What next for social housing after the Rochdale Boroughwide tragedy?

The government is toughening up its regulation of social housing but critics say its policies have made the situation worse for renters

The aftermath of the scandal at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) mutual poses questions for the rental housing sector, including co-ops providing social housing.

Issues around tenant empowerment – which mutual models like RBH were meant to foster – have come to the fore with the government promising a tougher regime for the sector.

But critics of the government say the sector needs more funds after 12 years of austerity, particularly if it is to bring homes up to standard and provide the sort of retrofitting the country’s housing stock will need to meet its net zero targets.

At RBH itself, Yvonne Arrowsmith has replaced the sacked Gareth Swarbrick as interim CEO. Arrowsmith has worked in the social housing sector for 30 years, in various senior roles, and RBH says she “has a track record of joining organisations as an interim chief executive and helping them to improve and succeed”.

She said: “This is a difficult time to be joining RBH, following the tragic death of Awaab Ishak. His death and the coroner’s verdict into it have rightly shocked the Social Housing sector. I strongly believe that everyone has the right to live in a home that is safe and secure.”

“So, although a difficult time, I am looking forward to working with the Board, Representative Body and employees to prioritise the safety and security of people living in our homes, to make sure that action is taken where it is needed, and to begin the process of earning the trust and confidence of our residents.”

After the regulator downgraded RBH’s governance rating from G1 – the highest available – to G3 – Arrowsmith posted a message to tenants setting out actions by the mutual, adding that she has visited neighbourhoods looking for feedback.

A damp and mould taskforce has been set up, the mutual is working to bring ventilation up to standard in all homes, and is introducing translation tech to help residents communicate when English is not their first language.

From January it will start recruitment for new board members, including the appointment of a new chair. In the interim, it is recruiting special advisors on tenant services and property management to provide additional oversight and support.

In terms of tenant empowerment, RBH says it will build on its mutual model to strengthen tenant engagement. This includes putting in place a new complaints process which will be signed off by tenants. And it will host series of workshops to look at how we can make tenants’ voices heard more loudly on mould and damp issues.

In terms of action from the wider co-op movement, Emma Laycock, member services lead at Co-operatives UK, said: “We have had positive discussions with RBH, around making sure their governance is fit for purpose and operates in line with the co-op values and principles, and there have been robust discussions around member engagement and tenant voice. This will continue in the new year.”

Meanwhile, the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) has been drafted by the UK government to help deliver a scheme to teach social housing tenants to engage with their landlords to demand better service.

The project, which comes in the wake of the death of a two-year-old boy made ill by mould in a flat at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, sees CCH and its partner organisation Public Participation Consultation and Research (PPCR) given £500,000 to roll out a training package open to any social housing tenant in England.

Residents will learn how to take an active role in how their home is managed through a series of workshops, forums and online resources that will run over the next two and a half years.

The goal is to drive “a process of cultural change in the social housing sector leading to a better balance of power between landlords and residents”, improving residents’ awareness of their rights to raise complaints and to access the services of the Housing Ombudsman.

It will focus on activities that achieve a maximised breadth and diversity of resident involvement in the programme through a tiered approach to raise awareness and provide access to information and resources.

Blase Lambert, CEO of CCH, said: “CCH and PPCR is receiving support from government to enhance our work empowering and inspiring social housing residents in England.

“We exist to promote resident empowerment and control and want all residents to understand their rights, be able to raise issues with their landlords, hold them to account, and to be able to shape and improve the services they receive and the homes they live in.

“Our vision for this programme is for it to be a catalyst for change, complementing other government actions outlined in the Social Housing White Paper, helping to drive a process of cultural change in the social housing sector, and leading to a better balance of power between landlords and residents.”

Social housing minister Baroness Scott said: “Landlords are responsible for giving tenants the decent home they deserve and the government is taking action to ensure tough consequences for any who fall short.

“We also want to make sure every resident is heard and has the opportunity to be actively involved in how their home is managed.

“This new government-backed scheme will help to do just that – empowering residents to challenge their landlord where needed and contribute to positive change in their homes and communities.”

The programme activities will commence in spring 2023 with a series of training sessions across the country, monthly online webinars, and the publication of a wide range of resources for residents through online social media and click to view platforms.

Meanwhile, ministers are preparing the Social Housing Regulation Bill, delivering new powers for the Housing Ombudsman to take action on complaints. 

Housing minister Michael Gove, who led the government’s condemnation of RBH, will also provide the regulator with tougher powers to enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice and make emergency repairs where there is a serious risk to tenants and the landlord has failed to act, with landlords footing the bill.

This drew a sharp response from Heather Kennedy of the New Economics Foundation. In a blog on the thinktank’s website, she did not spare RBH, saying: “The shameful failings of Awaab’s social landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing are obvious and irrefutable. Like so many housing associations, they appear to have an institutional commitment to ignoring their tenants when they complain about unsafe housing.”

But she also took aim at Gove for “grandstanding on Sky News, brandishing his moral indignation at the failings of bad social landlords”.

“Here we had the housing secretary, top brass in a government responsible for making conditions so much worse for renters, puffing up his tail feathers on national television, casting himself as their saviour,” wrote Kennedy.

She cited documents leaked to the Guardian which show that “Gove’s department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is preparing to formally instruct housing inspectors to examine residents’ behaviour before ordering a landlord to carry out improvements. Councils will be instructed to consider ​“behavioural factors” in cases of damp and mould, such as whether a tenant is exposing themselves to low temperatures due to ignorance or a ​“stoic” attitude to the cold.

“These documents show that the culture of victim-blaming tenants for appalling conditions in their home begins with our national government.”

Kennedy also pointed to “the gleeful bonfire of regulations designed to protect and empower tenants, to the slashing of government grants, the endgame for this government when it comes to housing associations has been to remould them, starving them of public funding, and pushing them towards private finance to plug the gap. 

“Associations must now become attractive to private lenders, by focusing on what sector bigwigs would call ​“governance’ but is really all about reassuring lenders that generating profit will be prized above costly inconveniences like the safety and wellbeing of tenants.”

She said the cutting of funding to RBH by the government “will only make problems for renters worse. 

“Stopping associations from building social homes will fuel our chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing, leave even more people homeless or at the mercy of private landlords who are even more reluctant to uphold decent standards.”

Co-op News has contacted the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ask if the new regulations on social housing will be accompanied by funds to improve the housing stock, but has not received a reply.

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