New Regulator of Social Housing chair Bernadette Conroy ran Network Homes, which overcharged tenants £500k

Photo: Kim Mogg/NationalWorld
Campaigners have raised concerns about a ‘golden circle’ of executives who move between the regulator and individual housing associations

The new head of the government body that regulates social housing providers is the outgoing Chair of a Housing Association which was rebuked by the regulator last year.

Bernadette Conroy was announced on 23 March the pick to take on the £65,000 per year role as chair of the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH). The role is expected to involve no more than a two-day-per-week commitment.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Does Bernadette Conroy have other jobs and responsibilities?

Ms Conroy, who has held a number of public sector roles, is the outgoing chair of Network Homes housing association, earning £22,750 in 2020/2021, according to public accounts filings.

The former investment banker also currently serves as a non-executive director at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) - £35,000 per year for “no more than 50 days”, according to a job advertisement.

In order to avoid any conflicts of interest arising from her new role, Ms Conroy has resigned as a board member of the Milton Keynes Development Partnership, a taxpayer-funded role worth £20,000 per year for “about 2.5-three days per month,” according to the Milton Keynes Development Partnership.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) confirmed in advance of her appointment that Ms Conroy would step down as chair of Network Homes in the event she takes on the role at the regulator, but will not have to step down from the FCA’s board.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Network Homes was criticised by the regulator in December 2021 after its investigation discovered that the association had overcharged rent on around 400 properties totalling £548,000 over four years.

The regulator stated that the rebuke related to a technical misunderstanding which occurred in April 2016, several months prior to Ms Conroy’s appointment as chair of Network Homes.

The association was found to be in breach of the Welfare Reform and Work Act, as it had increased rents at a time when providers were required to reduce rents by 1% annually.

The regulator also noted that “a high number of […] properties had rents which were in excess of the rent cap”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Network Homes is the leaseholder on a number of apartments at a Whitechapel tower block that recently caught fire, and in which residents reported not hearing fire alarms going off.

Speaking to the Guardian, Andrew Meikle, 58, a resident of the 22-storey building, said the residents had complained on a number of occasions about the building’s fire safety policy, of having no audible alarms and operating a “stay put” approach.

Mr Meikle said: “There have been complaints about fire alarms, the ‘stay put’ policy and the high risk of fires on the wooden balconies, and guess what was burning today? The wooden balconies.”

In a statement from Network Homes, a spokesperson said: “As soon as we became aware of the situation, we sent a team to the building to provide support to residents and they remained on site into the evening.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Network Homes is a leaseholder of 75 flats across floors seven to 11 of this building. Overall responsibility for the building lies with the freeholder, and we actively engage with their managing agent on fire safety measures.”

What jobs has she done previously?

After a career in finance, Ms Conroy moved into the healthcare and regeneration sectors as a non-executive director at housing associations and NHS healthcare trusts, among other bodies.

As head of Network Homes she won The Times’ non-executive director of the year in the non-profit category in 2020.

Ms Conroy is also currently a non-executive director at the North London Estates Partnership, a public-private partnership that works with various NHS bodies and GP surgeries to invest in and manage property.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Additionally, Ms Conroy is independent chair of the Buildings and Estates Committee of Cambridge University.

Announcing the news on social media, DLUHC said: “We are delighted to announce our preferred candidate for the chair of the Regulator of Social Housing, Bernadette Conroy.

“She brings a wealth of experience which will be invaluable as we transform how the social housing sector is regulated.”

Campaigners concerned about ‘golden circle’ of executives

Social housing campaigners have expressed concerns about a so-called “golden circle” of executives who move between roles within the regulatory system and individual housing associations.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Suzanne Muna, from the Social Housing Action Campaign, says this culture creates vested interests and ultimately harms residents, “no matter how carefully staff at the Department, Regulator, or Homes England do their jobs”.

She said: “This tilts the ground sharply away from those in housing need, and leaves no room for maintaining good quality, safe homes.”

Ms Muna highlights a number of Housing Associations with senior staff who previously worked at the RSH or one of its predecessor bodies, including Clarion Homes.

In 2021, Clarion received £249.7 million from Homes England to build 4,770 homes outside London.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They also separately received £24 million from the Greater London Authority (GLA) to fund London development, and were the biggest housing association recipient of GLA grants.

Clarion was widely criticised following a string of high-profile reports by ITV News into poor housing conditions in socially rented homes managed by the firm.

After ITV’s first expose in August 2021, the Regulator of Social Housing launched an investigation into Clarion, and declared it free of “systemic failure” despite more than 500 outstanding, serious repair jobs just on the estate investigated by ITV.

The then-Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said at the time that, “the conditions in the homes highlighted in this case were appalling and we have been clear this is unacceptable. Clarion has acknowledged this and have committed to take action immediately to resolve any issues and the regulator will monitor their progress”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, weeks later MHCLG awarded Clarion a multi-million pound share of a grant funded by the taxpayer through the Affordable Homes Programme.

Ms Muna says the nature of the social housing system and how the regulator works means that in cases like Clarion’s “it is inconceivable therefore that they would have been downgraded by the Regulator a mere two weeks before Homes England listed Clarion as one of its partners for delivering new, high profile, government-funded development”.

She added: “This is not a failing of any individual staff - it is a corporate inevitability.

“If senior staff from the department, regulator or investment bodies become chief executives or board members for a housing association, they carry knowledge that could potentially allow them to ‘game the system’ and receive more favourable treatment as a result - even inadvertently.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Any personal friendships developed when working together could also influence decision-making by their former employers, no matter how much former colleagues attempt to remain neutral.”

The same concerns are present when senior executives move in the other direction, from Housing Associations into regulatory or governmental roles, adds Ms Muna.

A spokesperson for Clarion Housing Group told NationalWorld: “On the Eastfields estate, we have invested significantly to improve existing homes, apologised to residents where our service fell short and published a comprehensive lessons learned report.

“Our focus now is on the regeneration of the estate, which will bring forward hundreds of new affordable homes in Eastfields and thousands of new homes across Merton.”

Bernadette Conroy was approached via the Financial Conduct Authority for comment on this article.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.