George Walker and Helen Trouten Torres - TPAS Conference - 4 December 2019

George Walker and Helen Trouten Torres - TPAS Conference - 4 December 2019

This is actually the third time I’ve spoken at this event so thank you. In November 2017, it was my first speech as SHR chair. So this conference holds a special place for me. I’m delighted to be speaking alongside my fellow board member Helen who joined our Board earlier this year. Helen will introduce herself shortly.

We’d like to talk to you about three things today:

  • why we’re on the Regulator’s Board – what it means to us
  • our priorities
  • rent affordability

So, why does regulation matter?

Well, I was lucky enough to grow up in great quality social housing at a time when it was more plentiful in Scotland than perhaps it is today. It gave me life chances: to grow up in a warm, safe home, do well in school and go to university. I’ve been lucky to have and lived and worked in the USA, in Asia and across the UK.

That grounding has never left me, and it drives me. I am passionate about the importance of tenants’ rights, and it’s at the heart of my strong belief that it’s vital we have well run and properly regulated social housing in Scotland.

Helen is one of three new Board members who took up their role in April this year. Another of our new Board members, Colin Stewart, is also here, and Colin is leading a workshop at the conference about his journey. Try to get along to it.

Both Helen and Colin are social housing tenants. I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that having two tenants on our Board, with their insights, and experiences, enhances and strengthens our Board. We have always had at least one tenant on our Board, and it absolutely helps to ensure that tenants remain at the heart of what we do.

That’s probably a good point for me to pass to Helen to introduce herself.

When I saw the opportunity to join the Regulator’s board, I felt it was a great chance to try to make a difference in social housing for people and their communities.

The Regulator’s sole objective is to safeguard and protect the interests of tenants, those without homes and other service users. This spoke to me as I’ve always had a strong interest in social housing because of my own family’s journey from the Gorbals clearance to Castlemilk, low & high rises, and the new town of East Kilbride.

After growing up just outside Edinburgh. I studied social policy at Glasgow Uni. I really began to understand the importance of social housing. About how people’s health improved dramatically with improvements in living conditions and less overcrowding.

I’ve worked in a variety of roles including Parliamentary briefing, charity donor relations and in youth work with young homeless and vulnerable people. I also spent 7 years in Rio de Janeiro where I was a teacher, academic coordinator and even a reporter for the Rio Times.

I have experienced all forms of housing tenure due to my changing life circumstances. I’ve gone through the homelessness system twice with two very different experiences. In one, the most upsetting part was the housing options interviews. It was awful having to tell my story over and over again. Being asked about a major crisis in my life and not being believed. I got little real empathy. Now I’d been in this type of interview before as a youth support worker. I knew that my family met the criteria but still, I went to pieces.

In my other experience of homelessness, I felt listened to, respected and was sensitively guided through the process. I wasn’t asked to repeat my story time and time again.

The housing association that housed me were so supportive in helping me to set up the tenancy. The housing officer showed me how everything worked, a tenancy support officer helped me to maximise my income, budgeting, benefits and even setting up bill payments to ensure I didn’t fall into arrears. I was made to feel at home and this had a huge positive impact on other aspects of my life.

If I had been a more vulnerable person, some parts of the process of trying to find an affordable home for my family could have broken me.

Well, life took over but it was these experiences that sparked me to apply to join SHR’s board and made me passionate about doing all we at SHR can to improve the experience of tenants, people who are homeless and other service users.

But, improving people’s journey through the homeless system isn’t the whole story. For me, after moving from one expensive private rented property to another and a very unsettled time with my son changing nursery schools etc, we were recently fortunate enough to get a council tenancy.

This is in an area close to my family, secure and affordable but in a poorer state of repair. The council had to let as seen. There was an expensive key meter for electricity. I didn’t drive then so I spent a fortune in the corner shop. Life is much more expensive when you’re a skint, newly single, Mum.

According to the Joseph Rowntree foundation, 1 in 4 children in Scotland are living in poverty. So we can see why keeping rents affordable is so important. It’s why many social Landlords work hard to use their resources effectively and to manage costs. It’s vital they focus on this to keep rents affordable for us tenants.

We all want to build strong, connected communities where people support each other. Landlords of course aren’t there to replace other public services but they certainly do a lot to complement them.

We face both challenges and opportunities in social housing today in Scotland. People living side by side with different lives, different needs, our relationship with the environment, our resourcefulness, our creativity and positivity in trying to make our communities great places to live. I believe that tenants and a strong tenant voice is so important to achieve that.

I’ll hand back to George. Thank you.

You will know that since I became Chair, we’ve spent the last couple of years talking to tenants, landlords and others about the future shape of regulation. That led to our new regulatory framework earlier this year. I believe that this regulatory framework sets us up well for the future. With great input from many tenants, we had broad support for our new approach, and we’re now embedding it in its first year.

What I do want to talk to you about today is our priorities. We set these out in our new corporate plan published earlier this year:

Value for money and affordable rents – about landlords delivering a good service, at a price tenants can afford to pay. We know how important this is for tenants.

Tenant and resident safety - the most important responsibility on landlords. Most landlords meet this challenge. But, we are engaging with a number of landlords who haven’t demonstrated that they meet all these duties, including asbestos and electrical safety. An issue of the utmost seriousness, and our response in individual cases reflects that.

