Bishop of Chelmsford welcomes Social Housing (Regulation) Bill and urges Government to go further

On 27th June 2022 the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke during the Second Reading debate of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill:

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I also begin by congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, on his excellent maiden speech. Clearly, he has a whole set of skills and experiences that will ensure that his contributions in this House will be highly valuable, as was apparent in his incisive and to the point speech, much of which I agree with and endorse.

Before I go any further, I declare my specific interest as the Church of England’s lead bishop for housing. Noble Lords will know that the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community has been actively working to envision how the Church, government and the nation might tackle the current housing crisis. Last year, the commission released its Coming Home report, which sets out in detail a reimagining of housing policy and practice centred on five core values, which are that housing should be “sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.”

Recently, the Church announced its intention to create a whole new national housing association, which will enable it to become a major provider of social housing. We are committed to doing our part to tackle the social housing shortage, and likewise to working with others to bring about this vision of truly good-quality housing across the nation.

Therefore, I welcome the Government’s introduction of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. Many of its measures begin to address issues of transparency and accountability. The removal of the serious detriment test is much needed. As things stand, it is a major barrier to ensuring proactive engagement with tenants’ concerns. It is right to remove it in order to ensure that good living standards are upheld and maintained. The setting up of an advisory panel to amplify tenants’ voices is also very welcome. Too often the concerns of social housing tenants have been ignored or silenced. This must end.

The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrates the urgent need for safety to be a central objective. We must all do everything we can to ensure this dreadful tragedy is not repeated. As the Bishop of Kensington, the right reverend Dr Graham Tomlin, said at the recent five-year memorial service, “what happened at Grenfell was wrong. It was not an unfortunate accident it was the result of careless decisions taken, regulations ignored, an industry that seemed at times more interested in making profits and selling products than in the precious value of human life and keeping people safe in their own homes.” I am sure noble Lords will join me in strong praise of the work done by the Bishop of Kensington and the incredible Grenfell community to bring about a safer future for social housing in their community and across the nation. Therefore, it is only right and appropriate that the Government have now made safety one of the regulator’s fundamental objectives in the Bill.

I urge the Government to also consider adding as fundamental objectives the other core values of sustainability, stability, sociability, and satisfaction. These can work in complementarity to ensure truly good housing for all.

What plans do the Government have to increase the amount of good-quality social housing stock in the nation that meets these objectives? Recent decades have seen a drastic drop in available social housing. According to Shelter, since 1991 there has been an average annual net loss of 21,000 social homes and more than 1.2 million households are currently waiting for social homes. Millions have been pushed into the private rented sector, often resulting in unstable and unacceptable circumstances of overcrowding or temporary accommodation. We must work together to address this shortage of supply.

In doing so, it is essential that we ensure that this is truly affordable housing. Current definitions of affordability fall short. What is classed as affordable should reflect residents’ ability to pay rather than local market rates. Simply building more homes without consideration of their affordability will not solve the housing crisis. I understand the impetus to fine social housing landlords, but I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify how this will work effectively, given that such fines are likely to take resources from the housing association, thereby potentially reducing its ability to provide services, improvements, tenancy and neighbourhood support, a point touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox.

Finally, in addressing the housing crisis, I urge the Government to consider one more essential element set out in the Coming Home report: sacrifice. At present, the cost of the housing crisis falls largely on those who are financially poorest and resident in unaffordable or substandard housing. This is starkly evident at the moment as the cost-of-living crisis bites as well. The housing crisis will not be solved unless there is a willingness among others in the housing market to share this burden: that means landlords, developers, landowners, homeowners, and government. These sacrifices will help ensure a lasting housing legacy that works for us all. A long-term, cross-party housing strategy that brings those at every level of government, together with landowners, developers, landlords, homeowners, and faith organisations, is the only way that sustainable and meaningful transformation will happen.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Thornill (LD): Many noble Lords have reminded us that the catalyst for this was the tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent shocking discovery that repeated concerns about fire safety were raised by residents but fell on deaf ears. In week 80 of the inquiry, evidence was found of

“wilful blindness and complacency towards safety”.

Those are strong and shocking words indeed. So all of us who are working on the Bill will work to change such negative cultures and root out and eradicate poor providers.

Conversely, many landlords are good or very good and are already actively changing their performance measures, becoming more transparent and engaging better with their tenants. They have not stood by and waited for the inquiry outcomes or for legislation to be passed, as was detailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, in the role that she is, sadly, giving up soon.

Had my noble friend Lady Pinnock been allowed to speak—she was delayed by the same rail problems that have deprived us of the wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Best—she would have said that we applaud and support much in the Bill. At its heart is the expansion of the powers of the Regulator of Social Housing and the removal of the “serious detriment” test; these are two sides of the same coin and must have equal balance. The removal of the “serious detriment” test is an essential tool to allow intervention before a crisis point, by which time it will or could be too late, as we know and as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford pointed out.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): As my noble friend Lady Wilcox said in her introduction, we welcome this Bill, which, as we have heard, introduces long-overdue changes to social housing regulation some five years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, where safety concerns raised by residents had been ignored by their landlord. I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in praising the Grenfell campaigners for continuing to press for these much-needed changes to the law.

It is worth noting that, since 2010, the Government have reduced tenant representation, abolishing the Tenant Services Authority, abolishing National Tenant Voice, and removing national funding through the decent homes programme. The Bill today represents a crucial opportunity to put this right. However, while the Bill is very welcome, we also feel it is disappointing that it does not go far enough in putting tenants at the heart of regulation and governance. We believe it needs to focus more on tenant empowerment and representation.

My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe talked about the important role that housing associations play in providing support to people in need. While many provide good and excellent service, unfortunately that is not the case for all. There needs to be a proactive inspection regime for the Regulator of Social Housing that monitors all providers and not just those it suspects might not be compliant with consumer standards. We believe that the regime announced by the Government falls short of this.

We welcome the key focus of the Bill to enhance the regulator’s consumer standards regulatory regime. Again, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, we also welcome the removal of the “serious detriment” test, which other noble Lords have mentioned. This is a long-awaited change and will give the regulator more power over consumer standards and broaden the monitoring and enforcement powers.

Lord Greenhalgh (Con): A number of questions focused on the supply of social housing, including the contributions from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. This legislation is not about supply, as I think they both realised, but we are committed to increasing the supply of affordable homes. We have invested more than £12 billion in affordable housing over the five years, but we recognise the need to build more social rented housing, which is why this current programme of affordable housing is seeking to double the number of social homes we are building to 32,000. I noticed the focus in the excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on the decent homes standard. There is no greater sign that the Government recognise the importance of the decent homes standard than trying to extend it into the private rented sector. It is about raising quality, irrespective of whether you are a social tenant or a private tenant, so we improve quality in the round. (…)

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford raised, issuing fines is one of the enforcement powers the regulator can use. It is not the only one, and it is for the regulator to decide on the appropriate sanction depending on the circumstances. Government rent policy limits the maximum amount of rent that the social landlord can charge, subject to certain exceptions. It is down to the regulator to get the system of enforcement right, and there are protections on rent levels.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.

%d bloggers like this: