Standards in the private rented sector are more to do with the political will to enforce rather than the creation of new regulations. Launching Labour’s local election campaign Jeremy Corbyn once again promulgated the myth that the private rented sector is unregulated.
Whilst it may be populist stuff it diverts attention from the real problem which is that it is the enforcement of regulations that protects tenants from criminal landlords.
You can have all the regulations you like, and there are certainly enough of them, but they are ineffective if not enforced.
Analysis by the Residential Landlords Association (http://www.rla.org.uk/) has shown that there are over 140 Acts of Parliament containing over 400 regulations affecting the private rented sector. This is a figure that will grow substantially when the Housing and Planning Bill becomes law. To suggest the rental market is some sort of lawless desert is not just ludicrous, but also a lazy approach that avoids having to carefully consider how we ensure that the criminal landlords are found and held to account.
The facts speak for themselves.
Figures obtained by the RLA via freedom of information requests have shown that 2,006 landlords were convicted in the last eight years. Independent research has shown that in London between 2011 and 2014 eight Boroughs had not taken out any prosecutions against landlords. As a landlord body we are not naïve enough to think that this is because there are so few bad landlords.
The willingness and ability of local authorities to enforce the powers they already have is clearly patchy, hampered as they are not by a lack of powers but a lack of resources and imagination to do their jobs effectively. What then is the answer?
One, espoused by some, is licensing. It is argued that this is a quick and easy to understand policy that’s popular with the voters and roots out the bad landlords. The reality is that licensing schemes achieve next to nothing other than create a bureaucracy which tenants end up paying for and officers spending their time policing rather than going after the landlords who have no intention of signing up.
Of the 10 London Boroughs with the highest rates of prosecutions against landlords between 2011 and 2014, just two operated any form of licensing. No self-respecting criminal landlord is ever going to willingly make themselves known.
What we need is not piecemeal tinkering but an overhaul of the entire system of enforcement.
Firstly, local enforcement teams need the resources to do their job. That means adopting the ‘polluter pays principle’. Those landlords who break their legal duties should pay for enforcement action against them and these funds should re-invested in enforcement action.
Second, local authorities can, if they wish, ask for details of a property’s tenure and landlord to assist with the collection of council tax. The RLA has led calls for local authorities to be compelled to collect such information on council tax registration forms for use in the enforcement of regulations affecting the sector. Getting tenants to identify landlords will mean that criminals will find it harder to hide from local authority enforcement officers.
Thirdly, we need new models of regulation. Local authorities cannot be everywhere. They need to be free to focus on the serious offenders. The RLA proposes a system known as co-regulation. The majority of law abiding, decent landlords should be able to operate under a robust, legally recognised, industry-run scheme. Clear branding would provide tenants with certainty and confidence that their landlord meets their legal obligations. This would let local authorities use their resources to deal with those looking to hide sub-standard properties.
Underpinning it all is the need for mutual respect and co-operation between landlords and local authorities. It is only in that way that the trust and confidence needed to root out the crooks will truly be secured.