On the 25th April 2018 an MPs select committee report was published on private rented sector enforcement, you can read it here.
It has four main headings:-
- Quality of accommodation and the balance of power
- Legislative powers
- Innovative approaches in the private rented sector.
The research is compelling
The extensive research informing the report’s findings reveal that 800,000 PRS homes have at least one HHSRS Cat 1 hazard. 44% of tenants said that fear of eviction prevented them making complaints to their landlord, whilst 200,000 had reported being abused or harassed by their landlord.
Housing minister Heather Wheeler predictably told the committee that PRS homes failing the decent homes standard had fallen from 47% to 27% over the past ten years, but this view jars with information, equally predictably provided by Shelter that whilst percentage wise figures were reducing, the fact that PRS had grown so big in that time meant that in real number terms there were actually more of these properties.
Monty Pythonesque arguments
These are the kinds of arguments I hate getting involved in and remind me of the old Monty Python sketch on whether contradiction is an argument or not. “Yes it is – no it isn’t” but the MPs do seem to side with Shelter’s figures.
The ever-incisive David Smith said:-
“There are a number of properties that are good, and that is an increasing number, but the properties that are bad are very bad, and increasingly worse”.
As someone who goes into those properties every day, that’s my experience of it too, regardless of whose statistics are bigger than whose dad.
Legislation and Enforcement
Obviously given my job, I was particularly interested in the section of the report on legislation and enforcement.
Everyone seems to agree with something I’ve been banging on about for years, that we have enough enforcement tools to tackle rogue landlords but the marked shortage of success stories in terms of numbers, is down to the unwieldy and absurdly complex nature of the various bits of legislation coupled with the lack of resources to employ them, against the size of the problem.
Paragraphs 86 – 94 address the resources, highlights of which are:-
- Birmingham City Council only had five EHOs to cover a city of 1.1 million people.
- The LGA emphasised the financial challenges which they say will mean “a funding gap of at least £5.8 billion by 2019–20”
- Crisis told us that 1,272 jobs were lost in environmental health offices between 2010 and 2012
- the Chartered Institute of Housing highlighted that local authorities had reduced spending on enforcement activity by a fifth between 2009–10 and 2015–16, an average annual reduction of £8.75 per privately rented home in England.
It all too complex
On the issues with the complexity of enforcement legislation, Dr Julie Rugg of York University hit the nail on the head when she said:-
“One of the big issues that relate to some of the legislation is that it tends to split issues between condition-related issues, management-related issues, and issues that relate to letting agents [ … ] All of these things have been added on to other bits of legislation, and now we are in a situation where it is hard for a local authority that thinks, “Which bit of legislation do I use to deal with this particular problem?” and then finds that none of the bits of the regulation that they have got to work with will deal with that particular problem, because none of it fastens up”.
David Cox of the RLA concurred, adding:-
“There were over 140 Acts of Parliament and more than 400 regulations affecting landlords in the private rented sector”.
He may well be right. Life’s too short to count.
A wide-ranging review of the law?
The report recommends that government conducts a wide-ranging review aimed at consolidating legislation in the PRS.
Back in 1999, whilst reforming the justice system as a whole Lord Wolfe said:-
“Procedural reform can have only a limited impact on housing law. The main source of difficulty is the complexity of the substantive law itself. . . . The Department of the Environment should look at this as a matter of urgency. The Law Commission should be invited to carry out a review of housing law with a view to consolidating the various statutory and other provisions in a clear and straightforward form.”
It never happened. It just got even more complicated. [Correction – The Law Commission did a review – it was just never taken up by Government – Ed]
Dr Julie Rugg herself had a go a few years back but her recommendations weren’t taken up.
Joined up thinking
The matter of political will also crops up in the report.
Tamara Sandoul of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health gets a big kiss on the cheek from me when she states:-
“In many local authorities, there was a lack of alignment between different departments, including building control and planning, housing enforcement and trading standards”.
I don’t think I have delivered a single conference talk in the past 5 years where this hasn’t been my main theme.
Yes resourcing is crucial and yes the law is too unwieldy but so often the council’s themselves are their own worst enemies, allowing these factors to destroy their motivation or belief that things can still be achieved through joined-up working.
The report recommends:-
“We call on local authorities to reflect on whether their Environmental Health, Trading Standards and other relevant departments are suitably aligned to promote enforcement activity, and whether effective mechanisms exist to work collaboratively with neighbouring authorities.
Local authorities should also make full use of their existing powers to obtain information about the tenure of a property on Council Tax returns, which should then be used by enforcement teams to identify private rented properties in their areas.”
The disappearance of the TRO
I am, as you would guess, understandably miffed that the role of Tenancy Relations Officers whose job it is to deal with complaints of harassment and illegal eviction, prosecuting offenders where negotiations fail have been left out of the report entirely.
All EHOs of my ken tell me that as they get more efficient at tracking down overcrowded HMOs this pushes up the rate of illegal evictions, as rogue landlords try to get rid of witnesses who might provide a statement.
Perhaps the absence of reference to the work of TROs is not surprising, given there are so few of us left. Most councils cut those roles altogether, meaning there is nobody to help reinstate illegally evicted families in many boroughs these days.
At long last someone is listening, but …
It is heartening for me to read that MPs are now at least aware of what I and my enforcement colleagues have been talking about for years.
It’s also heartening that they understand that joined up working is the only way to tackle rogue landlords and slum properties. Hopefully, this view will trickle down to more local authorities.
Whether the government will review the complexity of housing enforcement legislation is another matter but for now, I’m just happy that canteen talk and discussions of enforcement officer when we meet up at conferences, or just in the front garden of a property we are visiting, is finally getting wider acknowledgement.