Landlords in England are to be held more accountable, the government has said, as part of social housing reforms three years after the Grenfell fire.
They include a charter setting out what tenants can expect from a landlord, including to be safe in their home and to know how the landlord is performing in areas like repairs and complaints.
The housing secretary says it will give tenants “a much stronger voice”.
But Labour said the reforms “appear to water down previous proposals”.
And housing charity Shelter warned there was a “chronic shortage of social housing” and that “any new dawn for social renters must come with major investment in new homes too”.
The proposals are part of a “fundamental rethink” on social housing following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the Social Housing White Paper had been drafted with the views of victims of the fatal 2017 fire in mind.
Ministers say they will “deliver on the commitment we made to the Grenfell community that never again would the voices of residents go unheard”.
The White Paper – a document setting out proposed new laws before they are formalised in a government bill – pledges that complaints to landlords should be dealt with promptly and fairly, and tenants should expect to be treated with respect alongside the backing of a consumer regulator.
Alongside these promises, residents have also been told they will have a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in.
Ed Daffarn, a Grenfell survivor and member of bereaved families and survivors group Grenfell United, said: “If this White Paper is going to make a difference, the (social housing) regulator and the ombudsman need to understand the devastating impact bad landlords can and do have on people’s lives.
“We have little faith that bad landlords will improve themselves – so the responsibility now lies with the regulator and ombudsman to use their new powers to ensure no residents are ever treated how we were.
“Ultimately it will be for residents themselves to determine if these changes go far enough to making their lives better and homes safer – and creating a lasting legacy for the 72 innocent lives so needlessly lost at Grenfell.”
The Social Housing White Paper was born from the shock and grief of Grenfell. The prime minister at the time, Theresa May, told a hushed House of Commons that she would ensure the voice of those living in social housing could never be ignored again.
“Long after the TV cameras have gone, and the world has moved on,” she said, “let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead to gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process.”
There was to be legislation to ensure her promise would be met. Parliament was told it would be a “wide-ranging top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector” and the “most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. But four housing ministers, three housing secretaries and more than three years later, we have only just seen the government’s proposals for the first time.
Few will argue with the measures to give tenants a greater say and to strengthen their rights. But only last September, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick also referred to how the White Paper would “boost the supply” of social housing.
There are, however, no firm commitments to increase the number of council houses in England. In the summer, a senior committee of MPs told the government the country needed a net addition of 90,000 social-rented homes a year. The committee noted that the latest annual figures show that just 7,000 were completed and quoted a report from the charity Shelter suggesting that after taking into account social homes sold under Right to Buy, supply fell by 17,000 in 2018-19.
“The nation is in a social housing crisis,” the committee advised. “The economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to place greater burden on a social housing system that is already under significant strain.”
Although the White Paper does refer to increasing the supply of social housing (it could hardly fall any lower), its focus is on general affordability, with particular emphasis on what they call “affordable home ownership”, a product that is out of reach for those on the lowest incomes.
The White Paper also heralds the expansion of Right to Buy, piloting schemes to allow housing association tenants to purchase their socially rented home and encouraging shared ownership schemes to help residents get on the housing ladder.
For some, this is the great hole in the middle of this White Paper. The prime minister says the proposals will ensure “social housing tenants are treated with the respect they deserve”, but critics argue there is too little for the 93,000 households in England currently stuck in temporary accommodation, or the estimated 3.8 million people in need of social housing.
Meanwhile, Mr Jenrick has announced a consultation on making smoke and carbon monoxide alarms mandatory in all rental properties.
He said the reforms would bring “transformational change” that would give social housing residents “a much stronger voice”.
“I want to see social housing tenants empowered by a regulatory regime and a culture of transparency, accountability, decency and public service befitting of the best intentions and deep roots of social housing in this country,” Mr Jenrick added.
But Labour’s shadow minister for housing and planning, Mike Amesbury, said: “The government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy has been slow at every stage. They were slow to re-house residents, slow to remove deadly cladding, and slow to come forward with social housing reforms.
“Two years late, this White Paper appears to water down previous proposals. The government must do all it can to ensure a disaster like Grenfell can never happen again. That means tackling stigma, putting tenants’ voices centre stage, and ensuring the regulator has real teeth.
“Today’s proposals contain nothing to help the thousands struggling in the private rented sector, make up for a lost decade of social housing, or tackle the housing crisis.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) said it was “paramount that the voice of all social housing residents is heard”.
And Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said the White Paper was “an important and welcome milestone in the country’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy”.
She added: “Housing associations have demonstrated willingness to be more accountable and transparent, and we believe that the white paper represents a natural progression of the work we have been doing.
“We look forward to seeing the detail in the White Paper so we can continue working with residents, the government and the Regulator of Social Housing to deliver these important reforms.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said the reforms were a “welcome step in the right direction in the urgent task of protecting social tenants”.
But she warned: “With over a million households already on the social housing waiting list, and many more families potentially facing homelessness as the recession bites, any new regulatory system is being set up to fail unless we build many more social homes.
“Fundamentally no regulator is going to be able to make up for the chronic shortage of social housing that led to this crisis. Any new dawn for social renters must come with major investment in new homes too.”
The White Paper only applies to England as social housing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been devolved.