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How innovative smaller housing associations are weathering the regulatory storm

AuthorsJosephine Morton

How innovative smaller housing associations are weathering the regulatory storm

Customers, communication, collaboration. These were the central themes at the virtual National Smaller Housing Associations’ Conference on 5 December 2023, which was set against a backdrop of increased governance, legislation and regulation.

Here, Partner and Joint Head of Housing & Regeneration Josephine Morton reviews the key takeaways from the conference, including how innovative housing associations are plotting a path through these challenging times.


Weathering the storm

The conference’s opening session saw its Chair Jesse Fajemisin (Director of Business Operations at Mount Green Housing Association) discuss the current climate for smaller housing associations alongside senior leaders from Penge Churches Housing Association and the Centre for Social Justice as well as Tom Copley, the Deputy Mayor of Housing and Development at Greater London Authority.

The sector was described as experiencing “a perfect storm” following the Grenfell disaster, Brexit and the global pandemic and now amid a raft of new legislation and regulation.

The level of responsibility that social landlords have may not be so well understood in such a heavily regulated sector. Indeed, the last couple of years has shown a reduction in the number of private registered providers thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions. While this is no doubt a means of weathering the storm, it will be interesting to see how smaller housing associations can retain their strong community focus while making efficiencies.

The fact that housing associations don’t want to choose between building new homes and investing in existing stock was highlighted, though this seems inevitable considering the overwhelming demands on registered providers. Karen Cooper from Penge Churches said that partnership and collaboration are key. She implored the sector to continue investing in residents — something that smaller housing associations excel at, stating “It’s not just us weathering the storm — it’s our residents too”.

Tom Copley claimed that investment is key. While we spend so much money firefighting poor housing, we need to get better at tackling the problems head-on. Ultimately, though times are tough, they will get better.


Navigating new regulation

We already know about the wide-ranging regulatory change underway in the housing sector, making life complex for boards and executives.

The Regulator of Social Housing outlined that we must consider the ‘why’ before the ‘how’ — essentially, that the long-term vision of tenants living in safe and quality homes can be achieved through the regulatory changes that are coming. From next April, the Regulator will embark on an inspection programme for landlords with over 1,000 homes, alongside the usual governance and economic regulation. For those with under 1,000 homes, there will be no inspection programme, but the Regulator will nevertheless expect all registered providers to meet the consumer standards, regardless of size.

The top-line responses to the Regulator’s recent consultation showed overwhelming satisfaction with the planned standards, with no radical changes expected. This presents an important (and for some, overdue) cultural shift towards a programme that delivers strong services to tenants in a return to the core purpose of social landlords.

The Ombudsman talked about the statutory complaint handling code, which has recently been out for consultation. The Ombudsman’s powers can be triggered by a single resident, so it doesn’t matter how many homes you have. There will be a statutory duty on landlords to comply with the code and on the Ombudsman to monitor compliance. The final code will be published in early 2024 and landlords will need to submit a self-assessment to confirm compliance.

It was also highlighted how poor records can repeatedly let down small housing associations. Good record keeping always matters, regardless of your size.


How well do you know your stock?

John Gader — the CEO of Prima — discussed its ‘big door knock’ initiative. He said that back in 2019, Prima received a significant level of disrepair claims. In response, it asked stock condition consultants to identify potential disrepair cases. They came back with approximately 200 properties that were at risk. These were inspected and all repair works carried out (John confirmed that there were no category 1 hazards among the repairs). This work was carried out before the tragic death of Awaab Ishak.

However, there was still a nagging concern within Prima that it didn’t have the full picture of its stock and customers (it owns just under 3,000 properties across three local authority areas). As a result, Prima set up a carefully planned project group, supported by technology, as part of a data cleansing/analysis exercise. It was careful to communicate to residents well before the project commenced and has continuously drip-fed the information to customers.

The programme was piloted in Sefton. Prima took time to reflect on its findings and was then able to refine its approach. The programme enabled Prima to update customer profile information and inspect properties for any outstanding repairs, while opening up essential communication channels with customers. It was found that people hadn’t been reporting repairs for a variety of reasons and high levels of vulnerability were identified, with 120 households on the first pilot having some form of vulnerability that wasn’t otherwise known about. John explained that the programme has been resource intensive but highly worthwhile.  


Are we a listening organisation? Amplifying the resident voice

The conference also highlighted the importance of making residents aware of the upcoming regulatory changes. Smaller housing associations often have better insights into the make-up of their tenants and households. Housing associations in general need to think about how accessible they are to tenants, who should be given opportunities to engage at different times. While tenants are the priority and focus of every housing association, it sometimes feels as though governance and financial pressures can take centre stage. Hopefully, the upcoming regulatory changes will enable the sector to become more tenant focused.

Data was another key focus. We need to move away from thinking that engagement is only something that the resident engagement team does — every interaction that a tenant has with their registered provider is an engagement opportunity.


Dancing in the rain

We found the conference to be highly insightful, with many thoughts to take away. It was interesting to hear about the initiatives that innovative smaller housing associations are embarking on during these challenging times, including Prima’s proactive programme to inspect all of its properties while updating its stock and household data.

It’s clear that customers, communication and collaboration are the ingredients for success for all registered providers in the months and years to come.

While we certainly have some tough times ahead, it seems like smaller housing associations are set to rise to the challenge. As Karen Cooper put it — it may well be time to accept that we can’t always weather the storm, but we can certainly learn to dance in the rain…


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