The recent Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England rests its plans for the private rented sector on the claim that most tenants have a good experience of renting.
The Strategy cites the findings of English Housing Survey research showing that 84.6% of tenants in the private rented sector describe themselves as very or fairly satisfied with their accommodation.
This supports the Housing Minister’s statement in 2010:
"With the vast majority of England's three million private tenants happy with the service they receive, I am satisfied that the current system strikes the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. So today I make a promise to good landlords across the country: the Government has no plans to create any burdensome red tape and bureaucracy, so you are able to continue providing a service to your tenants. But for the bad landlords, I am putting councils on alert to use the range of powers already at their disposal to make sure tenants are properly protected."
It is clear that the Government’s laissez-faire attitude towards standards in the private rented sector has remained unchanged in the last few years.
I would make two objections to this approach.
Firstly, I do not believe that the figure of 84.6% of tenants being satisfied gives an accurate depiction of the true levels of discontent suffered by many in the private rented sector.
There is a huge lack of awareness as to what tenants should expect from landlords, what levels of safety and good practice are their due and what standards of comfort and security they can reasonably expect. While this lack of awareness is so widespread, claims to being ‘satisfied’ with landlords should be treated with some scepticism.
We should be seeking to improve the living standards of those who are living in poor quality homes and ensure people live in the good conditions they deserve, not to settle for a situation where people don’t actively complain.
This is particularly true in the current housing market, where it is not easy to find an alternative home and many feel that living in poor conditions is preferable to risking losing their home. Fears of reprisals from landlords should they complain and reluctance to begin a lengthy litigation process are only two of the reasons why satisfaction levels are likely to be underestimation.
Indeed, the British Social Attitudes survey found instead that only a third of private tenants thought they usually enjoy a good standard of housing, compared to almost two-thirds of housing association tenants and over half of council tenants.
I would urge the Government to pursue further research into the numbers of tenants whose landlords fail on certain criteria so a more accurate picture of the housing quality in the private rented sector can be developed.
Secondly, even if it is clear beyond doubt that the majority of tenants are satisfied with their living standards, it is a very far step to then conclude that you are “satisfied that the current system strikes the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords.”
If the conditions suffered by that minority of households is sufficiently poor, that would make a strong case for concluding that the system is not “striking the right balance”.
For any Government intervention, there is a balance between added inconvenience for the contented compared to vital support and improvement for those currently suffering.
If the minority is suffering severely, then surely the Government cannot make the claim that the right balance is being achieved.
I would argue that the quality of a home has such a profound impact on the well-being, health and prospects of an individual that poor housing quality should never be underestimated or ignored.
For those that are living in poor, squalid or dangerous conditions, the current system is clearly not sufficiently addressing the problem.
There may be powers already statutorily available for local authorities to deal with many of these situations, but frequently, often through lack of resources and time rather than a lack of will, local authorities cannot keep up with the prevalence of poor landlord practice.
I would therefore call on the Government to appreciate that more is needed to effectively drive out rogue landlords and drive up housing standards. Children growing up in shocking conditions is not a price to pay for a little bit less red tape and hassle for landlords.
I agree strongly with the Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to the introduction of a licensing scheme for landlords.
This would entail that any landlord in the private rented sector, to rent out their property, would have to register for a license which demanded a standard of quality to be maintained by landlords and can be combined with a standard contract with the tenant to ensure a standard of quality maintained by tenants. This policy had wide support from many in the industry and groups such as Shelter.
Unfortunately the Government has dropped this approach entirely, preferring to pretend that there is not a problem.
I will be working with the Labour Party to urge the Government to end its policy of ignoring poor quality housing and instead look at ways of addressing this failing in the system.