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Bernadette Conroy’s speech: Social Housing Annual Conference, 1 December 2022

Thank you Sarah for that introduction and thank you to Social Housing for inviting me to speak at your Annual Conference. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be with you here to discuss such an important agenda of issues for the sector.

Understanding the fundamental purpose of social housing providers

So much has happened since I was appointed to this role in April, and it could become easy to get lost in the rather tumultuous activity of the last 6 months. So, I want to start by going back to some basics and focusing on the 2 fundamental roles for social housing landlords; firstly, to provide safe, well-maintained homes for your tenants and secondly, to provide more homes for those who need them. Our job as regulator is to ensure that you are able to deliver both roles, by meeting our standards and managing your risks effectively.

The importance of the first of those fundamental roles has been starkly highlighted by the recent inquest into the tragic and shocking death of Awaab Ishak. It is the responsibility of all social landlords to ensure that the homes you provide are well maintained and of a decent standard. I will talk in more detail about this case later, but it clearly serves to emphasize the importance that you as landlords:

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  • Listen to their tenants’ concerns and take appropriate action
  • Understand and take account of tenants’ diverse needs
  • Have an up to date and detailed understanding of the condition of tenants’ homes, and
  • Remove unnecessary barriers that tenants may have in accessing services and being heard

This is not the first time that tragedy has forced the sector to confront these issues – I hope that it might be the last.

Last month, the Grenfell Public Inquiry hearings concluded, and the Inquiry Panel continues to prepare their final report with recommendations for change. There will no doubt be lessons for all of us involved in social housing in the Inquiry’s final findings.

But even before the Inquiry’s conclusion, the social housing white paper was drafted taking into account the views of those devastated by Grenfell. The Social Housing Regulation Bill, which aims to deliver the proposals set out in the white paper, has now reached the committee stage in the House of Commons. And we hope that it will receive Royal Assent early in the New Year. The Bill will put in place the statutory foundations for a transformation in our regulatory approach to consumer issues. Moving from a reactive regulatory regime to a proactive one. With a framework underpinned by new consumer standards, regulatory assurance gained via regular inspections, stronger powers and the Tenant Satisfaction measures that you will begin to collect from next April.

Against this backdrop of change, the economic climate is challenging. In this climate of economic instability, boards need to maintain a keen focus on priorities and managing the risks of delivering those priorities, and sound strategic decision-making. Rapid and increasingly prolonged inflation, a tight labour market, and continuing supply chain disruption are all resulting in increasing costs for you. There is no doubt that mitigating the impacts of these factors is testing the resilience of the sector and will continue to do so for some time. We can all acknowledge that the uncertain and weak economic outlook makes serving your existing customers, while at the same time developing more social housing, increasingly challenging.

Many of the severe scenarios which you will have stress tested against in the last year have now become alarmingly real. Robust budget setting and business planning are fundamental tasks for boards, but they have rarely been more important, in order to maintain viability, deliver on investment plans and continue to meet the economic standards. Your Boards face a series of very difficult trade-offs in delivering your organisational objectives, because you must maintain your financial viability, provide quality services and keep tenants safe. It is essential that you continue to carry out robust stress testing to assess the impact of a range of severe and multiple scenarios and plan your risk mitigation strategies.

In addition, while the government’s announcement on the rent cap will have less of an impact on your income than other options in the consultation, such an increase will be challenging for many tenants, and you will need to consider difficult trade-offs. These include the expectations in respect of continuing to invest in your existing homes and the delivery of new supply.

Economic outlook for tenants

As well as creating financial pressures for landlords, tenants are feeling the impact of inflation and the cost-of-living pressures, particularly from rising energy bills. I know that many of you are supporting tenants to help them sustain their tenancies. Many of you will be developing a range of support, as the pressure on tenants is likely to increase, and will mean that more tenants will be struggling to heat their homes or pay their bills. The 7% rent cap has provided tenants with a level of protection for the coming year, although they are likely to feel the impact of any increase at this time. The rent cap is a balance between delivering investment plans in relation to existing and new homes and affordability for tenants.

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