The Regulator of Social Housing has written to providers to set out steps to further “relieve the regulatory burden” on the sector, and to outline its expectations amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Key changes include a postponement of submission deadlines for the Statistical Data Return and financial forecast returns (FFRs), and a new survey of how providers are faring on essential services during the outbreak.
The regulator also confirmed that a previously announced pause on in-depth assessments will remain in place “for the foreseeable future”, until the impact of the outbreak is better understood.
In the letter – sent today to all registered providers, including local authority providers – chief executive Fiona MacGregor welcomed the “intensive efforts” of providers to support their tenants and said the regulator is “flexing” its approach.
She said: “The virus has profoundly affected the whole of the country and we know that registered providers of social housing have been working hard in the communities they serve to protect their tenants whilst keeping their staff safe.
“We welcome the intensive efforts of providers to support their tenants and recognise that this has involved some very difficult choices for organisations and their staff.”
Ms MacGregor said that the changes set out today are intended “both to support providers in focusing on frontline operations and to identify where there may be challenges that the sector or individual providers need regulatory support to meet”.
Returns for the Statistical Data Return, which had been due in June, now have an extended deadline of 31 October. Meanwhile, as “long-term financial forecasts are difficult to make given the current uncertainty”, the submission date for FFRs will be kept under review, but are not expected to be required before the autumn.
Under its new focus, the regulator will seek to “understand the risks arising to tenant safety and from the economic impact of coronavirus”, through a new regular survey of providers.
These will concern “how [providers] are delivering emergency and urgent repairs and compliance with health and safety requirements and on maintaining care and support services”.
The first survey is expected to be issued within the next two weeks, and is, the regulator said, intended to be brief and not to require detailed data collection.
Some providers “who face higher financial risks” will also be asked to share more of their own financial information.
The letter added: “Where we consider it necessary, we will also seek these returns from specific providers with fewer than 1,000 homes.”
The regulator will continue with its quarterly survey on the financial position of registered providers, albeit in a “scaled-back” form, for which returns are due by 23 April for the March (Q4) survey. The survey will focus on key financial risks and will not ask for additional annual information.
Ms MacGregor added that the regulator remains “keen” to hear about how the virus is affecting businesses.
She wrote: “Where providers are struggling to meet the challenges presented by coronavirus and there is a resulting threat to tenant safety or the provider’s financial viability, they should contact us as soon as possible. The focus on operational risks should be on health and safety and emergency and urgent repairs.
“Across the sector, the shared priority is to maintain tenant safety, including addressing emergency repairs and compliance with health and safety requirements.”
The letter also reiterated that the regulator would continue to take a proportionate approach during the crisis, and acknowledged that there may be incidents of providers failing to meet their statutory duties because of issues arising from coronavirus.
“The impact of the outbreak, and the measures to contain it, may mean that there will be some incidence of statutory non-compliance and repairs backlogs.
“I want to assure you that we will take a proportionate regulatory approach and will take full account of the current context. We understand that in the current circumstances, providers are going to have to make difficult choices and trade-offs and often there will be no right answer.”
However, she said that providers must contact the regulator “immediately” if they believe that tenants’ safety is threatened or viability is under strain.
She added: “[Specifically] we will expect providers to notify us when:
In a statement commenting on the announcements, Ms MacGregor said: “Coronavirus leaves us all facing unprecedented challenges in our daily lives and an uncertain future economic climate. Amid very significant operational pressures housing providers are rightly prioritising their work and services to protect their tenants and communities whilst keeping their staff safe.
“We are supporting this by pausing some of our usual regulation and focusing our oversight on the things that matter most: that providers keep tenants safe and that the social housing sector remains financially viable.