Housing bosses were grilled by MPs on the appalling conditions faced by their tenants, as ITV News' Daniel Hewitt reports
After a year-long ITV News investigation into the state of social housing in England, this week saw the start of an inquiry by MPs into how it has to come to pass that so many tenants are living in uninhabitable homes, struggling to get landlords to listen. “We’re here because there has been plenty of criticism recently about the quality of some social housing and the failure of providers to respond adequately for the request for repairs,” said Conservative MP Ben Everitt. On Monday, the UK Parliamentary Committee on Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities heard how conditions ITV News uncovered - from London to Liverpool and Birmingham to Bristol - are “scandalous” and have brought “shame” on the landlords responsible. Those were not the words of tenants, but the landlords themselves.
“ITV and its other exposés have been scandalous,” said Professor Ian Cole of South Yorkshire Housing Association. “The actual conditions themselves were absolutely appalling. Secondly, the complete apparent absence of any communication between the tenants and the landlords, and thirdly, the cultural references about lifestyle creating the mould and damp, which I just think is just a measure of the distance between many landlords and the tenants they serve.” Asked if she agreed, Clare Miller, CEO of Britain’s biggest housing association Clarion, said “Yes I do, and we were caught up in this [ITV coverage]”. Ms Miller faced several questions over the organisations own failings.
In 2021, an ITV News investigation found tenants across the Clarion-owned Eastfields estate in South London living in appalling conditions with residents suffering from leaks, collapsed ceilings, rotting bathrooms, mould-infested kitchens and a rodent problem that plagued the estate.
Residents told us the damage and disrepair had gone unaddressed for decades.
Watch the appalling conditions uncovered across the entire Eastfields housing estate
Ms Miller told MPs: “I was ashamed, and we have apologised to the residents who were involved. The most important thing is that we learn from what has happened here and we undertook to do an internal investigation and we published the results if that, and we are absolutely determined to put that right.” In August 2021 the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) cleared Clarion of any breaches in standards, finding no systemic failure by the landlord, despite Clarion’s repeated apologies. The ruling was also despite Clarion, who recorded a turnover of £512 million in 2021, admitting it has carried out over 500 repairs on the Eastfields estate since the ITV News expose. We revealed that the Regulator had come to its conclusion without speaking to a single Clarion tenant on the estate or visiting a single property. The Regulator did however speak to Clarion to get its version of events. The role of the Regulator will form a key part of the parliamentary inquiry and dominated large parts of the opening evidence session on Monday.
MPs heard from three separate tenants’ organisations that the regulation of social housing providers was inadequate, imbalanced, and failing tenants. “In regulating [the RSH] relies almost entirely on the word of the housing association,” Suzanne Muna from the Social Housing Action Campaign told the inquiry. “The inspection regime was cancelled in 2011, so there is no inspection regime now in the way that there is for schools, colleges and other public services, despite the fact these organisations get massive amounts of money from the taxpayer.” Darren Hartley, chief executive of housing charity TAROE Trust added: “The travesty, and why [the regulator] isn’t fit for purpose… is unless somebody’s life and limb is under threat they can’t really intervene and get involved.” The committee also questioned the role of the Housing Ombudsman, who since April 2021 has launched two of its own inquiries in response to our investigation - firstly on mould and damp and more recently on racism in social housing.
The Ombudsman takes too long to come to a conclusion, the inquiry was told, and although the service has shown recent “improvements”, MPs heard of the ineffective sanctions handed out to landlords who mistreat tenants or fail to act. “‘LiveWest’ was fined £400 on a turnover of £186 million. ‘One Manchester’ [was ordered to pay] £350 compensation on a turnover of £60 million. These sanctions are nothing to a housing associations when they count their turnover in hundreds of millions,” said Suzanne Muna. “Even if you added the entire cases in one year, it’s still financially better for a housing association to ignore these findings and get fined for them that it would cost them to actually address the problem in the first place. “They don’t care about their public reputation anymore it seems, so really what is driving improvement?” Labour MP Florence Eshalomi agreed, and said driving improvement appeared to be led by journalists and activists rather than the sector itself. “You’ve cited some of the investigations Daniel Hewitt has done at ITV, there’s also activist Kwajo Tweneboa, and it’s getting to the point where… unless some of these organisations are named and shamed on social media there seems to be no change.” she said.
“Tenants continue to pay their rent and their services charges but yet they refuse to carry out basic repairs.”
Social housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa talks to ITV News about the fight against housing giant Clarion
In response, Darren Hartley said: “There’s probably a culture of disdain within some organisations. They know if they don’t act, there’s limited repercussions and limited accountability.” The inquiry into the quality and regulation of social housing is expected to last around six weeks before making a series of recommendations to the UK government.