Friday, 25 January 2013

My speech on the Private Rented Sector Wednesday

This Wednesday I spoke in the Opposition Day debate on the Private Rented Sector, it was an incredibly useful debate which really hit home some of the pressures that people who rent their homes face on a daily basis.

In the concluding speech, Don Foster, the Government Minister responding to the debate stated : “The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) talked about the need to review the housing health and safety rating system, and we would be interested to hear from him on that. If he would like to come and talk to me afterwards, I will discuss double glazing with him as well.”

I shall be writing to Mr Foster with a view to arranging a meeting.

Here is the speech from last night:

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a little disappointing that Conservative Ministers and the Secretary of State have now left this crucial debate.

I wish to speak in favour of the motion and address standards, value for money, the security offered by the private rented sector and the effect that that is having on our local housing market in Haslingden and Hyndburn. The private rented sector is very large in Hyndburn and the statistics provided by my local authority on standards are of great concern. Across the borough, 49.2% of privately rented homes do not meet the decent homes standard and 29.6% have category 1 hazards. In some wards, 35% of properties are rented out and in some streets and neighbourhoods the figure is about 90%.

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): It is interesting to note that the local authority has the figures on the number of homes that are not up to the required standard. What, therefore, is it doing with the 100-plus regulation powers that it already has to put that right?

Graham Jones: That question is easy to answer. My local authority is the third worst hit in terms of revenue grant and it is doing everything it possibly can. If the Government take resources away, they have to accept that it becomes difficult for local authorities to meet their obligations. That is the position in which the local authority finds itself.

I return to the scale of the problem. In the ward of Spring Hill, 71.6 % of houses do not meet the decent homes standard; in contrast, only 17.2% of social housing in the ward does not. In Central ward, 73.6% of houses do not meet the decent homes standard, compared with 32.1% in the social rented sector. That is a damning indictment of the state of the private rented sector in my constituency and the behaviour of some who let those properties. I should say briefly that the housing health and safety rating system is not fit for purpose and is due for an upgrade.

What do Haslingden and Hyndburn constituents get for the privilege of renting a home? Last year, national TV crews came to Hyndburn to see the sorry state of the sector. One house that TV crews visited in my neighbourhood had asbestos, single wooden windows, damp, mould and electrical sockets hanging off the wall with live electrics exposed at a low level. A young mother and a toddler were housed there as there was nowhere else better. The house had innumerable category 1 and 2 hazards, as is common throughout the constituency.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said, the Government should tackle the dangers of electrical safety, not just by regulating electrical safety certificates but by the mandatory installation of residual-current devices in every rented property.

Nationally, the last English housing survey revealed that the number of people who agreed with the statement “the landlord does not bother with repairs” was twice as high in the private rented sector as in the social rented sector. In Haslingden and Hyndburn, the figure is far higher. At another property in my neighbourhood, I saw a questionable gas fire, which was checked by a gas fitter. It was condemned immediately and removed. For 12 months, the landlord had been asked to look into it. Shockingly, the property was rented by a parent with a two-year-old and four-year-old.

Such stories reflect the chronic state of the private rented sector in Haslingden and Hyndburn. There is a huge problem, not just with rogue landlords, but absent and long-distance ones. Crucially, there are also amateur landlords who know nothing about property maintenance and are simply looking for a quick profit. I ask the Minister to consider this point. Landlords need guidance, and a national register would assist landlords, tenants, neighbours and the local authority to work together.

Recently, a woman suffering from exactly the problems that the Leader of the Opposition has recently identified came into my surgery. She is a single mother with three children. She had been forced to rent a three-bedroom former council house now owned privately through the right to buy. She had been the victim of domestic abuse and her partner had abandoned her and her three children. Her rent is £600 a month, while the rent at the Hyndburn Homes property next door is just £300. The average price of a Hyndburn Homes property is about £64 a week, yet a private rented property costs £108 a week—68% higher.

Then there is the scandal of top-up, which has not been mentioned, whereby landlords raise rents way above housing benefit levels and push families and young, innocent children into the worst poverty imaginable. The lady I mentioned received £425 in housing benefit, so the Department for Work and Pensions was paying £125 more than on the property next door, but that still left her with a £175 shortfall per month that she had to find from the other benefits that she received. Her children were going hungry and she had to be clothed with clothes from the charity shop just to keep a roof over their heads. Moreover, the house was in a terrible state of repair because it had been bought under the right to buy, and the landlord had shown no interest in making good.

When I contacted schools in my local area, they confirmed a rise in the number of poorly clothed and hungry children turning up for school in the morning. My surgery is filled with people desperate for decent housing, all of whom are housed in the private rented sector, while the local authority has a very long waiting list for housing association houses. A recent survey highlighted that Hyndburn has the second highest number in England of people living on the breadline.

I would like to speak for much longer, but time is running out and I will have to conclude my remarks.

You can also read Jack Dromey’s excellent opening speech here.

MY DRAFT SPEECH  - the bits time would not permit me to cover.

My case surgery is filled with people desperate for decent housing. A recent survey highlighted that Hyndburn has the second highest number of people living on the breadline in England.

Nearly every case of someone living in poverty has two common elements, a greedy landlord and often an old terraced house in disrepair.

The private rented sector market is failing in many areas of the country. It does not operate on supply and demand basis. It operates on the sole basis of a return on capital. If a house price increases in value then so must the rent or it becomes a poor return on capital hitting treasury figures where housing benefit applies.

The housing boom and increasing house prices has pushed many private renters nearer to or into poverty.

One statistic that is particularly revealing from the English Housing Survey is the fact that 59% of private renters expected to buy a property at some point; whereas only 23% in social housing expected the same. The Government amendment puts this down to the fact that the private rented sector offers flexibility to people who do not want or currently cannot buy their own home.

With high rents and underpaid housing allowances, poor landlords who gravitate to the oldest and most dilapidated properties fuel poverty in these neighbourhoods is high. I go home every night and think of the children trapped in old and very cold terraced houses with multiple hazards and parents who cannot even feed them.

It’s not just tenants who are hit by poor landlords.

The behaviour of some landlords in areas of my constituency are contributing to the low housing demand and failing housing market by not maintaining properties, not taking responsibility for tenants and acquiring them speculatively but leaving them empty.

The governments response to my constituents has been dismissive. Epty Dwelling Management Orders which were inadequate under the Labour Government have been watered down by this. My Council cannot afford to find the £30,000 upfront funding to refurbish the squalid terraced hovels and doubts in a run down neighbourhood if it could get back its investment.

The National Register of landlords has been scrapped. Its primary benefit is cut red tape. To be able to advise good landlords and chase down bad landlords without needing to spend weeks wastefully chasing through off shore accounts and accountants.

I accept that in some parts of Britain there is indeed some satisfaction in private renting. In my constituency this is not the case. There is deep dissatisfaction. In fact there are 4000 people awaiting social housing, not homeless but people looking to transfer out of the private rented sector. Dissatisfaction is endemic.

The private sector must be reduced in size

It must be brought into the 21st century. And I would have a lot of sympathy with the Government’s amendment if it bore any resemblance to what the private rented sector looked like in my constituency, in particular central Accrington.