HHSRS survey results
On the 11th of December 2017, an interesting report was published on the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, 11 years on from its introduction. You can read it here.
The HHSRS as it is known, for obvious reasons of length, is the assessment framework used by Environmental Health Officers when surveying property conditions.
Different issues are banded under a set of 29 categories from the sharp end of “Cat 1” and “Cat 2”, which is where there is a serious danger to health and safety, through a range of other problems such as the presence of lead (Cat 7), problems maintaining security of a property, (Cat 12) and even the ergonomics of a particular design that might cause sprains and strains (Cat 28).
Why HHSRS was formed
The reason for introducing the HHSRS was to standardise the way that EHOs rated different problems when measured against the possible risk to the occupants, which would not only help EHOs to do their job but also give the landlord a system they could appeal against and argue within.
The system replaced the old housing fitness standard, a much more basic assessment tool that governed simply whether or not the conditions in a property met a defined, minimum level.
Like any attempt to formularise just about anything outside of a classroom, the HHSRS isn’t without its weaknesses when applied to real life, which is reflected in the new report conducted by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Officers, from a survey of EHOs across the country.
I go out with EHOs on joint visits several times a week but I was surprised by the findings of the report, which in summary are this:-
- 97% of Environmental health professionals believe that the HHSRS needs updating
- 90% called for an update of the official guidance and better working examples
- 71 respondents called for underlying statistics of this evidence-based system to be updated
- 53% said that they had witnessed hazards that are not properly covered by HHSRS.
Clearly, in a post-Grenfell world, these shortcomings are tremendously important.
Bare, live wires sticking out of a wall are something that even I as a non-technical officer can identify as clearly a Cat 1 hazard. But things aren’t always as clear as that and I was particularly interested to read about the:-
- 53% of officers there who reported that some hazards they had discovered weren’t actually covered by the HHSRS framework at all.
- 55% of EHOs in the report favour what is termed a risk-based system of assessment, such as the HHSRS, against
- 23% who preferred the old fitness standards because they were less complicated for all to understand – but there is widespread support for an update to include both a set of defined standards and a risk-based system.
One commentator saying:-
“If a home meets minimum standards and it is still felt that a hazard exists and improvements are required then the risk-based approach can be used to make an informed, justified assessment of why it is necessary to go above the minimum standards.”
As with so many things, it need not be a case of “either/or” but a complementary system of minimum standards and risk assessment.
Consistency is required
Landlords confused by responses of EHOs in different boroughs when dealing with HMOs might be surprised to find their confusion shared by those very EHOs.
As 90% of respondents said they would like a more comprehensive set of national examples to use when making assessments, to help deal with what they termed, “Emerging inconsistencies in approach”, prompted by more councils introducing additional licensing schemes for varying reasons.
Here’s just one example
For instance in West London a large part of the PRS stock consists of 1930s semi-detached houses with large gardens, giving rise to beds in sheds and concomitant overcrowding Whereas my old Borough Lewisham, introduced additional licensing for properties above shops, as that was where we routinely found the worst conditions, with very few beds in sheds to be found.
One comment perfectly illustrates how difficult assessments can be:-
“The rating system is based on the most vulnerable group, however, they may not be in occupation, but could visit. There are Upper Tribunal cases Alford TWO LLP v Bristol City Council which essentially say unless the risk is real and not just a statistical risk, action will fail.”
Regular reviews are essential
Criticism was justifiably laid at the door of the DCLG by EHOs saying that there hasn’t been such a review until now, 11 years after introducing the framework.
Concerns by landlords about inconsistency are held by the EHOs themselves, simply because assessing buildings for prospective risk is so widely variable, depending on what are sometimes an ill-defined set of criteria.
In fact, the report states:-
“Individual practitioners are expected to keep up with all relevant evidence and to collect local data in order to keep the HHSRS system working well. However, this approach is likely to result in inconsistencies across the country. It would be both economical and efficient to update hazard profiles centrally to ensure that EHPs applying HHSRS guidance have the same, robust and up to date information to hand”.
So in summary
What is being suggested is strengthening the HHSRS by also having a modified set of minimum standards alongside, and also for the DCLG to provide firmer guidance on a regular basis of working examples, based on updates to new and ancillary legislation and real-life cases going through challenges at the FTT.
If the DCLG responds to the recommendations then this should make the life of the EHO a little easier, which will massively help landlords receive some form of consistent approach. However this is just a report and if government’s record on dealing with the current housing crisis as a whole, or even just getting the rogue landlord database up and running is anything to go by I won’t be holding my breath.
Landlords should read the report
Its worth landlords having a read through the report, which is only mercifully 12 pages, if only to see that when dealing with EHOs they aren’t simply making things up and are doing their best with a wobbly system that has never been reviewed since its introduction and has become further encumbered by different localised licensing schemes and a slew of case law and failed FTT cases.
A major overhaul could help all concerned.