A recent investigation into sub-standard rented housing shows the urgent need for the government to not back down on plans to increase renters’ rights.
The BBC recently published a damning investigation into dangerous conditions in England’s private rented sector. It found cases of tenants living in mould-ridden, unheated homes with collapsing floors and exposed electronics.
The research looked at cases where councils have failed to enforce their legal duties to maintain standards after landlords have not responded to complaints.
It found that in the last five years councils received over 135,000 hazard complaints and over 40,000 ‘Category One’ hazard complaints – this is where there is an immediate risk to safety.
But they only took formal action in 25,243 cases – less than 20 per cent of all cases, and less than 60 per cent of urgent ‘category one’ cases. Only 1 per cent of faults led to a prosecution.
This is a very serious issue. Particularly so in London, given that out of any region in England, Londoners are the most likely to live in privately rented accommodation. (Rather than in social housing or homes they own themselves.)
It underlines why not is not the time for the government to reverse the plans to increase renters’ rights.
What’s in the government’s white paper on renting
Amidst the ongoing economic turmoil, Westminster has been full of rumours this week. One of them was that Liz Truss was planning to drop the ‘A Fairer Private Rented Sector’ White Paper as it did not contribute to growth.
The Prime Minister has since reaffirmed her commitment to abolishing no-fault evictions – a manifesto promise contained within the Paper – but the future of the other provisions of the White Paper is unknown.
What else is in the White Paper? Widely praised by housing campaigners and experts, the plan pledged an extensive list of long-awaited reforms to the private rented sector, including:
- a basic level of standards for private rented housing, like those in the social rented sector (the Decent Homes Standard)
- a right for tenants to see whether their prospective landlord or agent has committed a serious housing offence in the past, including any Civil Penalty Notices
- an increase to councils’ capacity to fine serious offenders
How these reforms could help council enforcement of rogue landlords
These reforms would certainly strengthen councils’ hand in cracking down on rogue landlords. Abandoning these reforms, rather than deepening them, would be a serious step back for tenants.
For example, the White Paper calls for the abolition of Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, which allows for tenants to be evicted from their homes with only two months’ notice without being given any reason for the eviction. This is known as ‘no fault’ eviction.
The threat of no-fault eviction likely discourages some tenants from reporting complaints to their landlord or the council, so abolishing it could also help to boost standards, as well as providing vital security for millions of tenants.
Weak council enforcement – like that found by the BBC – is often explained by inadequate resources and powers for Environmental Health and Housing Enforcement teams. So specific pledges for more resources are vital.
But there is another important problem when trying to regulate landlords and property: a lack of information.
Councils do not, as standard, have any ability to track who is renting out property in their borough unless they are renting to multiple tenants. (Known as Houses in Multiple Occupation – HMOs.)
The White Paper proposes a ‘Property Portal’ that all landlords in England would have to join. This is sometimes called the ‘national landlord register’. The portal would let tenants make sure their prospective landlord is meeting all relevant regulations and had no previous history of offences.
A National Landlord Register could boost local enforcement
This idea would build on existing schemes which some councils, particularly in London, have used to require landlords in certain areas to apply for licenses for their properties.
This means that they must provide details about the property, safety documents, and a claim to be a ‘fit and proper person’ to rent out the property.
Fees charged for licenses are generally used to fund schemes and boost enforcement in the borough. There is evidence that areas that run these ‘selective licensing’ schemes take up to twice as much enforcement action as those that don’t. They also resolve a larger proportion of cases.
A national landlord register could significantly strengthen local licensing schemes by providing comprehensive data to councils.
This help could be vital. One issue with the current situation of licensing in some areas is that some rogue landlords simply don’t register. They are breaking the law, but can be hard to catch. A national registry would make them easier to spot.
A national register, if properly designed, could strengthen enforcement capacity in England and empower councils to target rogue and criminal landlords. It could also enable lenders to restrict rogue landlords access to mortgage finance.
It is a relatively low cost, high impact policy intervention that a government interested in improving housing standards for renters must maintain.
Would the policies in the White Paper contribute to growth? It is arguable that they would, by increasing security of tenure for England’s tenants and thus encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour.
But either way, the findings of the BBC investigation show why it is essential that the government continue its passage through Parliament. We cannot allow people to go on living in substandard housing.
Londoners, in particular, will breathe a sigh of relief when these reforms become law.