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Following the publication of "A New Deal for Social Housing: Green Paper" on 16 August 2018, Katie Saunders considers what a new Decent Homes Standard might look like.

It is unsurprising that the Green Paper considers whether a review of the standards set for social homes is needed to reflect concerns and recommendations raised by Dame Judith Hackitt in her report, the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety 2018.

The current standard for social housing is the Decent Homes Standard, which was revised in 2006 to reflect the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS).

A decent home following the 2006 guidelines must meet the following four criteria:

  1. all the current statutory minimum standards for housing;
  2. it is in a reasonable state of repair;
  3. it has reasonably modern facilities and services; and
  4. it provides a reasonable degree of thermal comfort.

Over the last 20 years social landlords have undertaken a significant programme of improvement works to ensure that their homes all meet the Decent Homes Standard, largely supported by government and other external sources of funding.

However, it is the criterion of meeting the current statutory minimum standard for housing that is now likely to come under the spotlight for review, with particular reference to safety.

Long before the Grenfell Tower tragedy there were calls for improvement in health and safety standards for certain types of housing, specifically that the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (LTA 1985) and the Housing Act 2014, were not fit for purpose. Under the LTA 1985 the landlord of a qualifying dwelling is required to ensure that a dwelling is reasonably suitable for occupation. In addition, the HHSRS, which is referred to in the Decent Homes Standard, requires social homes to be free from hazards that pose a risk to residents.

The HHSRS has been widely criticised for its limitations, which include the fact that fitness obligations can only be enforced by the local authority and not by a tenant. Furthermore where a local authority is a landlord it cannot take enforcement action against itself, which can leave council tenants at a relative disadvantage if hazards are not attended to in a timely manner. This was deemed to be one of the issues highlighted by the Grenfell Tower fire.

Other concerns about the effectiveness of the HHSRS relate to the fact that determination of whether hazards exist under these regulations are based upon the hazards' impact on the most vulnerable persons susceptible to that particular hazard, as opposed to the person actually living in the dwelling. This approach effectively extends the protection for tenants but arguably increases the necessary obligations on landlords.

Therefore, a possible solution mentioned in the Green Paper could be to reflect changes in legislation imposed on private sector rented homes by placing positive obligations on landlords relating to the installation of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors and to ensure electrical systems are inspected every five years. Indeed this has been the approach taken by the Welsh Government and reflects the recommendations of a live Private Member's bill, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill.

Potential changes to the Decent Homes Standard could also include bans on particular materials used in the construction of social housing, for example the types of cladding highlighted as 'combustible' following testing in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, and offer greater clarity around specific types of hazards from which all social homes must be free, rather than the looser, more reactive, approach taken by HHSRS.

There is still a significant backlog of homes across the country that do not meet the current Decent Homes Standards and therefore if the standards are raised to include additional safety measures with more guidance on fire safety, the number of 'affordable' homes which fall into the category of 'non- decent' will increase, and add to those which are currently rated as unfit for human habitation since they include Category 1 hazards under the HHSRS.

Therefore any consultation on the Green Paper and the review of the Decent Homes Standard is likely to include a bid from all social landlords for a return to government funding to meet the backlog and improve future social housing standards.

This article is taken from Building Interest - Autumn 2018.