Speech | Social Housing Regulation | Adjournment Debate | 31st October 2016

I am delighted to have secured this debate. I called for it to voice my concerns about the regulation of social landlords and how they manage their properties. First, I want to pay tribute to the hundreds of my constituents who have campaigned, with me and their councillors, to draw urgent attention to their plight. The focus of my contribution will be how we can ensure that social housing tenants have the proper protection they need and can live in security and safety. This applies in particular to repairs and maintenance services, which if not done speedily and to a high standard can be devastating, and in some cases life-threatening.

At a time when local authorities and housing associations have been facing significant funding pressures, it is vital that the Government and regulators pay particular attention to the experience of social housing tenants. Housing associations are a critical part of the solution to Britain’s housing crisis; they provide affordable, quality rented and shared ownership accommodation, and the best ones are anchored in their communities. Many provide specialist housing services—for example, for people with disabilities. Some housing associations have historical roots in the 19th century and the mutual and co-operative traditions.

Tower Hamlets has many excellent community-based housing associations which have worked well in partnership with the council to look after residents and to be genuinely responsive to the needs of local people, but in recent years I have become increasingly concerned that these progressive aims are being subverted and the not-for-profit ethos of housing associations is being undermined in some cases. Old Ford Housing, which was established in 1998 as the successor body to Tower Hamlets Housing Trust, was widely regarded as one of the best housing associations in east London. It was originally a subsidiary of Circle 33 Housing Group for financing purposes, but it was accountable to its own board of tenants, leaseholders and independent members. In 2005, it merged with Anglia Housing Group to form Circle Anglia. Other associations then joined to form Circle Housing Group.

The quality of maintenance has progressively worsened since the merger. Circle Housing has systematically failed local people. Local councillors and I have had to deal with hundreds of complaints from residents, as have other MPs with housing in their constituency that is managed by Circle Housing. Last winter, it failed to manage its heating repairs properly, meaning that many tenants had no heating or hot water for days. Many other examples have been brought to my attention of missed appointments, repairs left undone, poor-quality work by contractors, and failures to communicate with residents. Tower Hamlets Council has taken the rare step of dropping Circle Housing altogether as a preferred partner for housing development in the borough.

Returning to the issues affecting my constituents, local ward councillors Rachel Blake, Mark Francis and Joshua Peck have been working tirelessly to support the hundreds of residents who have been treated disgracefully by Circle Housing. Some of the cases are heart-breaking, including residents carrying umbrellas indoors because of leaking ceilings, a heavy heater falling off a wall near small children playing on the floor, lifts breaking down on a weekly basis, and 30 flats left without light for weeks. No one should have to live like that.

One of my constituents called the Circle Housing office 40 times over a three-month period to fix leaks that left them using an umbrella when using the toilet. Another of my constituents, who was eight months pregnant, slipped on water leaking from her toilet, which she had reported on 88 occasions. Another couple had a boiler that broke down repeatedly for nearly six months. A disabled resident was left without heating for the best part of two months. Another family had to sit with bowls on their laps and towels on their heads because of unrepaired leaks from above. In another case, repair workers failed to attend four pre-agreed appointments organised since May this year to fix damaged walls and ceilings.

In other cases, leaks from bathrooms that have damaged the ceilings below have been left unrepaired for years. Another family’s unresolved piping problems have left them filling the bath with hot water from the kettle after asking for help for months. An elderly pensioner in her eighties went without heating and hot water for 17 days. Another elderly resident had to live with no hot water or heating for eight weeks. When he informed me about the situation, I asked Circle Housing’s CEO if he could tolerate being treated like that and had to threaten to inform the media about the appalling treatment before my constituent’s boiler was finally fixed. It cannot be right that we have go to such lengths to make Circle do its publicly funded job properly. It demonstrates incompetence and a dereliction of duty by Circle Housing.

Circle’s poor quality management was recognised in 2015 when the Homes and Communities Agency found evidence of serious detriment to tenants and downgraded Circle Housing Group from G1 to G3, which means there are issues of serious regulatory concern. Circle’s response to such a damning ruling was to close down its subsidiaries, including the Old Ford Housing Association, and centralise services, moving most of its staff to a new call centre in Kent. That has made matters worse.

