The social housing white paper should be seen as part of the government’s levelling-up agenda and an attempt to ensure reforms to the planning system, building safety and leasehold apply properly to the social housing sector, which comprises more than four million English homes.
Before 2010, the regulator of social housing was able to take a proactive role in dealing with complaints and issues relating to the tenant experience. There was a deliberate move as part of austerity to limit the role the regulator had in tenant complaints and an attempt to ensure tenants went to gatekeepers like MPs and Citizens Advice bureaus first. It is a welcome move, therefore, that tenants will find it easier to go straight to the Housing Ombudsman with a complaint.
Building safety is also rightly a critical priority following the Grenfell Tower fire. Registered providers (RPs) have to ensure there is a nominated senior person directly responsible for safety. However, it is not clear how this will work when an RP takes space in part of the building. Is the building manager or freeholder responsible for the whole structure or is that too simplistic when looking at multi-core buildings and podium schemes where leases apply different levels of responsibility to different classes of tenure?
If RPs are directly responsible for safety, they are likely to want more control over the areas let to them. Ironically, this may make ‘poor doors’ and ‘poor cores’ preferable for safety reasons.
Meanwhile, the government is generally attempting to widen access to homeownership. While the newer and more accessible shared-ownership product is welcome, it is to be hoped that the government will not extend the right to buy to RPs’ tenants. This would harm the ability of RPs to access debt finance and increase their dependence on the public purse. Ultimately, fewer affordable homes will be built if more tenants can buy them at a discount.
The white paper is a step in the right direction for tenants. But it is important that it looks after the RPs, too.
Brian Dowling is real estate partner at Irwin Mitchell