Local Authorities are supposed to be the solution to the housing crisis. But alas, it seems that all too often they are part of the problem. With a few honourable exceptions.
There are, as I see it, two somewhat contradictory problems that we have with them.
1 Negative attitudes towards landlords
Time and time again I hear about Councils:
- Encouraging landlords to trust them and then letting them down.
- Encouraging tenants to break the terms of their tenancy agreement
- Telling tenants that they must stay in the property – often without paying rent – and so forcing landlords to bring expensive eviction proceedings (although this should change after the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 comes into force)
- Council Officers being rude and aggressive towards landlords and letting agents.
I have often been told by landlords that the reason they are no longer taking benefit tenants is nothing to do with the tenants themselves – many landlords agree that they are often wonderful tenants – but the attitude of the Local Council.
For someone outside of Councils looking in, this seems extraordinary. Local Councils need private landlords in order to comply with their statutory re-housing obligations, as they do not have enough housing stock of their own. Surely they should want to encourage landlords rather than drive them away?
It is very strange. Maybe it is because many Council Officers are themselves tenants and resent landlords for that reason. Or maybe it is just part of the culture in the organisations – a sort of institutional hostility towards landlords. Or maybe its a belief that because some landlords behave badly, then they must ALL be bad landlords.
Let’s take a look at the other problem:
2 Failure to enforce regulations.
There are many complaints about bad landlords and the appalling conditions in some rented properties. Bringing calls for new laws against bad landlords.
However, the law is not the problem. In most areas, Local Authorities are simply just not enforcing it Repeated reports and surveys have shown that only a small proportion of complaints are actually investigated let alone actioned.
Save for a few honourable exceptions such as Newham – where the Mayor has made tackling bad landlords a priority – few prosecutions are brought.
Hopefully, with the introduction of Penalty Charges (where Councils can keep the money and use it to fund enforcement action) this will start to change. However, this article in the Independent last month shows that we still have a way to go:
the data shows there were only 283 people taken to court by councils last year for breaking the law in relation to the maintenance of their properties.
Almost three-quarters of councils (71 per cent) did not prosecute a single rogue landlord, while a third of all landlord prosecutions that did take place were in just two London boroughs.
Less severe options are also rarely being pursued. A fifth of local authorities said they did not issue a single improvement notice to landlords last year, while the average council issued just 13.
Others authorities have taken a much more active approach, suggesting there is a postcode lottery for renters wanting to take action over their unsafe homes.
All pretty depressing news.
So why is this?
There are many well-documented reasons for Local Councils’ lack of action on bad landlords.
The main reason is lack of money. As a result, Council staff numbers have been ruthlessly cut and they simply do not have the manpower to deal with all the complaints. Such staff as they have are often untrained and so unable to deal properly with the complex legislation.
The Independent article again
More than one in seven authorities admitted they were not using qualified environmental health officers to carry out inspections, suggesting people who are not fully trained in identifying and dealing with hazards are being tasked with investigating safety risks.
Also, much enforcement action is tasked to trading standards offices. Most of whom, anecdotally, are happier dealing with dodgy traders on market stalls and unwilling to grapple with the more complex rules regarding dodgy letting agents and landlords.
So what about the apparent contradiction between the first and the second parts of this article?
One answer could be that different Council departments deal with different aspects of their work in the private rented sector (eg benefits and enforcement) and that they don’t talk to each other.
They may be in different buildings or even in different Councils. We tend to think of ‘The Council’ as being one organisation but in reality, they don’t usually behave in that way.
Local Authorities are or should be an important force in the private rented sector. They are tasked with monitoring housing in their area and enforcing standards and also tasked with ensuring that housing is made available to those in priority need.
For various reasons, many Councils appear unable to deal adequately with either of these functions. Perhaps before we start passing more new laws we should consider why this is and try to do something about it.
There is not much point in having new laws unless they are going to be properly enforced. But if the current laws are not being enforced, will it be any better with new ones?
We already have an over complex legal system governing the private rented sector. More new laws ‘patching’ perceived problems is only going to make this worse. Surely we should try first to properly enforce the laws we already have? And Councils (properly funded Councils) are key to this.