Councils must gain more power to raise standards in the private rented sector

Local authorities should enforce private rented sector standards yet lack funds to do so. Expanding selective licensing can fix this.

Under the Housing Act 2004, the powers and responsibilities for dealing with unacceptably poor standards in the private rented sector lie with our councils. They are the people who must inspect, report and prosecute landlords who do not meet their legal requirements.

Why then are there so many problems with housing standards in the private rented sector? The rate of non-decent homes is 35% in the private sector compared with 17% in the social sector? There are wards in my constituency where up to 72% of the private rented accommodation does not meet the decent homes standard, and 40% do not even meet the basic criteria of the housing health and safety rating system.

The law is not enforced because local authorities lack the means to do so. As things stand, the government’s position is that the existing legal framework is sufficient.

In response to a parliamentary question I submitted, housing minister Mark Prisk avoided the question of standards, disparagingly restated the current law around selective licensing, and pointed out that local authorities already have powers to deal with rogue landlords. An anti-regulatory stance to the wild west of the private rented sector will not resolve problems faced by tenants.

There is a local answer that could go part way to solving this problem, and that is to extend selective licensing of private landlords to allow local authorities to apply decency conditions in areas with a high concentration of poor quality housing stock. Currently, selective licensing can only be applied to areas on the basis of low demand or high levels of antisocial behaviour.

By adding a few lines to Section 80 of the Housing Act, the government could allow local representatives to licence the areas where landlords leave their tenants living in unacceptable conditions. Locally defined licence conditions could deal with matters such as heat and insulation, electrical and fire safety, the decency of the kitchen and bathroom as well as the state of repair of the exterior. Things that decent people would expect as basic. Fee-paying licensed landlords currently fund local authority licensing schemes and an extension of such conditions would add little if any cost to any inspection yet would ensure that properties are brought up to scratch, all within the context of an existing system.

Sub-standard housing in the private rented sector is affecting the lives of working-class families, who pay a high price for somewhere cold, damp, and mouldy that isn’t a home. Selective licensing was brought in specifically to deal with the problems of declining neighbourhoods and now it must be extended to meet that ambition.

There are problems beyond the individual tragedy of the young family living in poor conditions. In low-demand areas such as Hyndburn, poor-quality private accommodation leads to increased demand for social housing or people simply give up hope and leave the area. In my constituency one in 13 properties stands empty, a figure that is significantly higher in poorer areas.

People don’t want to live in areas dominated by buy-to-let landlords because they worry about the effect on house prices, and tenants worry that too many of their neighbours are desperate or dysfunctional.

These are austere times when government programmes for deprived neighbourhoods have all but run dry. Driving up conditions through selective licensing could rebalance housing markets and provide prospective residents and tenants with greater confidence. Cash-strapped town halls need new, more value-driven solutions to the problems of poor housing and a modified 2004 Housing Act may provide just that.

Graham Jones is the Labour MP for Hyndburn

Article courtesy of The Guardian

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