A Call for Change in Social Housing

  • Portrait of Allan Binns

    Allan Binns

    Safety Director

  • May 28, 2023

I recently attended the Hertford Housing Conference, and some of the things I saw and heard really touched a nerve. There are so many mistakes being made in the housing sector that could be avoided with better planning and management.

As I sat in the audience listening to some of the concerns from the people at the head of this sector, it made me think, rather optimistically, that change need not be a challenge. It can be something we embrace.

The focus of the Hertfordshire Housing Conference was to promote the development of high quality, affordable housing across the region, and it did just that. The aims and aspirations set out from the speakers were encouraging to hear. However, there were some shocking examples of where things are going wrong.

One session was chaired by Housing Forum CEO, Shelagh Grant, with a focus on improving residents’ lives and landlords’ services.

Shelagh was joined Kathryn Eyre, Director of Quality, Engagement and Development at the Housing Ombudsman, Kate Robert, Principal Consultant for Altair, Jenny Osbourne, CEO at Tpas, and Gavin Cansfield, CEO at Settle.

The panel reflected on the poor reputation of social housing, following recent high profile incidents including terrible circumstances surrounding the deaths of residents who were not found for several years.

Any death is sad, but to lie undetected is difficult to comprehend. One such death was of a 61 year old lady who had passed away and lay undisturbed in her flat for more than two and half years – despite not paying her rent and neighbours raising the alarm.

Equally distressing to hear was how a housing association had issued an apology after a male tenant lay undiscovered at his home for almost six years – with comments from the coroner that this was completely unacceptable read out, and more should have been done to check on his welfare when the housing association failed to contact him over the years.

As I continued to listen, it was difficult not to be deeply troubled by these accounts. The panellists were united in their overriding passion for, and commitment to, bettering situations such as this, and putting measures in place to prevent such horrifying neglect.

While the panel searched for positives, they were also left lamenting the challenge ahead. Hampered by out of date management systems, insufficient asset information, prolonged repair times, a lack of resident engagement, and a shortage in competent tradespeople, the atmosphere turned sombre again as the panel and audience wrestled with how to address and overcome these challenges.

As someone who has recently been involved in supporting clients and developers in preparing for the Building Safety Act, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the requirements for high rise residential buildings.

From October, building owners will hold an increased legal responsibility for preventing the spread of fire and structural failure in their high rise residential buildings. To mitigate these building safety risks they must create, hold, and maintain a Building Safety Case, making a report available to the Building Safety Regulator upon request.

In essence, a Building Safety Case is a structured argument why a high rise residential building is safe for occupation. Held in digital format, a Building Safety Case contains a golden thread of information, populated either through the design and construction phases (or retrospectively in the case of existing buildings): essentially, the details on the parts of the asset that should be inspected and maintained regularly during the building’s lifecycle to ensure life safety.

Beyond the ‘as maintained’ records, a safety case also manages the competency of those actively involved in maintenance work and draws from a residents’ engagement strategy for each building. These engagement strategies promote regular two way dialogue between the building owner and the residents on matters regarding health and safety, creating accountability when issues are raised. If housing associations were required to have such a strategy in place for all their homes, could incidents of neglect be avoided and residents in need identified before another tragedy occurs?

Considering the focus on maintainable digital information, some may feel that the Building Safety Act is more of an aspiration than an achievable near future. I would disagree. Everything set out within the safety act is achievable from a process perspective, we just need buy in from the people who are responsible for implementing the process!

This was my principal argument when speaking alongside Andrew Little, Partner at Baily Garner, Andy Mullins, Head of Quality for Hill Group, Sarah Susman, Associate Director at PRP Architects, and Ken Adams, Managing Director of Life Build, as part of the Building Safety workshop at the conference.

The Building Safety Case is by no means a silver bullet, but considering the ills of social housing, and indeed the challenges faced by the housing sector en masse, I believe the principles of the Building Safety Case could and should be extended to all residential projects with a view to not simply improving residents’ safety, but also to provide more sustainable and better quality homes – ultimately offering a better quality of life.

It is saddening that events such as this are forced to showcase terrible accounts of housing association mistakes, yet they provide an opportunity for change, for reinvention and collaboration across a sector that is so very important to our society.

About the authors

Portrait of Allan Binns

Allan Binns

Safety Director

Allan has developed a digitally enabled, thought leading safety consultancy specialising within the built environment. He is a trusted advisor on the Building Safety Act and the associated secondary legislation. Allan is passionate about fostering dialogue and promoting the value of best practice information management to improve the efficacy of safety and resilience services.

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