Last month we wrote to landlords about this, to ensure it is on everyone’s radar. And we’ll continue to highlight this and that landlords give tenants a clear way to raise any concerns.

Now, I want to touch on two other areas which are high on our regulatory agenda.

Homelessness – making sure landlords do all they can for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It’s one of the issues of our time, and perhaps more than any other the one where of us need to pull together and use our influence.

Governance and financial health in RSLs – because strong governance is a platform for the delivery of good services. And I’ll say a wee bit more later.

So, from a regulatory perspective, what shape is Scottish social housing in? Well, I think it’s a sector with real strengths: a clear purpose, with strong values, so providing a crucial role in communities right across Scotland, with dedicated volunteer boards, committees and staff delivering vital services.

Landlords show strong performance across most of the Scottish Social Housing Charter. Overall, Tenant satisfaction is high overall, with nine out of ten tenants satisfied with their landlord’s performance. So a position of strength.

So where is there room for improvement? Well, I’ve already touched on the huge challenge of homelessness. It’s a concern that five Gypsy/Travellers sites managed by social landlords still don’t meet minimum site standards, although it has improved over the last year or so. And satisfaction with social landlords’ factoring services lags.

You will know that we’ve had to take statutory action in a number of RSLs. You may be aware that governance weaknesses have been at the root of the problems in almost all these cases.

It’s in everybody’s interests that all of us in the sector continue to focus on strong governance. Because, strong governance underpins high quality services.

I said I wanted to talk more about rent affordability, this is right at the top of our agenda. And it’s worth saying that this is largely because of feedback from tenants.

We know that many tenants are finding it harder to afford their rent. That’s the clear message from our National Panel of Tenants and Service Users. Our National Panel is made of up more than 400 tenants and service users. Each year we seek their feedback on key issues.

During August we published four reports from the Panel. The report on rent consultation told us that over a third of Panel members have experienced difficulties in affording their rent. Looking forward, more than two thirds are concerned about the future affordability of their rent. They’re worried about rent increases by landlords and future changes to income, particularly through changes in benefits.

They also told us that they have experienced difficulties with their wider household finances. Nearly a third felt they are not managing their finances well and more than half are worried about their future financial circumstances.

These messages echo conversations I’ve had with other tenant groups. For example the RTO liaison group, made up of members of the four regional networks. This group gives us another really good route to hear directly from tenants about issues that are important to them. The RTO liaison group made similar points to the panel about rent affordability when I attended its meeting last month.

So, as the Regulator’s chair, I recognise the challenge many tenants are facing. What’s happening with rent levels?

Well, landlords’ data from their annual returns on the Social Housing Charter tell us that year the average rent increase for all social landlords in Scotland was 3.7%. That’s up from 2.4% the previous year.

And it’s the highest level since current monitoring began in 2013.

Some 80% of landlords raised rent above inflation. We also know that more than four fifths of all landlords plan rent rises above inflation in the coming year with average planned rent increase of 3.0%.

What is an affordable rent is complex. Local context and markets, benefit changes and tax credits, trade-offs with fuel costs all add to that complexity. And of course, landlords don’t all start from the same position on rent levels. Some may be able increase rents at a higher level and keep them affordable. But the fact is that, no matter the starting point, rents that increase above inflation are likely to become less affordable.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there are many factors influencing rent increases, alongside the current political and economic reality that’s increasing uncertainty. And this is at a time of increasing expectations on landlords from customers and government.

So yes, some of the pressures to increase rents will be beyond the control of landlords. That makes it all the more important for landlords to vigorously pursue cost efficiency and value for money, the elements they can control.

So, our key messages on rent are these:

  • Landlords should be demonstrating to their tenants that their rents will remain affordable
  • It’s crucial to have effective dialogue with tenants on rent increases
  • And they should ask themselves whether they are doing everything possible to be efficient and drive costs from their business before passing costs on to tenants.

For our part, the level of rent increase will feature prominently in our regulatory assessment of landlords.

I’ll finish on why a strong tenant voice matters to SHR. Put simply, a strong tenant voice is essential for the success of social housing. Without it, social landlords cannot truly thrive and provide customer-focused services.

It’s also crucial to how we work as a Regulator. We promote a strong tenant voice through our engagement with the regional networks, our RTO liaison group, our tenant advisors, our National Panel, and by speaking with tenants at events like today. These are all important ways for us to understand your priorities and your experiences.

And I should add that it’s great to be speaking to you about this here, at the TPAS national conference one of the organisations that provides such great support to that strong tenant voice.

My message to you is this: keep doing what you’re doing. Models of tenant involvement have evolved a lot over the last decade, which I welcome. But the one constant is the influence you wield: to work with your landlords, help shape their services and, yes, to hold them to account.

And as the Regulator, we expect landlords to be working with tenants and to ensure this happens.

Rent affordability is a perfect example of how your voice really matters. I said that we expect landlords to engage with tenants on affordability and rent increases. I’d urge you make sure this is genuine and happens.

Be proactive, work with your landlord, remind them of what they should be doing if that’s needed. Use your influence to make sure the rent consultations are based on clear information, options with a focus on service quality, and affordability. As a regulator, we expect that.

Don’t forget - your commitment is key to achieving the social housing sector we all want. You have our support. So please, continue to work with your landlords, to influence and shape the future with them.

Thank you.