Levelling Up: Social Housing, Safety and Standards

It is approaching seven years since the Grenfell Tower disaster, and the following inquiry is set to publish its final report in the coming months. Regulatory Partner Emma Evans discusses the changes to social housing regulation in the wake of the fire and why it is crucial for housing associations to be proactive in their approach to industry-wide changes.

As I write, it is almost seven years since a fire at an apartment block in West London left 72 people dead.

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the UK's worst residential blaze since the days of the Blitz, the German bombing campaign which devastated so many cities during the Second World War.

Unsurprisingly, given the death toll and the shockwaves which the incident sent through a country, the appetite for high-rise living and the need for social housing has continued unabated.

However, the importance of avoiding any possible repeat saw the Government adopt something of a swift, two-track response.

An inquiry led by the former Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, was established the day after the fire by the then Prime Minister Theresa May with the task of determining exactly what happened at Grenfell and why, who might be accountable and what lessons might be learned for the future (https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/about).

More than a year after the last of more than 300 public hearings, the inquiry panel is expected to publish its final report in the coming months.

We have already been provided with some valuable insight and perspective as a result of a companion review chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

The remit facing Dame Judith - the former Chair of the Health and Safety Executive, Britain's primary safety regulator - included examining building safety and fire regulations applying to high-rise buildings.

Appointed in July 2017, her review issued its findings in May the following year and called for a "radical rethink" of the entire regulatory system (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5afc50c840f0b622e4844ab4/Building_a_Safer_Future_-_web.pdf).

Dame Judith uncovered failings at senior levels, including staff who did not have the right skills, knowledge or experience during both the construction process and among those with legal responsibility for fire and building safety during occupation.

There was, she concluded, "ignorance...indifference..[a] lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities", all of which was compounded by "inadequate regulatory oversight".

Her criticisms - which were followed only months later by similar complaints from nearly 1,000 social housing tenants (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/social-housing-green-paper-a-new-deal-for-social-housing).- have already generated a considerable response, including a change in law.

Given its complexity, the fine detail of how that law - the Social Housing Regulation Act, which received Royal Assent last year (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2023/36/enacted).- will come into force is the subject of an ongoing series of consultations.

One of the more significant of those has just closed, having been launched by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). It sought opinions on proposals to for a new Competence and Conduct Standard (https://consult.levellingup.gov.uk/social-housing/competence-and-conduct-standard/).

In short, ministers want to ensure that the social housing sector is more professional and able to deliver more "tenant-centred services".

The proposals on which feedback is invited include the scope of the qualification element of the Competence and Conduct Standard - exactly who might be the "relevant persons" needing to obtain it - and how long they may have until they must begin the process of working for it. At present, senior managers, leaders and executives would be among those covered.

Were the proposals to take effect, there is the possibility that relevant individuals working within the sector might not be able to hold their current positions without either meeting the new standard or proving that they were at least working towards obtaining it.

Although the suggested changes have been hastened by the loss of life at Grenfell, there is an appreciation that London has not been home to the only case which makes reform imperative.

There have been a number of high-rise residential fires in the UK and overseas before and since Grenfell.

In addition, two-year-old Awaab Ishak died in December 2020 from a condition caused by "extensive" mould in the flat where he lived with his parents (https://news.sky.com/story/awaab-ishak-toddlers-death-from-mould-triggers-review-of-landlord-guidance-12786323).

Following that tragedy, the Regulator of Social Housing concluded that there had been failures in meeting consumer and governance requirements.

That has sent a clear message to social landlords about the required approach to managing hazards and treating tenants' concerns seriously at a time when Michael Gove's proposals and the potential content of Sir Martin Moore-Bick's report are very much exercising the minds of the entire social housing sector.

Just as some people have been tempted to try and second guess what could happen, there have also been some wondering whether the full extent of reforms outlined by Mr Gove may be embraced by Labour if they form the next Government.

I firmly believe that the pressure for change is not likely to disappear, regardless of the outcome of the next General Election. The stakes are simply too high.

The legal obligations which are already in place could become even more rigorous and mean social housing providers having to demonstrate compliance and capabilities of the highest possible order.

Furthermore, I know how many within the social housing sector are already keen to do their best to make improvements before change becomes compulsory.

Over the best part of the last decade or so, roughly one-third of all my work has been with housing associations, advising them on related issues such as their compliance, training, reviewing, legal audits and policy.

They already appreciate - and I'm convinced - that progressive, exacting leadership in social housing sets the tone for the rest of their organisations, be they small or large.

Ministers will, I have no doubt, want to ensure that whilst speed and rigour are of the essence, any new changes to the regime are not so prescriptive that it prompts the exodus of large numbers of very capable individuals currently working within social housing or poses a challenge to good management in the future.

According to official figures released only a fortnight ago, there are just under 1,600 registered housing associations in the UK, operated by local councils, private businesses and charities (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/registered-providers-of-social-housing/list-of-registered-providers-14-april-2022-accessible-version).

Collectively, they provide housing for nearly six million people and amount to 20 per cent of all housing stock in the country.

Losing a volume of experience at this time of transition would risk instability or uncertainty. Of course, some associations may be robust in their approach, wanting to ensure absolute compliance with any standard no matter if that creates short-term staffing difficulties.

One thing is clear: a simple glance around our skylines shows that the pace at which constructors of social and private residential developments literally aim their sights upwards has not slackened since 2019, when details gleaned in a Freedom of Information request outlined how there were more than 10,000 high-rise apartment blocks nationwide (https://www.towerblocksuk.com/single-post/2019/04/27/government-release-list-of-over-10000-residential-tower-blocks).

Therefore, change - whether in relation to fire and building safety, damp, mould or the competence of the social housing sector - will happen sooner or later. Forward-thinking associations recognise that for the safety of their tenants and the benefit of their organisations, it is best not to be slow in planning for the future.

To discuss any of the above further, please contact Emma: emmaevans@bexleybeaumont.com  |  07738 007652