In the spring, Tower Hamlets councillors reported further failings to the social housing regulator, whose role is to investigate whether there has been a breach of the home standard, which amounts to “serious detriment” to tenants. I could not imagine more cut and dried examples of serious detriment than leaving dozens, and possibly hundreds, of tenants without heating and hot water for extended periods. The provision of heating and hot water is one of the most fundamental of landlord functions. In response to that complaint, the HCA simply said it was satisfied with the progress Circle was making in improving its services. Earlier this summer, the HCA announced that Circle’s governance rating had been increased again to G2.

My constituents have now had enough. Earlier this year, I received a petition from nearly 1,000 local residents calling on the mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, to report the continuing service failings to the social housing regulator and initiate legal action against Circle for its failure to honour the promises it made to tenants back in 2005. It also called on me to raise their concerns with the Housing Minister, which I did in writing earlier this summer and as I did to his predecessor—I have not yet received a response. I hope that the Minister will therefore make sure he addresses these urgent matters today.

Given this context of the appalling record of the merger and growth of Circle Housing, it is not surprising that the recent proposal for Circle Housing to merge with Affinity Sutton has raised further alarm bells among residents. If this merger goes ahead, it will create one of the largest housing associations in Europe. Nearly half a million people across London, from Bromley to Brent, from Chelsea to Chingford, will become tenants of this new social landlord, which will own and run more than 127,000 properties. Residents are also rightly concerned that the merger and the centralisation of services, including repairs and maintenance, will see services deteriorate even further.

What we have seen is a complete failure to be locally accountable, with locally accountable board membership having been cast aside. Circle has completely failed to honour the promise it made when the Old Ford transfer happened that that would be maintained and there would be proper accountability. The merger with Affinity Sutton will make matters worse, and my constituents do not want any part of it, nor do residents from other London boroughs who have had similar experiences.

Housing associations receive billions in public subsidy from the taxpayer. Between 2010 and 2016, Circle Housing alone received more than £250 million of Government funding. It must be held to account properly if we are to prevent others from suffering in the way that many of my constituents have over the past few years at the hands of Circle Housing. Will the Minister provide an assurance that there will be more robust systems to process complaints, adjudicate in disputes and provide redress quickly when things go wrong? Will he assure us that he will ensure the HCA urgently investigates why Circle’s management board retained a failing contractor, Kier Gas, to provide its gas safety maintenance, and whether that decision, which left many tenants without heating and hot water for weeks, amounts to serious detriment? With the HCA review due to complete soon, will the Minister commit to empowering the HCA to investigate examples of neglect of repairs responsibilities? Will he think again about the HCA losing the power to give consent to housing association mergers, as set out in the Housing and Planning Act 2016?

I have no doubt that some housing associations and their representative body dislike the old regime from the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 and its predecessor legislation, but this case shows that some housing associations do not always make decisions in the best interests of their tenants. The Government should be empowering regulators, not making them even more toothless and unable to act and therefore inept at standing up for the very people whom they should be serving.

In conclusion, I do not believe for a moment that Circle is alone in providing a shoddy service, or that this is the only proposed merger in the UK that is problematic. Instead there may well be a trend towards bigger, more remote and less accountable housing associations with multi-million pound turnovers and substantial assets and reserves behaving like companies that are not serving their communities. This is the antithesis of the founding principles behind housing associations and the opposite of what is needed now to fix the housing crisis.

I commend the work of the many housing associations in my constituency and up and down the country. It is right and proper that we hold to account those that are letting them down—in this case, it is Circle Housing Group—so that the reputation of good, hard-working housing associations that are responsive to their local communities is not damaged by the actions of the few.

A full Hansard of the debate, which includes interventions and the response by the Minster for Housing, Gavin Barwell MP, can be found on the following link: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2016-10-31b.750.16&s=speaker%3A24958#g755.0