State of the Nation - A ‘tenant first’ approach

26 September 2023

Karl George, RSM's head of governance and Tom Proverbs-Garbett, associate director, give an overview of the sector and discuss the move towards a 'tenant first' approach, to which boards must respond. 

Ongoing discussions in the social housing sector regarding prioritising tenants’ needs and concerns have been thrown into sharp relief given the events in Rochdale Boroughwide Housing and the Grenfell Tower disaster. As a result, it is more vital than ever that boards consider the immediate actions that can be taken in their organisations in response.

In 2005, the Independent Commission on Good Governance in Public Services, chaired by Sir Alan Langlands, produced the Good Governance Standard for Public Services. Ahead of its time, two of its six standards dealt explicitly with service users: good governance means ‘focusing on the organisation’s purpose and on outcomes for citizens and service users’ and ‘engaging stakeholders and making accountability real.’ The service user should be at the centre of all activities.

Yet, despite the passage of time, this does not appear to be the case.

In 2013, the  Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry, chaired by Robert Francis QC, found that Mid-Staffordshire NHS had a ‘culture focused on doing the system’s business – not that of the patients’. In 2021, evidence given to the Grenfell Inquiry indicated that concerns raised by residents about safety issues had been dismissed. 

In 2022, the Regulator of Social Housing found significant failings in the way that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing dealt with damp and mould across the organisation and the Ockenden Review into Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust separately recommended that understanding complaints be put at the heart of governance. The Okenden Review concluded that ‘all maternity services must involve service users(…) in developing complaints response processes that are caring and transparent’; the Regulator of Social Housing emphasised that ‘social landlords need to listen to their tenants’ concerns, understand their needs, remove barriers to accessing services and respond promptly when they need to put things right’.

The fact that such recommendations still need to be made suggests a rethink is required across the sector. To some extent, this is already in process, with initiatives in the sector combining to create a framework which will require that tenants be placed at the centre of operations and strategy.

The Better Social Housing Review, set up in June 2022 by The National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing, has as one of its two key pillars ‘the housing association’s culture and responsiveness to tenants’ concerns and complaints’ (the other being the suitability of stock) – its recommendations will focus in that area.

The Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023

The act, which received Royal Assent on 20 July 2023, is designed, the government believes, to lead to significant change in holding poor landlords to account. It has the explicit aim of putting ‘the needs of tenants at the heart of social housing across the country.’

Awaab’s Law 

This crackdown on damp and mould, in memory of Awaab Ishak, requires landlords to investigate and fix serious problems within strict time limits and provides new powers for the Housing Ombudsman to help landlords improve performance via secondary legislation due to emerge under the act.

The Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Act 2023

The act became law on 29 August 2023. It introduced a new framework of oversight, including licencing, for the supported housing and older person’s housing sector, including the anticipated National Supported Housing Standards to be issued by the government.

Against this background, having a corporate purpose and strategy driven and informed by the concerns of tenants, is not only best practice for organisations in the housing sector but its regulatory future. 

This, however, raises several key questions for boards.

  • What happens when a tenant or other stakeholder discloses that their accommodation or service provision is sub-standard or dangerous – how are complaints and concerns dealt with?
  • How do boards and senior management teams ensure complaints are being properly dealt with, and that the possible implications of that complaint (or series of complaints) to the organisation’s overall strategy or risk profile are fully understood by the board? 

It is a fundamental principle of corporate governance that the board should have strategic oversight of the organisation, of which these questions must form part. To do this effectively, the board must:

  • get the right information in a timely way – audit stock, verify and understand (not just collect) data, have a route for tenants’ voice to reach the board;
  • consistently consider tenants in its decision making – in setting the organisation’s purpose and gaining a thorough understanding of tenant concerns via appropriate methods of engagement; and
  • turn this information and strategic positioning into delivery – appointing and retaining competent executive leaders and staff, who care, are led (and lead) well and acknowledge/receive accountability.

There is no right or wrong way to go about this, but there are some key areas where a board should consider taking external advice to support its own considerations.

  • Governance needs to be right – this is normally a question of leadership therefore regular external board effectiveness reviews are critical.
  • The ‘golden thread’ of equality, diversity and inclusion must be acknowledged – this is an important topic to staff and tenants (current and future). Establishing what this means to an organisation is a challenge and developing a culture to be one of listening and dialogue is not easy and external input gives a different perspective to cultural interpretation.
  • Working out how to engage with tenants properly is a skill, so regular (say triennial) stakeholder engagement reviews are important. Engaging with tenants involves consideration of the type of language used, the method of communication, and its frequency. This lends itself well to external support, a fresh look at methods of communication and, crucially, how to approach different stakeholders in different ways.

This takes us full circle, to an organisation’s ability to take what it hears and to act on it, strategically and operationally.

These are difficult but important issues, going to the heart of what it means to be a social housing provider. Initiatives in the sector make clear the direction of travel. What is your board doing about putting tenants first?

For further information please contact Karl George or Tom Proverbs-Garbett.