Queen's Speech: Social housing reform is the very least tenants deserve

Reform of the social housing sector was promised, with some fanfare, following the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. Credit: PA

In June last year, an ITV News investigation found widespread damage and squalor across a sprawling housing estate in south London owned by Clarion, Britain’s biggest housing association.

Homes were falling apart - bathrooms rotting, ceilings collapsing, walls riddled with black mould and damp.

Rats roamed the estate and water leaked into communal areas. Tenants showed us evidence of complaints going back several years, but almost nothing had been done.

Watch Daniel Hewitt's report from August 2021 on the Mitcham housing estate owned by Clarion where collapsed ceilings, rats, mould and damp were all found

Eastfields had been neglected, and following our report Clarion issued a public apology, admitting it had “fallen short of the standards our residents have a right to expect".

The landlord carried out over 500 repairs, brought in a pest control company and opened an office on the estate.

Despite all of this an investigation by the Regulator of Social Housing cleared Clarion, finding no evidence of organisational failure or a breach of consumer standards.

The decision drew widespread condemnation from MPs, councillors and campaigners who questioned how the regulator could see those conditions, listen to the tenants living in them, and come to such a conclusion.

Well that’s the problem. They didn’t visit the estate or speak to any tenants. The regulator has no power to do either - it cannot inspect properties or interview residents. It can however speak to the landlord, in this case Clarion, to seek an explanation.

The story of the Eastfields estate goes some way in explaining why on Tuesday, the future king of England sat in the Houses of Parliament and said: “Her Majesty’s government will introduce legislation to improve the regulation of social housing to strengthen the rights of tenants and ensure better quality, safer homes."

It is a moment social housing tenants have long-waited for. Many blame a decade of wholly inefficient regulation on some of the appalling conditions ITV News has spent the last 12 months investigating.

Reform of the social housing sector was promised, with some fanfare, following the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. Housing secretaries have come and gone in that time and yet nothing has made it into the statute book.

This Queen’s Speech marks the biggest step this Conservative government has made towards addressing the deep-rooted issues within social housing which have had disastrous consequences.

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The legislation promises to beef up the role of the regulator, giving it the power to inspect homes, order emergency repairs, issue limitless fines and intervene in badly managed organisations.

It should be, says the government, “the ultimate watchdog on standards” and “stand up for tenants” - the clear insinuation being that it hasn’t been either of things (though it is worth noting that it was a Conservative government in 2011 who set up the regulator in the way in currently exists).

New tenant satisfaction measures will allow tenants to see how their landlord is performing compared to other landlords, and housing associations tenants will be able to make Freedom of Information requests in the same way council tenants currently can with their local authority landlord.

The Social Housing Regulation Bill falls short of creating a dedicated tenants' organisation which would act on their behalf, a body which previously existed under the last Labour government but was scrapped by the Conservatives in 2010. The Bill also fails to state how many new social housing properties it will build to address the chronic shortage of affordable rental homes.

Former Tory minister David Davis, speaking in a Commons debate on the Queen's Speech, said: "We're a million houses short, at least, at a period where we've had seven million increase in population.

"We're about 100,000 houses a year short in terms of what we're constructing in addition to that million."

Former minister David Davis on the UK's housing shortage:

There are more than one million families on social housing waiting lists in England. More than 96,000 families are in temporary accommodation, including 121,680 children.

Last year, fewer than 6,000 social homes were built in England, despite experts saying at least 90,000 are needed every year to keep pace with demand.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove pledged in an interview with ITV News to build more social homes, but the Bill makes no specific commitment on numbers and only promises the “continued investment in the new supply of social housing.” The reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech are a long-time coming and will only now introduce a standard of regulation and consumer rights that are frankly the bare minimum of what tenants should expect.

That they have had to fight so hard to get these changes into a Queen’s Speech is something Michael Gove himself has conceded is unacceptable.