Tpas top tips for getting ahead of the White Paper

Monday 7th of December 2020

Jenny Osbourne, Tpas Chief Executive: 

It's a couple of weeks now since the White Paper came out - the Charter for Social Housing Residents - and I've been thinking about what this means for Tpas members and for the world of tenant engagement.

The 1980 Tenants Charter – later the 1980 Housing Act - introduced secure council tenancies, along with other new rights most famously the Right to Buy. Importantly, but less high profile, it also introduced the ground-breaking requirement for council landlords to consult tenants about housing management. With hindsight, not everything in the 1980 act seems such a great idea, but there's no disputing that it was a step change in the relationship between landlord and tenant.

40 years on, this new charter feels much less substantial, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to welcome. The White Paper is a follow up to 2018’s Green Paper, and in many ways, it’s the start of a process. On proactive consumer regulation, performance reporting and updating decent homes there’s lots of work to do on the detail, and we’ll be supporting our members with their own preparation, as well as influencing national policies. But what should the eager Tpas member be thinking about at this stage?

Well firstly: in the future you’ll need to identify a named individual to take responsibility for complying with the ramped-up Consumer Regulations. On the face of it this should be straight forward for housing associations and councils with ALMOs. But the complexity becomes clear when we consider retained stock councils. Not all councils have a traditional housing director, and accountability may be more focused on democracy than on tenants and leaseholders. Is this role one for elected members, or senior officers? Will a lead member be in touch with the detail? Is it reasonable for a lead officer to take responsibility for decisions that may be member-driven? For housing associations where does responsibility lie between the board and the executive? And for ALMOs between contracted managing agent and the council? You’ll also need an Accountable Person to take responsibility for high rise buildings and – later – other types of complex building. This is a much bigger role then the Fire Safety Order’s Responsible Person; is it the same person as your consumer regulation lead? Lots to think about.

It makes sense though to identify your consumer regulation lead early, because the changes in regulation are going to mean plenty of work for all types of provider; keeping up to date with the emerging requirements, establishing new reporting arrangements, making sure your complaints handling is up to scratch and so on. And that’s before you even get into the Decent Homes update. A new Decent Homes standard that looks at the wider neighbourhood creates a new sort of complexity in terms of delivery, and potentially a new source of tension between teams. So your consumer lead will need to understand all the service-related requirements, ensure that relevant parts of your organisation (and your contractors) are delivering, and make sure transparent reporting is in place. They need insight, influence, credibility, and enough seniority to get things done. It’s likely that if they have all these things, they’re already pretty busy. So, they may also need some help gearing up for the new regime.

You’ll need to take stock:

  • Am I clear on all the things we have to deliver?
  • How are we doing on resident satisfaction, and what's driving that?
  • Am I confident that we’re delivering everything to the right standard? Can I rely on the data?
  • What are the new reporting and transparency requirements? Can I make sure we comply?
  • Where are the weaknesses, and how can I tackle them?

If it’s not already clear, residents are the key to getting this right. Every part of the draft performance measures includes at least one element of tenant satisfaction, and when 4-yearly inspections come in, there’s going to be a risk-based element in the timing. That’s going to be influenced by your performance, and it could also be based on size – how many tenants are at risk of poor services – or by the perception of service quality, including how much the ombudsman and the regulator hear from your tenants.

New expectations

To help you with all this, the White Paper is setting new expectations about engaging with all residents – including the tenants that will be the regulator’s focus. Effective engagement, involving a wide variety of residents in ways that they’re comfortable with, is fundamental when it comes to understanding what your residents – both tenants and leaseholders – want from you, and how best to get services right for them. When you’re planning how to do this, it’s going to make sense to think about these engagement responsibilities in the round. If you just focus on what the White Paper asks for, you’ll have to do your planning all over again for the Building and Fire Safety Bill requirements. When it comes to tenants, the regulator will expect you to seek out best practice, and act on it. The landlords that maintained their investment in tenant engagement are going to be well-placed.

Top tips

At Tpas we're putting together a variety of resources to help our members through the coming months. In the meantime here are my top tips:

  • Get your consumer lead in place with whatever support and resources they need to prepare effectively.
  • If you already have engaged tenants to help you, you’re off to a good start. Jointly review the structures and relationships you have in place to make sure they're fit for the future. Are they broadly based, flexible, and inclusive? If not, you need to start recruiting and engaging urgently. Apart from the insight and practical help you’ll get, you’ll soon need to show how you’re continuously improving in this area.
  • Work together with tenants and other residents to take stock of where you stand on the known and expected changes in regulation and transparency. Don’t duplicate though – think about building safety as well as broader services.

As the social housing regulator has been saying for some months now;  we may not have all the detail, but the direction of travel is very clear. Of course, there's plenty missing from the white paper. I'm as disappointed as everyone else to see how little is proposed to tackle stigma and nothing at all on the national tenants’ voice. But let's not allow our disappointment to stop us from improving the way landlords, tenants and contractors work together in the future.

There's lots to do, so let's crack on where we can, and keep arguing for the things we've not got yet.