Improving Electrical Safety Standards in Social Housing

I have given allot of thought recently to the subject of electrical safety in social housing in Scotland and what could be done to place an emphasis on electrical compliance. To my mind there are a few possibilities, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

In this blog I would like to focus on the Scottish Housing Regulator and how a small change made to the requirements of the annual returns could have a huge impact on how we view electrical safety in social housing.

There are two ways in which electrical safety standards could be improved in Scotland and monitored by the Scottish Housing Regulator. The first is to add an electrical safety question into the annual return, the second way is to amend the SHQS standards. I will explain the logic of both and which one is more likely to happen.

Background

The Scottish Government’s Social Housing Charter came into force in April 2012. The Charter sets out the standards and outcomes that tenants can expect from social landlords. Within Section 31 of The Housing (Scotland) Act 2010, it states that ministers must set out standards and outcomes which social landlords should aim to achieve when performing housing activities.

The document in which those standards and outcomes are set out is to be known as the ‘Scottish Social Housing Charter’. The Scottish Housing Regulator monitors and assesses landlords’ performance against the Charter by way of an annual return (ARC Return). There are various key indicators in the annual return form that are dedicated to housing quality and maintenance. After a consultation in 2018 these key indicators were reduced by a third overall and some indicators amended to make the form simpler.

Some of the key indicators on the 2020 report that relate to housing quality and maintenance include:

  • Percentage of stock meeting the Scottish Housing Quality Standard
  • Percentage of tenants satisfied with the quality of their home
  • Average length of time taken to complete emergency / non-emergency repairs
  • Percentage of reactive repairs carried out in the last year completed right first time
  • Percentage of properties that have had a gas safety check completed by the anniversary date
  • Percentage of tenants who have had repairs or maintenance carried out in last 12 months satisfied with the repairs and maintenance service.
  • Percentage of homes meeting the EESSH
  • Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs)

I posted a submission to the consultation in December 2018 explaining why I felt electrical safety should be included in the arc return but this was not taken forward. For this reason I think this change is less likely to happen any time soon and an amendment to the SHQS standard is the more likely route of change. However, I will still explain my ‘arc improvement route’ suggestion or you can skip straight on to the SHQS improvement route.

The ARC Improvement Route 

I think there is a simple way for the regulator give tenants of social housing properties peace of mind that the electrical safety of their properties is being taken seriously. This would be by adding a new indicator on electrical safety to the annual return to bring it in line with gas safety.

The question I would like to see the Scottish Housing Regulator add to the annual return would be as follows:

Percentage of eligible electrical installations that have a valid and satisfactory electrical installation condition report”.

This question would be along a similar vein to the gas safety question already held within the annual return.

Wording is key

The wording of this indicator is quite important. The reason it is worded ‘eligible electrical installations’ is because a new build property will have an EIC and not an EICR so these would be excluded. Eligible installations would also include communal landlord supplies which also need to be periodically checked.

The word ‘valid’ refers to certificates which are legible to read if they are handwritten certificates (yes they do still exist). It also refers to ensuring all the relevant parts of the certificate are completed. The standard for this could be similar to what is set out in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 for the repairing standard.

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The word ‘satisfactory’ would refer to whether the certificate has been tested and found to be satisfactory, meaning that there are no immediate or potential dangers. The EICR certificate will be deemed unsatisfactory if there are C1 or C2 observations, or if further investigation is required to determine whether danger or potential danger exists.

Other questions could be added but for me the one I have outlined would go a long way to improving standards.

The SHQS Improvement Route 

The other route of improvement and the one more likely to happen is a change to the SHQS standard. As mentioned at the start, compliance to the Scottish Housing Quality Standard is a question listed in the arc return.

After closely reviewing the SHQS standard, I am of the opinion that it is a sub optimal way to assess an associations overall strategy on tackling electrical safety. The reason for this is both in the interpretation of what is considered safe and the way in which a housing association can demonstrate compliance with this standard. However, this doesn’t mean it cant be made better.

Housing associations generally undertake stock condition surveys of a percentage of their properties to assess compliance with SHQS and evaluate the life expectancy of their assets. The percentage of properties inspected may only account for half of the overall stock. So many associations can’t be sure of full compliance to SHQS and many of the properties not directly surveyed will utilise data from neighbouring properties which is termed as ‘cloned’ data. This is generally reasonable for assessing the life expectancy of building components but the same can’t be said for assessing electrical safety.

Now that the SHQS sections on energy efficiency and smoke detection are redundant due to EESSH and the changes to the Tolarable standard it is high time that the SHQS standard is updated. This is a prime opportunity to make improvements to the section on electrical safety.

SHQS Amendment 

I believe the electrical safety element of SHQS will be updated when the document is brought up to date with EESSH. This will be done is by amending Annex E element 45 (safe electrical systems) by adding a stipulation to bring in 5 yearly EICR’s to bring social housing in line with the private rental sector. I am generally in approval of this providing it is rolled out properly to allow those that have been managing EICR’s on a risk based approach the time to make adjustments.

The problem with this approach is that it is a bit of a blunt tool and will effectively rule out the risk based approach of setting out frequency of inspections. The other issue is that section 45 of the SHQS only deals with installations internal to the dwelling so this potentially misses other electrical installations such as communal landlord supplies.

Also the current guidance on electrical safety in regards to SHQS states that ‘A house with an electrical installation that is judged to be unsatisfactory because of a Code 1 deficiency is below tolerable standard.‘ This does not go far enough and in my opinion C2 deficiencies should also cause the property to fall below the tolerable standard.

What will this mean in terms of SHQS compliance? If social landlords do not have all EICR’s completed to all stock within 5 years this will show as a SHQS fail which will be reported in the arc. The if the new standards for smoke detection are not met this will also mean a SHQS fail. Allot of smaller social landlords would likely see a significant drop in SHQS compliance initially whilst they divert funds and organise these works to become compliant.

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The potential benefits

In my opinion both the SHQS update and the Annual Return form update would both achieve a similar goal of improving standards of electrical safety in the social housing sector in Scotland. It seems the SHQS update is the most likely change that we will see.

Arguably the industry is moving towards a 5 yearly standard  as can be seen in the private rented sector through the implementation of the repairing standard so it is a matter of time before we see this pushed through the social housing sector.

Both methods would bring a focus on EICR’s. for example, some associations might have an abundance of unsatisfactory certificates where they have rectified the C1 and C2 faults but have not re-issued a new satisfactory certificate. Reporting on this question would also encourage associations to firm up on this.

Either change could prompt social landlords to consider investing in compliance management software to manage electrical certificates. This could trigger an information gathering exercise which could highlight issues in the storage of certificates. In my estimation it would at the very least encourage associations to reflect on the current level of electrical safety in their stock.

Hopefully this article has provided some insight into the functions of the Scottish Housing Regulator and the improvements that could be made to increase electrical safety within the social housing sector in Scotland. Lets wait and see if either of these changes actually come to light after April…..

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