Housing conditions in the private rented sector
An interesting new housing report, prepared by Dr Stephen Battersby for Alison Seabeck MP, Shadow Housing Minister & Karen Buck MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Minister, has been published on housing conditions in the private rented sector (PRS).
There are three main conclusions to this report.
1. Local Authorities (LAs) work is currently ‘complaint let’, with no systematic attempt to deal with an areas problems as a whole. However this is not enough to discharge their statutory duty.
2. LAs need to keep better records as well as making better use of their enforcement powers. Otherwise how can the result of any action they take be known?
3. Government needs to review the statutory guidance, in particular to ensure that better records are kept.
Local Authorities have special powers under the Housing Act 2004 to carry out inspections of properties (under a procedure known as the Housing Health and Safety Rating System).
If as a result of this, the properties are found to have ‘category 1 hazards’, the Local Authority have various enforcement powers they can use. These include serving improvement notices leading (if the work is not done) to prosecution, and they also have power to get the works done and charge this to the owner.
What the report shows
The report covers the three year period to 2009/2010 and only looks at the PRS because that is where most LA inspections tend to be.
Dr Battersby starts by referring to a number of reports showing that improvements in housing standards can result in massive savings elsewhere, for example to the NHS. (See also our posts here on poor housing and on poor housing in Wales.)
One report has estimated that every £1 spent on housing support can save £2 in reduced costs to health services, tenancy failure, crime and residential care. Low cost interventions can be particularly valuable in terms of health and welfare benefits.
However the information and records kept by LAs, are mostly inadequate, and are inconsistent across the country. Most interventions are ‘complaint led’, rather than LAs using their powers in a purposeful way to deal with their area as a whole.
So far as the hazards themselves are concerned, ‘crowding and space’ is becoming increasingly significant, although overall ‘excess cold’ and ‘falling’ hazards are the most common.
Information available shows that local authorities prefer to take informal action rather than formal enforcement.
Commenting on all this, Dr Battersby has a few things to say:
It is difficult to see how LAs can develop strategies or show whether their actions are having any benefit or not, if they are not keeping proper or consistent records.
“Vulnerable private sector tenants” he says “should reasonably expect a more consistent approach, regardless of the council area in which they live”.
Complaint led action only
LAs have a duty under the legislation to inspect properties in their area if they become aware of the likelihood of problems. However
‘in practice most local housing authorities intervene on the basis of complaint or service requests rather than as the result of any coherent strategic approach.
Given the lack of security in the PRS and reluctance to complain, it is probable that those who feel most insecure and vulnerable (and at risk of retaliatory eviction) will not complain and so local housing authorities may not be dealing with the worst housing conditions, nor the most irresponsible or worst landlords.
Reliance solely on complaint before intervening even increases the risk of retaliatory eviction when action is taken.”
Meaning if landlords know that LAs will only get involved if someone has complained, this will prompt them to get rid of the complaining tenant. Whereas if they know that the LA will be doing the inspections anyway they will be less likley to do this.
Only a low percentage of problem properties dealt with
The English Housing Survey (EHS) indicated that there is an average of 2969 properties in the prs with category 1 hazards but LA records show that only about 10%, at best, of these are being dealt with.
Although “with so much informal action it is also difficult to know if these hazards are dealt with adequately if at all”.
Reluctance to use enforcement powers
Dr Battersby comments that there seems to be a reluctance among LAs to use their enforcement powers, for example improvement notices, or even hazard awareness notices. All this ‘informal action’ makes it difficult for LAs to account for what they are doing or for us to have any idea of what, if any, action is being taken. He also points out that
“informal” action is not a course of action available for meeting the duty in Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004.”
The stronger powers available to LAs such as prosecutions or getting the work done themselves and recovering the cost from the landlord seem to be being used very rarely if at all, and most (80%) of LAs do not appear to have taken any prosecutions at all.
Housing benefit changes will make it all worse
The forthcoming changes in housing benefit look likley to just make things worse, as landlords will either pull out of renting to HB tenants altogether, or will attempt to crowd in more tenants so as to maximise their income. Cuts in legal aid are not going to help either.
“Who” demands the report ‘will protect the most vulnerable tenants?” There does not appear to be any satisfactory answer.
You can see the full report >> here. The picture above is taken from the report cover.
(Note – landlords and tenants wanting to know more about the system and their respective rights and obligations, will find this on my main Landlord Law site)