Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations Director David Bookbinder introduces a new discussion paper regarding annual rent increase consultations.

Social landlords’ duty to consult on the annual rent increase is here to stay. But is the process sometimes made out to be more than it really is? Should we be putting more emphasis on the year-round feedback we get from tenants on the services and investment that matter most to them?

In Spring this year, GWSF members set up a short-life working group to look at how associations could better engage with tenants on rent and rent increases. This was in the wake of two associations experiencing rent protests locally, with one of these – very disturbingly – happening outside the home of the CEO. As a form of protest, this was really plumbing the depths.

The group’s conclusions are contained in a Forum discussion paper issued today.

Good, clear information for tenants is always important, but in the end the working group concluded that no amount of well set out facts and figures will ever stop fringe campaign groups on the lookout for a cheap press or social media opportunity.

But it really focused our minds on the tension around the rent consultation process, especially now that the profile of the issue is greater after the rent freeze/cap stramash almost a year ago and the cost of living crisis on top of that.

Response rates in most rent consultations are generally low (often below 20% despite much creativity on the landlord’s part), with many tenants appearing to take the view that either it’s a done deal anyway, or that the landlord knows the cost of services and investment and should just work out what rent increase is needed to keep things going. And it’s not, of course, a binding vote.

In fact, members tell us that many of the tenants who do respond to the annual consultation don’t specifically comment on the rent itself but on the quality of services and investment.

Some working group members said that in autumn 2022, with landlords hedging their bets whilst awaiting the outcome of negotiations over the April 2023 rent freeze position, their association carried out a one-off survey on tenants’ investment and service priorities. Response rates were much higher than for the annual rent consultation. By the turn of the year, with the position clear, those associations were then able to set a proposed rent increase based closely on what tenants said was most important to them.

And the associations didn’t feel the need to offer options: they felt it was an honest, up-front approach to say ‘you’ve told us your priorities, we’ve listened and this is what it’ll cost to meet those priorities as best we can’.

Think about it – there are so many sources of tenant feedback on services and investment: on top of one-off pulse surveys, there’s the full tenant satisfaction survey, scrutiny panels, repairs feedback and complaints.

This reinforced our members’ keenness to use that feedback – and show that they’re using it – to inform consultation proposals on what can be provided and at what cost. It’s still open for tenants to suggest service reductions if they feel the proposed rent is too high, but hopefully this isn’t all that likely if the proposed figure is clearly based on tenants’ expressed priorities.

And yes, our members can offer different % options if they want to, but it’s not a legal duty and they shouldn’t feel obliged to do it. It carries the risk of contriving options for the sake of it, and can even give the impression that the association is ambivalent about the increase or uncertain what it can provide. Certainly, any options offered should come with very specific itemisation of what each will and won’t fund.

We know we’re not proposing anything earth-shattering. It’s just a call for a more rounded approach to the rent review process and an attempt to take some of the heat and noise out of the annual rent consultation itself.