A Squalid Tale

Daniel Hewitt’s documentary Surviving Squalor on Sunday night was both shocking and hard to watch. It condemns our sector, and should make everyone who works in it thoroughly ashamed.

It makes me wonder if I have been wasting my time for the last 40 plus years working in and advocating for social housing – some of those images made Rachman look benevolent.

I thought that social housing was meant to rescue people from the evils of private rented housing?

It would be very easy to claim that the cases highlighted in Hewitt’s film are one-offs, but he says he has received thousands of messages and emails with similar stories.

They are clearly the summit of a very large iceberg and provide evidence of some degree of systemic failure.

It seems to me that many of the awful cases highlighted in the film were repair jobs that could have been fixed relatively easily – but had been ignored causing more widespread damage.

So, who or what is to blame for this state of affairs?

There is a gang of six ‘culprits’ in my mind. 

First, the government, of course. The absurd and illogical fetishisation of homeownership since 2010 has condemned social housing to a second-class status and added to the culture I mention below.

Second, the boards and housing committees running these landlords are not leading and controlling in the way that they should.

For councillors to allow disrepair like this – managing homes in a discrete geographical area – is unforgivable. What happened to councillor surgeries? To complaint systems? To accountability and democratic control?

For the large housing associations in the film, the disgraceful images are, to a degree, more explicable. These outfits have become too large to fail but too big to provide the humane, local service that tenants deserve. Their board members, too often recruited from banks, law firms, and the corporate sector, have little or no notion of the human lives that are under their control.

The message for these boards should be: escape from your ivory tower and experience the reality of life in your homes; overhaul your systems to allow tenants a real say in your affairs and a proper redress for problems; ensure that all of your homes are brought up to the Decent Home Standard as quickly as possible.

Even if this is not possible, keeping homes watertight and dry should be an absolute priority. Divert funds from newbuild to invest in what you have.

Third are the (mostly) male senior executives who set the tone for their organisations. I have been in the sector for too long and I know what drives too many of them – empire building, growth at all costs, awards, conferences, status, testosterone – rather than basic service delivery.

The recent stream of self-congratulatory tweets coming out of Manchester was evidence that the pandemic has changed nothing, other than its utility as a cover-all excuse for all failings.

Fourth on my list is the regulator.

The standards are too weak, and they are not properly publicised and enforced. The RSH has allowed mammoth mergers to take place without demur and has failed to enforce stock transfers or to break up failing landlords. The fact that tenants have been unable to approach the RSH directly, or that the RSH cannot inspect even the very worst offenders is not good enough.

Tenants should be provided with a hotline where they can speak directly to an investigator. If your electrics are sodden with water, if you are breathing mould-infested air, that amounts to serious detriment by any measure. Yet I doubt if Mr Sheikh in his south London council flat had even heard of the Regulator, yet alone knew how to take a complaint of serious detriment through the stages.

Next on my list is the culture that still pervades many parts of social housing.

Apart from the growth-at-all-costs issue I mentioned above, there is still a widespread view in the sector that tenants are a nuisance; that no serious citizen would willingly be a social housing tenant; that many problems (condensation, anti-social behaviour) are down to lifestyle rather than landlord neglect. Notions of the deserving and undeserving poor still pervades the sector.

Some councils resent the fact that they own social housing at all (the ghost of Lady Porter is still hovering in some quarters). In Hewitt’s film, the response of one landlord to a complainant was telling: “Angela’s case is not straightforward.

Treating people as cases and customers rather than human beings and legally protected tenants is part of the problem. If you watched Channel 4’s recent Grenfell:  the untold story or the interview from 2018 with the powerfully articulate Eddie Daffarn, the Grenfell activist who foretold the fire, you will see where this unhealthy culture can lead.  

Sixth on my list are the trade and professional bodies. The NHF has stood by and said nothing whilst these mega empires were being created.

So long as their subscriptions were being paid they kept quiet, held to ransom by the largest landlords. Meanwhile, the CIH has failed to build up sound professional standards. When I studied for my CIH qualification we spent ages learning property law, and the technicalities of construction and mechanical and electrical services.

As far as I am aware, this has slipped in recent decades and the qualification levels are now much woollier. I recall a past CIH chief executive telling us that professionalism meant “being as good as you can be”. I am sorry, but if I go under the surgeon’s knife, I would like it to be with someone who knows what they are doing, rather than “the best they can be”. 

Do we know what we are doing?

The overwhelming themes of Surviving Squalor were of tenants being ignored, not being taken seriously, and not being treated as human beings; of staff who would not listen or act, who were either incompetent or negligent, or both; and of boards and councillors who were remote and ignorant of problems. The regulator was an absent presence.

So, we need a root and branch review: governance, regulation, competence, culture, and a return to the founding purposes of social housing.

Putting people back at the heart of everything we do is an absolute necessity. People as human beings, who deserve to be listened to and respected. Unless we put our houses in order, the rot will continue. 

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 16th September 2021)

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