The Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s Renters Reform Bill has attracted the ire of the Tory right.
When speaking at the National Conservatism conference last week, David Frost, the former Brexit negotiator, described it as a “dangerous and counterproductive intrusion into private property”. The Daily Telegraph has reported on the reforms as if they formed part of a putative “war on landlords”. Marco Longhi, the back-bench Red Wall MP for Dudley North, said the bill risked “removing the rights” of those who let out homes, and that “huge swathes of landlords [will] leave the market”. He believes “the government doesn’t realise how much it depends on private sector landlords”. Longhi and his wife own ten properties in Walsall, and he is listed as a former director for Justmove Lettings, a property management company.
But, according to some working in local government and the housing sector, as well as a few landlords, opponents of the bill can rest easy: after more than a decade of austerity, councils currently have neither the financial resources nor the skills, experience or manpower to enforce and implement it.
The bill’s publication last week was welcomed by tenants’ advocacy organisations such as Shelter, which said it could potentially “transform private renting for good”. The proposed legislation would ban section 21 “no fault” evictions, meaning renters wouldn’t have their tenancy ended at short notice without reasonable grounds. Landlords would also be barred from refusing to rent to people on benefits, or tenants with children or pets. A national landlord register or “property portal” would also be established to give tenants greater information on their letting choices. The bill did not include a so-called decent homes standard, which currently applies to social housing, but an accompanying government press release promised that the standards covering mould, damp, hygiene and building safety would be brought forward.
However, in evidence given to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, which published a report into the proposed legislation in February, local authority leaders have warned of concerns about their “ability to deliver the proposals… given they remain under enormous financial pressure”. Alongside concerns about money, councillors also said there was a “staffing crisis in most local authority housing teams, with many local authorities struggling to recruit experienced environmental health officers”.
The report detailed how many council representatives worried that “the labour market in their areas was tight and questioned the availability of suitably qualified individuals to carry out inspections and other enforcement activity”. Those kinds of personnel shortages would only deteriorate if authorities “found themselves competing for staff at the same time” once the bill was enacted by parliament, according to the committee.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) reported in 2018 that London authorities had, on average, only 2.46 environmental health officers “available to inspect and enforce” regulations on 10,000 private rental properties in their areas. The average for councils elsewhere in the country was just 2.2 per 10,000. That CIEH report used data from 2011. Since then the private rental market has increased in size while cutbacks and severe fiscal constraints on local authorities have only been exacerbated. Many metropolitan councils have lost more than a fifth of their total spending power since 2010.
“That kind of extra caseload being dumped on to local authorities is just nuts,” said Ben Reeve-Lewis, co-founder of Safer Renting, a charity providing specialist advice and support to tenants. “The job that we do as a not-for-profit is kind of like a tenancy relations officer [TRO], trying to stop harassment, illegal eviction and take legal action against the perpetrators. But because of budget cuts, and also the fact that prosecuting landlords for this offence is only a power, not a duty, of local authorities, councils responded to austerity by getting rid of all their TROs… they had to make a lot of people redundant.” Safer Renting has tried to step into that gap.
If the government imposes new legal duties on local authorities they are required to provide them with “new burdens” funding to enact them. But if councils are simply given the powers to enforce legislation that doesn’t necessarily happen – it’s their job to implement or not implement the law as their existing resources permit.
“Unless the government is going to give significant new funding to local authorities,” believes Reeve-Lewis, the legislation will look good on paper but will be difficult to make work. After the publication of a white paper on a fairer private rented sector last August, posters on online landlord forums could be seen expressing scepticism about the proposals: “A lot of this is basically unenforceable and grandstanding,” one wrote.
Councillor Linda Taylor, the housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association – a cross-party body representing councils in England and Wales – told Spotlight that “councils will need additional capacity to ensure they can support the required new levels of protection for private renters. Currently a lack of resources constrains their ability to proactively tackle poor standards and conditions, and new regulatory responsibilities will add to the existing pressures surrounding skills capacity and recruitment.
“Government should work with sector experts to conduct a realistic assessment of the resources councils need to regulate effectively and develop an appropriate workforce strategy. This will need to be supported with appropriate levels of new burdens funding.”
But even with extra money, the workforce gaps will still be difficult to plug. The institutional memory and expertise of local government has been drastically curtailed since 2010. Increasing funding won’t immediately conjure up thousands of trained, experienced staff. As in many other areas of the public realm, higher taxes and more spending won’t necessarily be enough: the effects of more than a decade of no investment and consistent day-to-day cutbacks are coming home to roost.
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