymru. We used to talk at length about the difference between England and Wales regulation; it basically boiled down to English regulation being too focused on financial risk and not enough on service standards and tenant voice. I'm told there are moves to address that in last 12-months, but ITV’s work has shown there is a long way to go. Regulation standards of RSLs and the consequences of failure needs to be stronger.
Leadership - People tell me the revolving carousel of English Housing Ministers at Westminster does not help. Nor does the low priority of housing in the chaos of Brexit, NHS, new taxes etc.
In recent years, this is the length of a Housing Ministers in England – you can’t listen and deliver meaningfully if the person in the hot seat changes faster than Primark’s clothing lines.
Esther McVey: 8 months
Kit Malthouse: 12 months
Dominic Raab: 6 months
Alok Sharma: 8 months
In this ITV programme, current English Housing Minster Robert Jenrick MP is interviewed and totally rejected any Government responsibility saying, ‘This has nothing to do with Government Funding’ and firmly puts the blame on the failing of Local Authorities and Housing Associations. Yet UK funding for Local Authorities is in dire straits in many parts of the UK, with even talk of bankruptcy. Lack of money has a big part to play in this sorry situation, and the Westminster Government need to recognise that.
(Update note: 5 days after this blog post, the English Housing Minister was replaced again!)
I have had off the record conversations with a number of people closer to the issues in this ITV programme and I’ve frequently heard a concern about some staff not having the right attitude and empathy when dealing with tenant repairs and complaints. That is very concerning. When I joined TPAS Cymru, some of the first people I met were Simone at Rhondda, Keiron at Cynon Taf, Mike Owen at Merthyr Valley etc. Good people who really care about tenants and the communities they serve. We need to look harder within our organisations and ask the tough questions about the organisational culture and attitudes regarding the communities we serve.
So, about the Housing Associations themselves?
I can’t say with confidence, but from what I have heard, the following has been sugested to me.
Bigger = Better: There is a belief in English housing that the bigger you are, the better. There has been lots of mega-mergers with one Housing Association across the border nearly as big as all 40(ish) Welsh Housing Associations put together. Do these mega-merges distract you from your purpose? My father worked for British Rail maintaining the track in south Wales. Post privatisation, his employer would change every 2-3 years as contracts were merged, re-tendered and reprioritised. He used to say he spent more time in TUPE briefings, consultations about working terms, culture briefings, team restructures etc than out there working on the actual track.
Strategic Focus: For me, social housing is simple; provide decent homes at affordable rents. Tom Murtha has spoken previously at TPAS Cymru events about RSL Boards getting into trouble in commercial property speculation, and other development activities. This has go to the point that within social housing; maintaining decent homes is not getting the board room focus it needs.
A lot of Board room focus seems to about new builds. If you look at the annual reports and social media of some landlords you could mistake them for being a house builder. Where are the photos of CEO cutting the ribbon on Mrs Price's repaired front door that she has been waiting 12months for? I don't want to see a photo of Chair of the Board with a spade in hand, breaking the ground on a new development, but instead they are digging the first hole as a part of fence repair job of an existing tenant who has been waiting 18months for their garden to be made safe.
I have heard an argument that one of the estates featured ended up in such terrible condition as they were earmarked for knocking down, so no one wanted to spend any money on them. The problem with that is that it can take many years, and there are still people living in them in increasing declining conditions who suffer as long-winded plans are drawn up.
Complaints handling and Diversity: One other thing that struck me during these ITV investigations was the potential ethnicity of the people most impacted by these terrible conditions. These tenants have all complained regularly and not been listened to. Whilst not mention was made in the prgramme, most appeared to be from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and they were not being heard. We all need to reflect on that.
So, could this be happening in Wales?
Welsh Government 's housing dept have kicked off an investigation and have written to all the social landlords asking for their views. I’m glad this ITV investigative work has made Welsh Housing take a similar hard look at ourselves. TPAS Cymru will be taking this up with The Regulatory Board for Wales
I am not aware within Wales of conditions on the scale shown in this ITV exposure. However, we can’t be complacent and as a sector we must remain focused on getting the basics right – maintenance, repairs, listening to tenants.
We also as a secor need to look at our complaints processes as ITV have shown they are not working for some.
TPAS Cymru has an all-Wales Tenant Pulse report coming out very soon looking at tenant perceptions of their home. Looking at the draft findings, far too many tenants are still reporting damp, mould, draughty windows etc.
Please, please do watch the ITV programme on Sunday night and then think about what you can do in housing to ensure it never happens to anyone else: Sunday 12th September, ITV1 - 10.15pm
David Wilton, CEO