Statistical return masks a year of challenges for housing associations

A year of momentous challenges for social housing landlords is barely reflected in the annual statistical returns made to their regulator, which looks more like a modest and unexciting school report.

The Homes & Communities Agency has published a composite report based on the data returns from all private registered providers of social housing in England.

This shows only slight changes in total stock numbers, despite the pressures on associations to deliver the annual rent cut while supporting their tenants coping with welfare benefit reductions and the roll-out of Universal Credit. However, an increasing proportion of the sector’s housing is now owned by a small group of large landlords. 

The highest numbers of housing association homes are to be found in the north west of England (514,044 homes) and London (453,472 homes), which combined represents just over 36 per cent of the national HA stock.   

Key points

Private registered providers of social housing (PRPs) owned 2,781,305 homes / bedspaces at 31 March 2017, an increase of 0.7 per cent on the total for 2016 and the smallest rise in stock numbers since 2014.

The slow rate of growth is partly explained by the absence of any transfer activity – this being the first year since 2014 without a new stock transfer from local authorities taking place.

Large PRPs built 36,438 new homes in 2016/17. This included 23,907 social rental properties, down 14.2 per cent from 27,855 in 2015/16, but the figures do not include any non-social housing properties (such as outright sales) built by unregistered entities within HA groups.

The percentage of vacant homes is falling with the largest associations reporting that 1.1 per cent of their homes were vacant as of 31 March 2017, down from 1.2 per cent in 2016 and 1.4 per cent in 2015. Meanwhile, the proportion of homes vacant and available for letting dropped from 0.8 per cent in 2015 to 0.6 per cent in 2016/17

The average rent for general needs housing owned by PRPs with more than 1,000 homes / bedspaces was £96.61 per week, representing a decrease of 1.3 per cent since 2016, reflecting policy changes introduced by the Welfare Reform and Work Act (2016).

The number of PRPs completing the Statistical Data Return dropped slightly from 1,490 providers in 2016 to 1,432 providers in 2017, mostly as a result of deregistrations and mergers.

Five providers owned more than 50,000 properties each in 2017. Combined, these five providers alone account for over 10 per cent of all social housing stock within the sector (owning 288,048 units between them).

The number of for-profit providers increased during the year from 26 to 31, and they now own 873 homes. While this is a 56 per cent increase on the homes owned the previous year, it remains a very small fraction of the 2.8 million homes owned by providers overall.

Risk-based

The regulator collects data on stock type, size, rent and location of social housing stock at 31 March each year, and data on sales and acquisitions made between 1 April and 31 March. The information is used to inform its risk-based and proportionate approach to regulation and to help a range of stakeholders better understand the housing association market. The combined statistical data return report is available to view and download from the Gov.uk website.

Fiona MacGregor, Executive Director of Regulation at the HCA, said: “The publication of the data return shows that the housing association sector has continued to increase the number of homes that it owns and manages for the benefit of social housing tenants throughout England, at the same time as implementing the requirements of the Welfare Reform and Work Act.”

The figures reported in the 2017 Return show that, across the sector, rents have fallen in line with the terms of the Act. If statistical data raises concerns that individual providers may not be setting rents in line with the relevant standards and legislation, the HCA will seek assurance from the landlords concerned and if necessary will reflect this in published governance judgements.