Social housing regulation in the “new normal”
At the beginning of July, Fiona MacGregor, chief executive of the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH), sent out a letter to all registered providers (RPs) with more than 1,000 units indicating that the RSH will start to scale up its regulatory activity in line with the easing of pandemic measures. Ellen Damlica from Penningtons Manches Cooper shares what this means for RPs moving forward.
The correspondence to RPs followed Fiona MacGregor’s speech at Digital Housing Week, where she gave an overview of how the housing sector has coped with the challenges of COVID-19 and explored RP risk management moving forward. She praised the ‘agility and focus’ with which RPs had reacted to the pandemic, but warned that in some cases, issues will get worse before they get better, for example in relation to gas safety checks and repairs backlogs.
The 1 July letter informed RPs with over 1,000 units that the RSH will move from the position taken back in March, when the regulatory burden was eased to allow focus on front-line operations, to a more increased regulatory focus. The RSH will:
• Start to run a small number of virtual In-Depth Assessments (IDAs) over the summer with RPs that have already been contacted
• Continue to re-assess grades for RPs that have a governance rating of G2 or G3, particularly where those RPs are well-advanced in tackling issues
• Refresh any existing grades based on assurances obtained from the overall sector position
• Open the NROSH+ system for submissions and requiring financial forecast returns (FFR) and current business plans to be submitted by 30 September 2020 (with the deadline for financial viability assessments (FVA) and accounts continuing to be 31 December 2020, although earlier submission is recommended where possible)
• Require quarterly surveys to be submitted in line with normal timescales; and
• Continue to require the monthly submission of the Coronavirus Operational Response Survey (CORS), to allow identification of specific operational risks.
The letter emphasised that submitted business plans and FFR should be as accurate as possible and based on robust evidence about the condition of existing stock, having considered the effect of COVID-19 and future plans for building safety or energy efficiency work. It also stressed that the RSH is keen to understand what RPs are planning in relation to reaching zero carbon by 2050, but emphasised that there is not an expectation for there to be concrete plans in place at this stage.
The overall message from the RSH at this stage is that a reasonable approach to regulation will continue to be taken and that where there is a good explanation for failures linked to the pandemic, this will be taken into account. However, “egregious examples of non-compliance”, especially where not linked to the pandemic, are likely to receive a ‘business as usual’ response from the RSH.
Ms. MacGregor was also keen to reiterate in her speech the importance of keeping tenants, as RPs’ most important stakeholders, at the forefront of decision-making, as well as stressing the value of simplicity and warning that “this might not be the time to be overly ambitious in terms of complexity or innovation”. This indicates that boards will need a good rationale for focusing time and activities on non-core activity or complex structures, while the continuing challenges of the pandemic and resulting economic impacts are still uncertain.