Michael Gove has accused some housing associations of ‘neglecting’ vulnerable tenants and being too focused on their finances, but denied that funding cuts had led to the situation.
In an interview conducted in the wake of the death of toddler Awaab Ishak from toxic mould last year, as well as the discovery that the body of tenant Sheila Seleoane had lain undiscovered for two years in a Peabody flat, the housing secretary said social housing landlords’ treatment of tenants had in some cases been “unacceptable” and had prompted recent changes to regulation.
He admitted to the BBC that the Tory-led Coalition Government had been wrong to abolish tenant body National Tenant Voice and the former social housing regulator, the Tenant Services Association, but denied that funding cuts had led to a deterioration in services.
The coalition government cut funding for new social housing by more than 60%, forcing many landlords to cross-subsidise the construction of new affordable homes by building homes for sale. The current social housing regulator, the RSH, said last autumn that association finances are across the sector at the weakest ever recorded because of rising costs coupled with the increased need to invest more in existing homes
Gove told Radio 4’s Today programme that the “horrific” case of Sheila Seleoane raised questions about the regulation of housing associations and “whether or not the values in housing associations are properly aligned”.
He said social landlords had been “treating their tenants with a degree of distance and hauteur and in some cases neglect that is unacceptable”, and that they would now facing a tougher inspection regime. “There’s been a culture in some housing associations that’s tended to put the black and white figures on the accounts ahead of the heart and soul engagement with the residents.”
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Asked if it was a mistake to abolish the regulator in 2012, and National Tenant Voice in 2010, Gove agreed, adding “that’s why we’re strengthening the power of the regulator [and] strengthening the power of the ombudsman. It’s why we have a campaign, the ‘make it right’ campaign, that is designed explicitly to say to people in social housing – you shouldn’t feel voiceless.”
However, asked if it had been a mistake to squeeze the finances of housing associations, Gove said he disagreed. “I think it’s entirely possible for housing associations, and many do, both to provide new homes, and ensure that the homes for which they’re currently responsible are safe, warm and decent. […] There is no excuse for neglecting individuals who should be your first care. Resources is not an excuse.”
Gove added that the government needed to build more social homes but that it was taking action via the £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme, as well as by allowing councils to keep more of their right to buy receipts.
In recent months the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has embarked upon a series of reforms to housing regulation, including reforms to the housing ombudsman, granting the social housing regulator a new consumer regulation role, and requiring increasing professionalisation from housing staff.
Michael Gove has also blocked housing associations with poorly maintained homes from receiving grant to build new houses.