Are housing association boards equipped to govern on property compliance?

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We frequently work with providers whose boards are not providing the level of scrutiny or challenge required to uphold a robust property compliance position for the organisation. We have found on many occasions that board members lack the skills required to be able to interrogate and verify the information being reported to them by their operational leaders. Consequently, this leads the organisation to a position where assurance is reassurance and non-compliance can go undetected.

In our view, property and tenant safety must be one of the top two priorities for providers and their boards (along with financial viability), and should therefore be given the appropriate level of consideration and attention. Until property and tenant safety is given the status it requires at a governing level, organisations risk existing on a false sense of security at best. At worst, tenants’ lives are at risk.

To ensure property and tenant safety remains as a key organisational objective, board member responsibilities should be defined and clarified at the beginning of the term, then regularly reviewed and maintained to ensure these priorities consistently receive the same level of focus by all board members and leaders within the organisation.

Board member competencies

The Regulator of Social Housing expects boards to uphold specific governance standards in respect of adhering to all relevant legislation. Therefore, board members should understand the statutory property obligations applicable to their organisation. This knowledge is fundamental for them to confidently govern, monitor and challenge compliance activity and reporting as well as seek assurance that the organisation is meeting all of their property compliance obligations.

However, this does not mean that board members require technical or in depth knowledge of each property compliance area. Instead, we would recommend that their statutory knowledge is supplemented by a broader skill set including, strategic awareness, risk management and customer focus.

Although having a background in property compliance could be helpful, we do not necessarily believe that board members must have this experience to be able to provide effective oversight and governance over compliance performance. Indeed, the contribution from a board member with a compliance background may become over-relied upon, which is problematic if they happen to miss something important.

Instead, board members should focus on skills such as scrutiny and challenge, analysis, problem solving, critical thinking and data analysis to be able to provide robust governance over property compliance.

Asking the right (and hard) questions

In our experience, the biggest area of weakness we see across the majority of providers is poor data management. Robust data management arrangements are essential for achieving and maintaining a reliable compliance position. Without accurate data, compliance reporting is fundamentally flawed.

Board members should develop their investigative skills to seek assurance on the true compliance position. To do this, it is essential to ask the right questions, including;

  • Where is the evidence behind what is being reported?
  • How and where are records and data held?
  • How do I know that the organisation is XX% compliant?
  • What is the organisation’s total stock count and how does this compare with what is on each programme? Can we evidence those not on each programme have no requirement to be?
  • Why is the total stock count more/less than what was reported last month?
  • Am I satisfied with the explanations being provided?

Board members should recognise the extent to which they would be accountable in the event of non-compliance and be prepared for any associated consequences. Sadly, failure to ask the above questions could result in non-compliance and risks to tenant safety.

Beyond the boardroom

Often, board members are invisible to the operational staff and leaders who are delivering property compliance programmes. In our view, to overcome this hidden barrier, board members should be more visible at an operational level. Not only will this give board members an opportunity to share governance priorities but also provide the chance to seek assurance and understand how compliance is being delivered, and the operational measures in place. This can be achieved in several ways:

  • Phone calls and open discussions with property/compliance managers outside of the boardroom
  • Meeting or observing operational staff during day to day tasks
  • Undertaking site visits where appropriate

Ultimately, board members can learn and develop the skills required to become equipped to govern on property compliance. However, this must derive from a will to understand statutory obligations, a desire to challenge and scrutinise effectively and most importantly a passion to ensure that tenant and property safety remains a top priority.

Pennington Choices are here to help. We specialise in governance reviews and will review your governance arrangements, team dynamics and leadership effectiveness, and provide chair and board member mentoring and coaching to help you overcome the problems you may be facing.

For further information about our Housing Governance Health Check, or wider housing governance services, please email Jenny Neville or call 07496110879.

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