The social housing regulator was “constrained” in its ability to investigate residents’ fire safety concerns by the direction of travel imposed by government, its former chair has said.
In an interview with Inside Housing Julian Ashby, who stepped down as chair of the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) this year, said “with hindsight” the regulator could have been “more aggressive” over health and safety.
But he said its actions were “constrained” by legislation which limited its power to intervene in consumer affairs, after the government scrapped its predecessor, the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), amid the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in 2010.
The role of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), as it was previously known before a rebrand in January, was attacked in the aftermath of the fire.
In August 2013, tenants of Grenfell Tower claimed they had tried to raise concerns about their landlord with the regulator but claimed "they were uninterested and/or unable to act".
It is understood that after the fire the regulator checked its record and found no evidence of complaints relating to Grenfell Tower in the five years before the blaze.
The HCA was only allowed to intervene in ‘consumer’ or tenant affairs when it was satisfied that the concerns passed the ‘serious detriment test’ of potential harm to residents.
In practice, this was a high bar to cross and the regulator would have been vulnerable to judicial review if it was shown to have acted outside its power.
“The regulator’s role in relation to consumer regulation was heavily circumscribed by the serious detriment test,” Mr Ashby told Inside Housing. “Parliament clearly intended it to be a fall-back. But it isn’t something that was very easy to either explain to people or follow through.”
He added: “I think with hindsight we probably would have put more resources into that area. We could have been more aggressive in going looking for trouble rather than being reactive. But we felt constrained by the very clear direction of the legislation that stripped away our consumer role.”
Jonathan Walters, deputy director of strategy and performance at the RSH, said the regulator is using its in-depth assessments of landlords to ask boards how they are managing the risks highlighted by Grenfell.
He adds: “The second side of the question is, should tenants be listened to more? And if they had been would it have made a difference on that night? There is definitely a feeling they should be listened to more. The question for us is what is our remit in that? We are doing the role that parliament has given us at the moment.”
The TSA was set up after a review in 2007 which recommended increased regulation of housing associations’ relationship with their tenants.
It was scrapped by then-housing minister Grant Shapps in 2010, after he told Inside Housing: “The TSA is toast.”
The new HCA later said it intended just 1% of its work to be consumer focused, with most of its energy put into finance and government regulation.
Update: At 4.15pm on 15.6.2017
An earlier version of this article reported that residents had tried to raise concerns about Grenfell Tower with the regulator without success.
This was updated to say that residents claimed they had raised concerns without success, and amended to note that the regulator has found no evidence of any health and safety concerns raised about Grenfell Tower in the years before the blaze.