‘It’s a wake-up call to all of us,’ says David Montague, chief executive of 70,000-home L&Q. ‘I can guarantee every association is talking about gas safety right now.’
Mr Montague is discussing the regulatory problems some housing associations have encountered in recent months, due to the way they are monitoring gas safety in their housing stock.
Under the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, all landlords are required to carry out annual safety checks on all gas appliances and flues. Yet in the space of just five months, three housing associations – Gallions, Your Housing Group and Guinness Partnership – have been reprimanded by the Homes and Communities Agency for failing to carry out gas safety checks on their properties.
All three landlords breached the HCA’s ‘serious detriment’ threshold – cases where there is a risk of harm to tenants – for the first time since the establishment of the regulator on 1 April 2012, and two had their governance ratings downgraded after the breaches were announced.
With three housing associations rapped for not carrying out checks on some of their properties over such a short period of time, is this evidence of a larger problem of landlords failing in their legal duty to ensure tenants’ safety? And what can landlords do to remain compliant and protect tenants?
Some landlords attribute the spate of consumer-side interventions on gas safety to the HCA responding to criticisms of inaction by the communities and local government select committee last summer.
One association chief executive, who does not wish to be named, says after Julian Ashby, chair of the HCA’s regulatory arm, was criticised by MPs on the select committee in July for ‘not doing nearly enough’ to regulate social housing, he elected to beef up the HCA’s oversight role. He argues that the serious detriment judgements have been issued ‘as evidence to show [the HCA] has got much more teeth’.
Another chief executive, who also does not wish to be named, echoes this sentiment, saying the HCA is now wearing ‘hobnail boots’ after being ‘beaten up’ by MPs.
Matthew Bailes, executive director for regulation at the HCA, maintains the regulator has not changed its focus and states that had the gas safety cases emerged sooner, it would have reached the same conclusions.
‘We just happened to have three cases, in a relatively short space of time, that passed the [serious detriment threshold],’ he says.
So what is the biggest barrier to landlords trying to carry out gas safety checks? Keith Exford, chief executive of 57,000-home Affinity Sutton, says difficulties lie mainly in ‘gaining access’.
‘You won’t be entirely surprised to learn that some tenants won’t let us in [to their homes],’ he says.
Like many chief executives, Mr Exford has a policy of placing injunctions on tenants who don’t let inspectors in and charging them for the court costs.
‘It is not as easy as people think. I can see how things go wrong,’ he adds.
Mr Exford says there can be other issues too: ‘A few years ago we were really worried about one family who said they became ill because of a faulty boiler in their home. In the end it turned out they had lit a barbecue inside their flat which had given them carbon monoxide poisoning, yet they still wanted to bring us to court.’
Nick Atkin, chief executive of 6,400-home Halton Housing Trust, agrees that gaining access to properties is the biggest problem for landlords. ‘You’d be surprised how many people refuse access even though we go to great lengths – we offer evening appointments, weekend appointments – to service their gas appliances,’ he says.
Landlords complain it is not fair that housing associations are subject to such strict requirements on gas safety, yet have few powers to force tenants to comply with letting inspectors in.
Mark Henderson, chief executive of 55,000-home Home Group, is leading 50 other associations in lobbying the Health and Safety Executive to extend access rights.
‘[The HSE] has asked us to pull together some evidence on the problems this causes for [housing associations],’ he says. ‘At the moment, [without going through the legal process], you run the risk of breaching people’s human rights and being liable for criminal damage [if you enter a property].’
Claire Heyes, joint chief executive of Corgi Technical Services, a gas safety consultancy, agrees that further debate is needed to ensure associations have ‘a stronger legal right’ to enter a property to carry out gas safety checks when access is difficult.
As the HCA has only published three judgements in its lifetime on gas safety, it is not yet possible to discern the full extent of the sector’s failings when it comes to anual inspections. However, it is clear that the HCA will be investigating gas safety failures with a sharp eye from now on.
And as for landlords that complain gaining access to properties is too difficult, well tough, argues housing consultant Jan Taranczuk.
‘It’s a legal responsibility so there really is no excuse and if suddenly the HCA has woken up to what it should be regulating on, then maybe it’s about time,’ he says.
Gallions was put on the Homes and Communities Agency’s watchlist in October, meaning it is at risk of losing its compliant financial viability or governance ratings after failing to get a court order in time to access a property to perform a gas safety check. The move was also prompted because 6,500- home Gallions lacked transparency in awarding its former chief executive Tony Cotter a £400,000 redundancy package in September, according to the HCA.
Your Housing Group was placed on the watchlist in February after failing to carry out safety checks on around 60 of its 33,000 properties.
Guinness Partnership escaped the watchlist this month despite exposing tenants to gas safety risks because, unlike Gallions and Your Housing, the 60,000-home landlord reported the issue to the HCA, instead of letting whistleblowers or tenants flag up the problem.