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Patrick Mooney asks whether Michael Gove will turn to Property MOTs as a quick and smart solution to many renting ills?

One of the most divisive and controversial policies in the world of private renting at present is undoubtedly the issue of local licensing schemes, which various councils across the country have introduced in an attempt to drive up property standards and drive out bad landlords.

Private landlords on the other hand often equate the local licensing schemes as wholly unnecessary bureaucracy, which adds to their costs without giving them any benefits in return.

When invited to comment further, landlords will often say that licensing schemes are imposed on them by interfering politicians who know nothing about their businesses, or indeed ‘the real world’.

The only issue which comes close to causing as much friction in the private rental sector is the use of Section 21 notices for evicting tenants at short notice – either so the landlord can recover possession in order to sell a property, or to re-let the property usually at a higher rent, or to get rid of a tenant who the landlord regards as ‘troublesome’.

Property MOTs could offer an almost ready made solution to a tricky conundrum at relatively little cost to the public purse.

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine

Panacea or sticking plaster

However, there is an alternative to local licensing schemes and the concept of Property MoTs has been getting some more traction recently.

In fact this particular alternative could be used to greatly reduce tensions in the complicated relationships between councils, landlords and tenants.

So could Property MoTs be the ‘Holy Grail of the Property World’ and will the new Housing Secretary Michael Gove pick up the idea and introduce them as a way of leaving his mark on the lettings market?

Sadly I do not possess a crystal ball and only time will tell if he does, but the new system certainly has great potential and it could revolutionise the private rented sector.

So I would be willing to bet that there will be a consultation exercise within the next 12 months to gather views on their content and introduction, as well as their basis in law and likely penalties for those that breach them.

From motors to maisonettes

In fact one of the sector’s major bodies, the National Residential Landlords Association has already done a lot of the heavy lifting on this topic by surveying its members earlier this year, to find out their views on licensing schemes and possible regulatory alternatives – which to no-one’s great surprise focused on Property MOTs.

We are already familiar with the use of Vehicle MoTs to ensure our cars, vans, lorries and motorbikes are of a minimum standard of roadworthiness and are allowed onto public highways.

These are done to minimise risks to our safety BUT could such a scheme be applied in the property sector? Of course they could!

Quite simply you could have a national set of property (and management) standards, that replaced locally set schemes (avoiding the dreaded postcode lottery), are underpinned by periodic (annual or biannual?) inspections and are able to react to changing circumstances – such as new legislation affecting such things as energy saving measures, health & safety regulations, moisture levels and so on.

The standards themselves, the inspection and certificate awarding process, their duration, etc, could all be set nationally and backed by the Government, to give them the force of law.

Climate change and levelling up

This type of system would be particularly suitable to the vexxed issue of how we heat and insulate our homes.

With the effects of climate change very evident and the global climate change conference taking place in Glasgow later this year, now might be a very good time to make a concerted effort to re-launch a Green heating initiative, aimed at removing carbon-based heating and hot water systems from the nation’s flats and houses.

Where there are specific sets of circumstances that may justify a variation in the standard Property MOT, such as in London where the private rented sector is twice the size of the national average, then these changes would need to be agreed with Government.

Similarly, you can have different standards applying between say bungalows and flats in the top halves of tower blocks, where fire safety, access and evacuation routes are of paramount importance.

It is also likely that agreed variations would always be an add-on to the national standards, although you could also see a case for waivers being granted to individual landlords (or those in a small area) for time-limited periods to deal with particular problems.

Landlords’ support is key

The landlords’ representative body, the NRLA recognises the advantages of adopting Property MOTs to replace the local licensing schemes.

Using safety certificates rather than local authority inspection, the Property MOT is seen as a mechanism to drive a uniform approach to standards, which incorporates essential checks on gas and electrical safety as well as a range of less frequent checks such as the EPC rating, meauring energy efficiency.

In the NRLA model, the landlord would also check and self-certify against a range of health and safety criteria and would upload gas, safety and energy certifications.

They claim the issuing of a single MOT gives a prospective tenant the assurance that the rental property meets all necessary standards.

Property MOTs have also been mooted as a light touch, self-regulating opportunity for landlords to demonstrate good practice and give assurance to tenants. This would also mean lengthy licence applications and administration costs would be avoided.

There are of course other models and system that could be employed. For instance councils and private companies could still be involved in a variety of ways, such as in an inspection capacity, or in undertaking checks on the accuracy of landlords’ self-certifications.

I am doubtful if any of us would accept a car’s MOT as particularly robust if it was based on a neighbour giving the engine a once-over, checking that the tyres were free of nails and the windscreen washer bottle was filled up.

Why would we accept anything different for our homes which are normally far more valuable than our motors!

A potential vote winner

Of course there are some Property MOTs already in existence, but these are done on a voluntary basis and are offered to landlords, letting agencies and homeowners by commercial companies.

Typically these look at a number of property components or attributes, without covering all aspects.

However, the experience already gained in delivering and experiencing these MOTs will be invaluable in designing a system that is backed by the Government and which applies across the rented sector and to all types of properties.

Whether Mr Gove picks this topic up with his usual gusto is unknown.

His in-tray is already overflowing with contentious items like planning policy changes, how to deliver 300,000 new homes a year, overseeing safety changes to blocks of flats and leasehold reform, etc.

But in Property MOTs, he has at his fingertips an almost ready made solution to a tricky conundrum, that has troubled his predecessors and could deliver significant and lasting change at relatively little cost to the public purse.

In fact it could be a vote winner and I don’t know of a politician who would reject that.

Patrick Mooney is editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine