CHAPTER ONE – ESTATE MANAGEMENT POLICIES
I do not anticipate that this book will be read by many landlords who do not have a management policy. Registered Providers must have policies and procedures in place. The claimant firms of solicitors tend to target social landlords, because they are seen as easier prey.
Why are they relevant to disrepair claims?
Although ‘Estate Management’ might include tenancy and environmental management, antisocial behaviour, successions, allocations and so on, this chapter is mainly concerned with maintenance and improvement policies, and the systems needed to support them.
Policies help employees to make decisions without management involvement and they ensure that there is a sufficient degree of consistency to avoid a haphazard approach to the control of the estate. When somebody complains that they have not been treated properly, the existence of a policy can benefit both parties.
The landlord can maintain an objective approach and will find it easier to be fair to all tenants. Tenants know the standards they can expect, and employees will be able to respond consistently to similar issues.
The degree of detail in these policies and procedures is a matter of judgement. In general, the larger the organisation, the more extensive the policies and procedures it needs. Staff members are more numerous and the number of properties in the estate will mean that there are more likely to be untoward or unusual events which need to be approached by all employees in the same way.
It is a question of maintaining a balance between an overly rigid or bureaucratic approach and giving staff the ability to be practical and use their judgement. In terms of the repairs policy, the fundamental guiding principle will be the standards which the landlord sets itself as a housing provider.
Policies will need to be reviewed and updated, both at regular intervals and following changes to key legislation, regulations or best practice guidelines. The aims of a landlord may change and the policy may become outdated, or on a performance review a housing provider may find that it is under-delivering and needs to tighten or improve policies.
In housing conditions law this is particularly pertinent. The coming into force of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 has fundamentally changed the landscape in terms of repairs and improvements. Policies are almost certain to require change, to reflect the fact that merely repairing properties is no longer sufficient to avoid legal liability for substandard living conditions.
There is a real need for providers to take into account the changes imposed by the 2018 Act and other related legislation, and by the changes anticipated by the charter for social housing residents, the social housing White Paper, published on 17 November 2020.
The greatest danger to landlords is the setting of a quality standard which is too low to satisfy the law, or too high to be affordable. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 forced social landlords to reduce their rents by 1% each year over the following four years. That led to numerous problems and many landlords suffered significant budgetary issues as a result.
In early 2019, the government agreed that social housing rents would be allowed to increase by the consumer price index measure of inflation +1% for the following five years from 2020. This should redress in part the imbalance caused by the previous policy, albeit only gradually. Almost every social landlord has raised its rent by the maximum permitted amount.
Some landlords will have changed their policies to reflect that reduction in rent, and they may now revert to the historic policies if changes were made to the standards set by the policies. The National Housing Maintenance Forum is the best source of good practice for maintenance and asset management policies. It helps landlords both with policy and practical guidance to assist housing maintenance professionals.
Rather than discussing policies in detail, the purpose of this section of the book is to concentrate thought on the consequences of the wording of the landlord’s repairs and maintenance policies.
Changes caused by the 2018 Act and other new statutes
Most important, such policies are no longer able to separate repairs and maintenance from improvements. The 2018 Act has necessitated a change to the fundamental approach to estate management. A property may be unfit for human habitation even though not in disrepair as defined by the 1985 Act. This means that works may be necessary even though they result in an improvement to the property rather than merely a repair to those parts of the property which a landlord has agreed to maintain.
The International Standard for Asset Management, ISO 55001, published in 2014, set a high bar, specifying requirements for the establishment, implementation, maintenance and improvement of an asset management system which can be used by any property owner. It does not mandate any financial, accounting or technical requirements for managing property, but gives guidance on the issues which need to be addressed in a policy.
Repairs and improvements policies
Such policies must be amended to take into account the effect of the 2018 Act. In general, social landlords encounter issues caused by the combination of housing stock with some peculiarities of construction with some tenants who struggle to make ends meet.
It is essential to operate an efficient and competent complaints policy. The current White Paper sets out goals for such policies in the future. The government intends them to play a much larger role in dispute resolution than is currently the case.
Your complaints policy, needs regular updating. If you do not have a policy, or the policy is not working, your first, urgent task should be to address that issue.
This book is not intended to go into detail on such policies, because they could form the subject of a separate book. For present purposes, I will assume that you either have a credible and efficient policy, or that, having read these lines, you are making all efforts to put one in place!
Such policies are important because of the part they should play in the relationship between social landlords and their tenants. Disrepair claims should not be fought out in County Courts all over the country as a matter of course. The legal system should be reserved exclusively for those cases where landlords have been asked, formally, to repair and have refused, and where the internal, formal Complaints Process has failed at all its stages to provide satisfactory resolution for the tenant.
But rather than starting with a detailed examination of the complaints process, we need to look at things from the point of view of a Letter of Claim. That is nearly always how a landlord is alerted to dissatisfaction on the part of their tenant. It is only in rare cases that a claimant tenant has repeatedly complained, or even used the Complaints Process and is still unhappy. Apart perhaps from suggesting that they go to the Ombudsman, in those cases there may be no alternative but to follow the steps in the Pre-Action Protocol and litigate if necessary.
Chapter Summary/Key Takeaways
- Policies set the tone of the organization
- They need to be updated regularly and in line with developments in the law, statute and society
- Setting the repairs standards in the policy will underpin most decision making in the asset management team
- Creating a customer-friendly Complaints Policy which is efficient and accurate in its determinations can and will save very substantial sums in legal costs and damages. All the money that is saved can be spent on the repairs and improvements which you and the tenants both want done.
In the remaining chapters you will learn how your asset management policy and your Complaints Policy help to determine how you answer the Letters of Claim which you will inevitably receive.