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Patrick Mooney calls for more regulation of the private landlord sector

The lack of a single regulator for the private rental sector has always surprised me, but it’s increasingly becoming an unsustainable position and one where change in the near future is almost inevitable.

The rental sector is unrecognisable in many ways from ten years ago, during which time it has doubled in size and is now providing homes to more than five million people.

Ministers have recognised the importance of this demographic (there are lots of actual and potential voters among that five million) and in recent years they have been legislating like mad in order to appear concerned about the safety and well-being of millions of tenants and their families.

Stronger more consistent enforcement is surely the answer to give proper protection to tenants and ensure standards are improved.

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Editor of Housing Management & Maintenance

An unfair contest

A host of laws, regulations and orders are now in place. But responsibility for overseeing compliance and taking enforcement action has stayed with local authorities.

And yet it’s our councils who have borne the brunt of the swingeing cuts in public service budgets since the financial crash of 2008.

The phrase asking a boxer to fight with one hand tied behind their back springs to mind, but in this context it might be more correct to also have our boxer closing one eye and hopping around the ring on one leg.

In short, our councils are being asked to deliver vital and much needed services to many more people than in the past, but to make do with a lot less money.

But there is little sense in expecting every district or unitary council to resource themselves up to deal with any and every possibility, when the reality is that pressures on budgets will never allow this and even if they did, the rental markets vary enormously across the country and so do the solutions.

Been a busy time for red tape

The most obvious answer I think is to centralise the powers of regulation in a single body, to be called something like Ofrent or Oflet, and for them to champion the delivery of high standards across the rental sector, protecting tenants from rogue landlords, but at the same time working with reputable landlords and trade bodies like the Residential Landlords Association, to professionalise the industry.

In recent years there has been a plethora of law-making, which can make it all very difficult to keep up with what should and should not be done.

Recent examples include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Banning tenant fees
  • Extending HMO licensing
  • Establishing a Rogue Landlords register
  • Banning Orders
  • Implementing the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018
  • Abolishing Section 21 evictions

The private rented sector is an increasingly important part of our housing system, but as the above list suggests, all is not well in the garden otherwise such measures would not be necessary.

A complete lottery

The quality of the accommodation and the way it is managed is by no means universally poor, but it is widely acknowledged that it is extremely variable.

After all something like 27% of all privately rented homes do not meet the decent homes standard - more than in any other housing tenure.

Then there is also the problem at the bottom end of the market where unscrupulous landlords exploit, often vulnerable, tenants who have few other housing options.

Targeted action to address this issue is therefore welcome.

But what we see instead is a real postcode lottery.

We currently “enjoy” huge variation and inconsistency in how councils inter-act with and regulate private landlords – from what some regard as overbearing (local licensing schemes) to the other end of the spectrum, where no enforcement action has been taken for many years despite clear evidence of illegal practices.

This includes dangerous conditions, revenge evictions and tenant harrassment.

Slum conditions

Channel 5 recently broadcast a programme called ‘Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords’ showing the work of enforcement officers at the London Borough of Harrow, who found 30 people crammed into a three bedroom semi in the north west of the capital.

Mattresses had been piled high and even placed in the garden, to maximise the number who could be charged rent in the squalid living conditions.

Similar cases of overcrowding have been exposed in many cities and urban areas, with west London and the M4 corridor appearing to be particularly vulnerable, as rogue landlords maximise the number of tenants that they can extract money from, with garages and even garden sheds being utilised to increase rental incomes.

A problem of this type in Slough may not exist in Norfolk, but if something similar then cropped up in Great Yarmouth, you would ideally want quick and easy access to informed and experienced experts to deal with it.

A call to arms

Many landlords are clearly working on business models which factor in the occasional prosecution and fine, but they rightly assume that relatively few of them will ever be caught and even when they are, it is very easy for them to set up new lets elsewhere.

New regulations on safety, minimum occupancy spaces and energy efficiency mean nothing to these landlords.

Stronger and more consistent enforcement from a properly resourced central regulator is surely the answer in order to give proper protection to tenants and ensure standards are improved.

It would also need to work hand in glove with local authorities, who would retain responsibility for low-level action and oversee the implementation of improvements to properties and landlords’ tenancy management practices.

Where specialist knowledge is required or a bigger stick is needed then the regulator can be called in to ‘take on’ the rogue landlord. The regulator could also focus its attention and resources on specific geographic areas or ‘hot spots’ where problems are being experienced.

Working across central and local government

I can also see a central regulator being able to work more effectively and efficiently in dealing with complicated issues such as overseeing the sector’s response to climate change and the need to change landlords and tenants’ behaviours in cutting energy consumption and improving the energy efficiency of our rented homes.

A regulator can liaise with relevant Government departments and quangos such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Treasury, on developing policies and strategies for delivering significant change as well as the means for funding their delivery, whether this be through taxation or other means.

Working closely with local councils as their agents, or ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, the regulator probably stands a better chance of having a real impact in solving such knotty problems.

The dysfunctional introduction and delivery of the rogue landlords’ database has been a case in point in terms of what needs to be avoided. If we are to ensure that well-intentioned but poorly planned legislation is not repeated, then we need to have a properly accountable body with the necessary powers, resources and expertise.

An overdue case for regulation

Such a body should be given clear targets for improving the standards of accommodation across the sector, with specific measures for improving tenants’ safety and ensuring that boiler replacement schemes and insulation improvement programmes are costed, planned and delivered.

Matters like this are too important to be left to the vagaries of a postcode lottery, where the competence of individual council officers (good and bad) or the political whims of elected members can dictate what level of protection private tenants receive.

It is strange that we have regulators for everything from the railways, to our schools and hospitals, as well as food standards and our pensions, but we do not have one for the private rental sector.

We do after all have a regulator for social housing, although arguably it is also in need of some re-energising and refocusing towards greater customer protection in the post Grenfell context.

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine