Back to the Future?

Tuesday 13th of December 2022

Tpas Policy Advisor, Clare Powell, talks about the recent changes at L&Q, and how the housing sector still needs to change.

I’ve been pondering why I was so pleased to hear that L&Q are changing how they work. Apparently, their new staffing structure creates 180 neighbourhood housing leads, each responsible for about 550 homes and acting as the main point of contact. This change has been a year in the planning and followed revelations about a tenant living with damp and mould in one of their homes. For those of us that have been around a while, it sounds very much like a patch-based generic housing officer.


I’ve been working in social housing for almost 40 years in jobs from the tough territory of managing temporary accommodation, through to the very different world of strategic policy. Mostly, it’s been enjoyable and interesting, and I’ve met lots of great people. However, there’s no denying that there’s lots in the sector that needs fixing, and there’s too much about the homes and services social landlords provide that should shame us all, particularly those of us that have been part of that provision.


All too often, the trouble comes down to stigma or the lack of respect for tenants. It’s not about poor customer service, although poor service can be a symptom of stigma. It goes far deeper than an individual transaction. Stigma is about the way people think of social housing tenants as different from themselves; Inferior, and in need of fixing. It affects everything about housing providers and the work they do. This includes the way they plan and deliver services, such as the 4-hour appointment slots that are shaped by the assumption that tenants will be unemployed.


But I think there’s also another problem that affects landlord services. And if this is overlooked, housing providers will never get to the root of the problem. I think sector leaders sometimes forget how broad and deep the responsibilities of a social landlord are. Or maybe some of them never knew?


Being a landlord – any type of landlord - is not like any other organisation that simply delivers services on demand. Landlords aren’t selling cinema tickets, and they’re not running a food bank. They’re one part of a very specific legal relationship in which the tenant pays rent for a home that’s provided and maintained by the landlord. It’s the tenant’s responsibility to make sure the rent gets paid, with or without benefits. And it’s the landlord’s job to make sure that the homes they’re responsible for are fit to live in, whether the tenant reports repair problems or not. It’s a legal responsibility that carries on as long as the landlord and the tenant are around. And the responsibility is the same whoever the tenant is, whatever staff may think of them, their opinions or their life choices. Everyone’s different, and some tenants may require different approaches, but they’re all entitled to a decent quality home and a decent landlord service.


For housing providers in the social sector, I believe their role goes beyond the legal landlord service. As social landlords, they’re also responsible for some of our nation’s most important civic assets. They’re the current guardians of homes and estates that have been developed over generations with the aim of making our towns, cities and countryside better places for everyone to live. Of course, some of them have failed to live up to their promise and need to be redesigned for future generations. That’s part of the privilege and responsibility of stewardship.


If landlords are to serve all their tenants effectively and be responsible stewards for all their assets, they need to develop their understanding of tenants, homes and neighbourhoods and how they work together. There’s a role for technology, particularly in holding and analysing the relevant data. But what better way to build that in-depth knowledge than through day to day service delivery? An individual looking at the whole picture, taking responsibility for being the landlord of each tenant as well as considering the wider neighbourhood.


So I think my positive response to L&Q’s announcement was because of this view that being a social landlord is about stewardship. Providing homes and neighbourhoods that reflect people’s needs and make life easier. One thing in the article particularly made me smile. Apparently, L&Q were unable to say “categorically” whether this was the first time that tenants have been offered a single point of contact like this*. I can’t count the number of times in my career that tenants have looked back fondly to the days when they had a housing officer whose name they knew. L&Q may not be able to say categorically whether they’ve had housing officers before. But I bet some of their tenants could have told them.


* It isn’t – I worked for them in much this kind of role 30+ years ago.


Clare Powell, Tpas Policy Advisor