The Guardian view on housing associations: tenants need to be heard | editorial staff

“TThe tragic death of Awaab Ishak should never have happened,” said Michael Gove during a recent visit to Rochdale. Despite repeated complaints from Awaab’s father about the black mold that ultimately led to the death of his two-year-old son, Rochdale Borough Housing did not respond. The problems of social housing in England go far beyond this single tragedy. Formal complaints to the Housing Ombudsman about damp and mold have doubled this year. The TV show Help! My home is disgusting!” tells of insect infestations, overflowing pipes and leaks. In January, the Housing Ombudsman found Clarion, the UK’s largest social landlord, responsible for “serious maladministration” for the third time in three months.

Mr Gove has now pledged to introduce the ‘Awaab Act’, an amendment to the bill regulating social housing, which will require landlords to remedy health risks within strict deadlines. The bill, which awaits its third reading in the House of Commons, reverses over a decade of Conservative reforms and gives England’s Housing Inspectorate new powers to conduct inspections, impose unlimited fines and burden landlords with emergency repairs. The former social housing regulator was abolished by Grant Shapps in 2012 in a Quangos bonfire and replaced with a body focused solely on financial stability. The task of ensuring the quality of housing was left to landlords, effectively allowing housing associations to do their own homework.

Many still provide decent housing, but the sector has been diverted from its original social purpose, a fact recently recognized in a self-critical report by the trade body National Housing Federation (NHF). This is partly due to funding pressures. In 2011, the government cut funding for social housing, redirecting the remaining funds away from social rent and towards more expensive “affordable” housing. This forced housing associations to borrow to build and use tenants’ rents to pay off the cost of borrowing, rather than investing in existing homes. As housing associations merged and grew, local offices were centralized. Complaints are easier to ignore when registered at a remote call center. “The voices of the tenants can be drowned out too easily,” admitted the NHF.

The Housing Act shows that the government takes bad conditions seriously, but more needs to be done to ensure tenants are treated as empowered citizens with democratic influence. The Government has pledged £500,000 to help tenants make their voices heard. Teaching how better to complain is a patronizing response to a systemic problem. Many tenants are already all too familiar with grievance procedures, but have seen their grievances ignored while services that would enable them to assert claims against their landlords, such as legal aid, have been eroded by cuts.

The death of Awaab Ishak and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 both highlighted the great risks of ignoring tenants. The bill to regulate social housing will introduce a new advisory body that will allow tenants to bring problems to the attention of the regulator. In her new role as Minister for Housing, Rachel Maclean was set to go even further. A democratic national tenant representation would give social housing tenants a say in policy-making and greater powers of appeal. Under Gordon Brown, Labor created the National Tenant Voice in 2010, but the coalition government abolished it less than a year later. Reviving a similar initiative is key to ensuring tenants are listened to – and preventing tragedy.

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to email a reply of up to 300 words for consideration for publication in our letters section, please click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *