New consumer standards for social housing in England: a brave new world, or business as usual? The truth, as so often, lies probably somewhere in between.
CT Director, Ceri Victory-Rowe, unpacks the changes to consumer regulation and what it will mean for registered providers.
The Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 will drive some considerable change in regulation from April 2024, but it isn’t wholesale change.
Any changes to economic regulation?
Let’s start by being clear: there’s very little change as far as economic regulation goes. The Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) remains concerned to ensure that registered providers (RPs) comply with the governance and financial viability, value for money and rent standards (where applicable) and will continue to regulate against these standards in much the same way as at present. We’ll see some changes to what it can do if RPs don’t comply, such as the ability to require performance improvement plans, and an enhanced ability to issue fines – but for the most part, we anticipate that economic regulation is going to feel pretty similar to what’s gone before.
Unpacking the changes to consumer regulation
It’s a different story when it comes to consumer regulation. The origins of the Act lie, after all, in an understanding that legislating for a somewhat hands-off approach to regulating the quality of homes and services may have played a part in failing to prevent the tragedies at Grenfell Tower and in Rochdale, where Awaab Ishak died. So it’s unsurprising that there is to be a whole new approach to consumer regulation, including the advent of inspections – which it seems will be closely modelled on the approach to In-Depth Assessments (IDAs), but will now cover consumer regulation and extend to local authorities and ALMOs for the first time.
New-style consumer regulation will be underpinned by a new set of regulatory standards, on which consultation closed earlier this month. There are undoubtedly some important changes to these: the introduction of distinct requirements in relation to domestic abuse, for example; raised expectations about how data about homes and tenants should be used to inform investment and service delivery; and more emphasis on diversity than previously.
In our own response to the consumer standards consultation, we welcomed the changes. We drew attention, too, to areas where we thought the drafting could potentially have gone further, reaching for more substantial change: for example, in relation to sustainability and environmental considerations; to safeguarding; and to tenant involvement. We questioned why there should be no specific expectations in relation to fairness and respect, given their pivotal significance, and we suggested that the standards are rather quiet about the problems caused to tenants by nuisance where it stops short of posing a safety risk, but nonetheless impacts significantly on quality of life.
But we know that the consumer standards represent a set of high-level outcomes which can’t possibly cover everything, and are intended to represent fundamental, baseline expectations of what a social housing provider should deliver. And while understanding of what represents good practice moves on over time, the outcomes social housing is intended to achieve arguably haven’t changed that much. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that for the most part, the content of the new standards is familiar, drawing heavily on the previous set, albeit the bar has been raised where this was felt uncontrovertibly to be needed.
Driver for change
But in any case, if reshaping of regulation is going to drive changes in the sector in the way that politicians have intended, it probably isn’t going to be through the standards themselves (although the changes will doubtlessly focus attention in a helpful way). Rather it is the removal of the serious detriment bar (which prevented the RSH getting much involved unless there was a serious risk to tenants), the introduction of inspection and the advent of a grading for consumer standard compliance which are likely to make RPs sit up and take notice – and the associated depth and rigour with, which providers will be expected to assure themselves – and the regulator – that they comply with, and even go beyond, the standards.