Criminal landlords are a stain on the private rented sector, and unfairly tarnish the reputation of landlords providing good housing for their tenants. Tackling them provides the basis of a shared agenda for the sector between the Labour Party and the industry.
Over recent years, the demographics of those renting have changed significantly. As the sector has increased in size, larger numbers of families with children, older people and benefit claimants have dispelled the myth that private rented housing is solely for students and young professionals. It is little wonder then, that Labour has increased its focus on this important tenure.
As a voice for private landlords, the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) has long argued that tenants have the right to safe, legal and secure housing; sentiments we believe are shared by the Labour movement – as well as the majority of good landlords. Central to achieving this is rooting out the minority of landlords who are not “rogues” as some would put it, but criminals.
RLA research has shown that more than 140 Acts of Parliament, containing over 400 individual regulations, are affecting the private rented sector. The problem is not so much a lack of regulation, but rather that existing regulations have gaps and are not being effectively enforced. Regulations without proper enforcement provide no protection for tenants. They also disadvantage good landlords who obey the rules while the criminals avoid the costs associated with compliance.
The problem remains that local authority Environmental Health Departments do not have the resources needed to properly root out those landlords who never come forward where licensing schemes are in operation.
What is needed is a longer-term settlement between central government and local authorities to ensure the resources are in place to tackle criminal landlords, rather than one off injections of cash which, however welcome, do not enable councils to create a long-term, sustainable, and effective enforcement strategy.
In the meantime, we are supporting Karen Buck MP’s Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill because of its focus on improving the enforcement of existing regulations and closing those gaps.
The Bill gives tenants the opportunity, for the first time, to take action themselves where their home is found not to be fit for habitation. This means they no longer need to wait for councils to take action for them.
Under the Bill, tenants first need to raise their concerns with their landlord and provide sufficient time for the landlord to respond. Landlords will not be able to claim that they were unaware of a potential concern by a tenant. Only after that could the tenant go to court, and, to allay concerns some landlords are raising, the court would need to be satisfied that the concern raised by the tenant was genuine and that it was not related to a problem of their own making.
Crucially, the Bill extends the same rights to tenants in social rented housing. This is significant since, at present, council tenants have no route of redress where their properties are not fit for habitation, as councils cannot take enforcement action against themselves.
The requirement for a home to be fit for human habitation dates back to 1885 and actually exists in the Landlord & Tenant Act 1985, the Act that Buck’s Bill seeks to amend. Unfortunately, this provision has not been kept up to date and only applies to tenancies in London with rents of less than £80 a year. Buck’s Bill corrects that omission.
We welcome the government’s support for the Bill and believe it is a sign of what can be achieved when Labour and landlords work constructively together.
While Labour and landlords will continue to have differences of opinion, such as over the desirability or otherwise of forms of rent control, we do believe that this Bill provides the platform for further constructive engagement on key issues facing the sector.
This includes working together on badly needed reforms to Universal Credit to ensure the system works better for tenants and landlords; scrapping the right to rent scheme which has sown seeds of unwelcome suspicion between landlords and tenants; boosting the supply of homes to rent; and establishing a specialist housing court to improve justice for tenants and landlords alike.
Karen Buck’s Bill is a welcome step, but one that must be built upon. As landlords, we stand ready to work with Labour to root out the criminals tainting the sector. We must support good landlords to provide the much-needed new homes for rent. We must surely work for the interests of tenants and good landlords, which are of mutual benefit.
Alan Ward is Chairman of the Residential Landlords Association.