Regulator defends statutory intervention process to Holyrood committee

The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) told MSPs yesterday that it does not have an agenda against smaller registered social landlords and that it is a “myth” to suggest that there is any rush for the organisation to commence statutory intervention within an RSL.

Chair George Walker and chief executive Michael Cameron appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s local government and communities committee yesterday to present evidence on the Regulator’s annual report and accounts 2019-20.

They were asked by committee convenor James Dornan MSP whether the Regulator has any views of the Scottish landscape in terms of the number of RSLs in operation.

Among the evidence which had been considered by the committee was a submission by retired housing association professional Patrick Gilbride, which can be read here.

Mr Walker responded: “As chair of SHR I can tell you that a mixed economy of different types, community and more corporate style landlords, is very welcome in Scotland and very helpful. SHR doesn’t have a view on whether that should be the same or different and we certainly have no kind of agenda that would say that we wish that to change in any way.”

Pressed on whether statutory intervention has been focused on smaller landlords or if it is the aim of the SHR to rationalise the sector through such interventions, Mr Walker added: “No, I don’t believe that’s the case. Our caseload of landlords we had been engaging with has encompassed landlords both large and small. We recognise that there has been some consolidation in the sector but that’s not something that we wish to drive or have a particular opinion on.

“As a matter of interest, of the ten statutory interventions that we have conducted, six of those organisations are still alive and kicking and independent, four of them chose to go down the route of perhaps joining with another landlord. There are also a handful of landlords who are pursuing mergers entirely independently of the Regulator.”

Convenor Dornan also asked the Regulator to assure the committee that its statutory intervention process is proportionate and transparent, and he inquired as to the accessibility of SHR’s complaints policy.

In his response, Mr Walker said he wished to “dispel any myth that there is any rush to a statutory intervention”.

He added: “Statutory interventions only happen after a long period of engagement and dialogue with the social landlord around the concerns that are raised and only if the landlord does not the capacity, or willingness, to engage with the issues that the Regulator is concerned about.”

Mr Walker highlighted that statutory appointees made to committees are on a voluntary basis, with no cost to the landlord in question, and that they all come from within the social housing sector.

Mr Cameron added that the Regulator’s complaints policy is accessible via its website and that changes are being made to ensure that it is consistent with the new model published by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SSPO) in September.

The Regulator was also asked if it has dealt with any recent formal complaints about how it intervenes with social landlords.

George Walker acknowledged some “background noise” of a complaint to the local government and communities committee and “some questions in the media about statutory interventions in the sector” and said he put out a call explaining the Regulator’s complaints process and asked anyone to come forward if they had any concerns.

He said a committee member of an organisation involved in a statutory intervention did approach the Regulator following this call and then chose to go through the formal complaints process.

Mr Walker said this matter was “in hand as we speak”.

When asked whether social landlords are able to raise concerns with the Regulator without fear of being targetted, he added: “We would not target individual landlords for making a complaint to us. We’re happy to give feedback and take complaints.

“As chair of SHR, I would not allow us to be targeting anyone who makes complaints to us. We’re a public body, we should be open to scrutiny and certainly we should be open to social landlords coming to us and making complaints.”

Mr Walker said the Regulator’s policy on whistleblowing is “robust” and that each case is examined on its own merits.

Mr Cameron revealed that whistleblowers contacted the Regulator 16 times during 2019-2020 with no further action taken on seven occasions, largely due to insufficient evidence.

He said that the Regulator worked with the landlords in the remaining nine cases to investigate and establish the facts. While evidence from whistleblowers has formed the basis of some statutory interventions in the past, none of these led to statutory interventions during this period, he added.

In his opening statement, Mr Walker outlined potentially “significant” financial challenges facing the organisation.

He said: “We are an efficiently run regulator but 90% of our costs are for staff. Of course, it is people who deliver effective regulation but any cost increases from well-earned pay rises, or indeed any other new costs, do disproportionately impact SHR. If cost increases are not met in a future funding settlement, we’ll be faced with a very significant budget deficit next year and beyond.

“Our worry about that, of course, is that can present major challenges that could impact the type of work we are able to do and therefore the protection of tenants through the regulation of social housing in Scotland.”

The Regulator also faced questions on the impact of its new regulatory framework, its engagement with local authorities on homelessness services, upholding standards on traveller sites, gender board representation and its gender pay gap, its role in influencing social rents, staff salary levels and financial accounts.

The session is available to view here and the papers can be read here. The minutes from the session are available here.

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