Michael Cameron - SHARE Annual Conference 25 March 2021
It’s hard to believe that this week saw the anniversary of the start of the first national lockdown, and it takes some effort to remember conversations that weren’t dominated by the pandemic.
I want to have a quick look back over the last year, touch on what’s coming in the next few weeks, and then think a bit about the longer term.
Social landlords in Scotland were amongst the first on to the frontline in local communities, supporting their tenants and residents through the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting public health response. That support often included responses that went well beyond the usual core landlord activities, but were needed to protect the wellbeing of individuals, households and communities. Landlords put in place new services or expanded existing services to respond to the impact of the pandemic on their communities, including tackling loneliness and digital exclusion and to ensure people have access to basic supplies.
And all of this was happening at the same time that landlords were having to manage the effects of the pandemic on their businesses: rising arrears, significant backlogs in responsive and planned maintenance, empty homes, and in a range of other services. And, of course, we have seen a significant rise in the number of people in temporary accommodation over the period of the pandemic.
These are critical and urgent issues that landlords will have to tackle in the immediate recovery from the pandemic, and they are likely to consume attention and resources in the short to medium term. We have seen landlords beginning over the last few months to build back the range of services that we once all took for granted.
Early in the pandemic – before the lockdown, in fact – we adjusted our regulatory approach in response to the pandemic.
We recognised the unprecedented circumstances that social landlords were facing as a consequence of the pandemic, and that they were working hard to manage and mitigate the impact on their operations and to safeguard their tenants and local communities. So, on 18 March last year we shifted our focus to monitoring the impact of the pandemic on landlords.
To help the Scottish Government and the newly established Social Housing Resilience Group understand the scale and nature of disruption and to plan a co-ordinated response, we asked landlords to provide us with a monthly information return with key information on the impact of the pandemic. We publish the data we receive and we have used this information to identify emerging issues and serious risks to tenants, people who are threatened with, or experiencing, homelessness and other service users. We have now published nine months of data in a monthly dashboard format and in open data format.
We halted the publication of Engagement Plans planned for March last year for all landlords other than for the most critical cases, and we paused all but the most critical regulatory engagements to allow landlords and us to focus on the most serious existing risks or those that emerge from the pandemic.
We extended the timescales for the annual regulatory returns, for the Annual Assurance Statements and for landlords to report their performance to tenants. And we’ve provided landlords with a range of advice and guidance over the period of the pandemic.
Throughout the last year we have worked closely with the Social Housing Resilience Group to coordinate our response to the current situation. We will continue to do that for as long as the Group continues to have a role.
So, quite a year!
Earlier this month we wrote to all landlords advising that the timescales for submitting annual regulatory returns are to revert to the original timescales for those returns due in the next year. We did this after we consulted with key stakeholders, including SFHA and GWSF, from which the dominant view was that it was important to collect the full set of returns to provide a comprehensive picture of the impact of the pandemic and the scale of recovery work that is needed. It is important to recognise that the resulting datasets will look very different to those in previous years, and how we all use that information and report it will have to reflect that reality.
We also advised landlords that from April we will change the frequency of the COVID-19 return to collect the information once for each quarter rather than the current monthly return. So, we will continue to collect the information for February and for March before moving to a quarterly return for April to June to be submitted by landlords in July. We will consider the continuing relevance of each element of the information in the current monthly return with the Social Housing Resilience Group ahead of starting the quarterly return.
Over the coming weeks we will publish information on our engagement with each landlord in our engagement plans, and for the first time we will publish a Regulatory Status for all RSLs. The Regulatory Status will show whether an RSL complies with Regulatory Standards and requirements, is working towards compliance or where we are taking statutory action. We will also highlight where a Regulatory Status is currently under review.
We have identified that the vast majority of RSLs – over 90% - are compliant with regulatory requirements. We’ll be engaging with around one third of all RSLs to get additional assurance about continued compliance, around about the same level as in previous years. Clearly the pandemic had had a profound impact on the delivery of services for people who are threatened with, or experiencing, homelessness. We want to ensure that we have an up to date understanding of the position across the country. And so when the plans are published next week you will see an increased emphasis and engagement on homelessness.
But we know that many of you are now looking further ahead, and asking: what now? Whether it’s under the heading of “build back better” or the “next normal”, people are looking back at the last year and are asking what it means for what and how we deliver in social housing into the future.
Clearly providing warm, dry, safe, secure and affordable homes in places people want to live will remain the central purpose of social landlords. But what does the last year mean for the types of services that you will want to offer? Is there now an appetite, and a need, for the continuation of some of the welfare and wellbeing services that you have introduced or extended in response to the pandemic? Has there been a significant shift or recalibration in your customers’ expectations? What do people want from their home and what do they want their landlords to do for them? I’d been really keen to hear your thoughts on those questions.
There will be pressures and demands on social landlords as we move out of the pandemic. We are still to see the full extent of the economic fallout from the pandemic and how that will impact on tenants and landlords. There are huge agendas for change around inequality, climate change and sustainability, and digital connectivity to name a few. There are heightened risks for landlords from the impact of Brexit on supply chains and market disruptions that exacerbate the challenges from the pandemic. Robust cyber security will be evermore critical in an increasingly complex digital world.
Testing, building and protecting the resilience of our people, our organisations and our communities is likely to become central to what we all do.
The recently published Housing to 2040 provides a strategic vision, but there is no pre-existing blueprint or road map for what comes next as social landlords move beyond the pandemic. And the absence of a plan provides the social housing sector with an opportunity to shape the future. Much of the social housing sector, and many of your organisations, were born out of the necessity for people and communities to take action themselves to drive change and build a better future. So, there’s a track record there. And this does feel like a moment when that type of leadership will be much needed.
And it strikes me that, now more than ever, it will be so important to have a meaningful dialogue with your tenants, residents and communities around what’s important to them and what they want and need from their landlord.