Wednesday, 3 July 2013

My article in the Huffington Post: Housing standards: It’s time to give Councils the powers to act

At present, many of our Local Authorities are in the strange position of being legally required to do something that they cannot do, and no one seems to mind, not least ministers with whom I have raised this matter. It all seems to a step too far for Government. After all, they don’t have to suffer the misery of poor housing personally.

The law of the land puts the responsibility for dealing with poor housing standards in the private rented sector the hands of our councils. Social Housing has long been the beneficiary of national legislation, the Labour government introduced the minimum requirement in terms of standards: the Decent Homes Standard.

Councils are the people who are charged with inspecting, reporting and taking enforcement action against landlords who do not keep their properties up to the standards enshrined in law under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). Why therefore are so many rented properties not fit for habitation, and so many landlords doing nothing about that fact, particularly in low demand areas? The reason is that councils do not have the money to employ staff to inspect and take the subsequent necessary action to improve properties to a standard that most people would see as a basic. It is also sadly true that tenants are not aware of such minimum standards until they reach the depths of dispair.

For the Government the position is simple. The law says councils should do something, therefore there is nothing else that needs to be done – and this has seemingly informed their policy on standards in the private rented sector. A ‘Whitehall shrug’ has not changed the facts on the ground for many tenants. In response to my Parliamentary Question last week, the Housing Minister simply reiterated the fact that the legal obligations and powers exist – but with no recognition of the financial reality.

Nationally, 17% of social housing is non-decent, and 35% of private rented housing is non-decent. Zooming in on places like Hyndburn you see the scale of the problem and the concentration in some areas of chronically poor standards. There are wards in Accrington where over 72% of private rented houses are non-decent. 40% of rented properties in some parts of my constituency do not even meet the basic Housing Health and Safety Rating System standards – that is 40% of renters living with serious health hazards, cold, damp, exposed wiring or unsafe gas appliances.

Whilst the south and high demand areas suffer a housing crisis of undersupply and high rents – low demand areas suffer an altogether different housing crisis, a crisis of sub-standard accommodation and unwanted properties to let, to often abandoned. It is the mark of a civilised society that landlords should provide tenants and what is crucial their children, with reasonable windows, decent heating systems, good insulation, electrical safety and modern kitchens and bathrooms.

The Housing Health and Safety Rating System in itself is not fit for purpose such is its low standard. It falls well below the Decent Homes Standard afforded those in social housing. A most basic of criteria which allows poor properties in the private rented sector to remain let-able, only tackling the very worst of slum conditions.

Cuts to local councils have made inspections more difficult as Council’s struggle to afford current staffing levels. A problem exacerbated by the deepest cuts falling correspondingly on Councils with areas low demand and where some of the worst private rented sector housing occurs.

There is a in part a solution to this, and with concerted action, political pressure the Government may find itself having to consider changing the law that to end, or at least cut down on this unacceptable aspect of private rented tenancies.

Inserting a few lines into Section 80 of the Housing Act 2004 on Selective Licensing of Landlords would give Local Authorities the power to apply licensing conditions in relation to fitness on the basis that there is a high concentration of poor quality homes. A decent homes standard set by local councils on a neighbourhood or street by street basis as an addition to other licence conditions. Councils would not be impaired by further regulation as such additions would be a minor addition to current inspections. Windows, doors, loft insulation, heating system, modern kitchen and bathroom. This approach would be funded from existing licence fees and as a standalone scheme, separate to normal Council expenditure.

Landlords would be required to get approval from the council to get a license to carry on his business as a landlord.

The current Housing Act allows for a licensing scheme where there is anti-social behaviour or low demand, neither relate to property condition and the Act does not facilitate much by way of housing standards. By improving standards there is a much wider objective. Making low demand neighbourhoods more appealing to both owner occupiers and tenants. Reversing the decline that has seen 1 in 13 properties left empty in my Haslingden and Hyndburn constituency and a significantly higher percentage in low demand neighbourhoods. In some of the worst streets over half the houses have been abandoned. The people that are left blame the decline almost universally on private landlords and poor quality of their properties.

I understand there will be concerns even around amending the 2004 Housing Act, but it’s about time local communities and their representatives were able to decide these issues, not the Government or MPs.

I am holding a debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 3rd July on this very topic. If you agree with me that we should be doing something about this, email your MP and tell them to come along, or even better get them to write to the Government and ask them to make these changes.

The problems in the private rented housing sector are chronic. Sometimes it is the landlord’s fault, sometimes it is not. If we make a very small change in the law, we could begin to tackle endemic poor standards in the private rented sector, importantly giving the young children there hope of a decent life away from squalor and more crucially begin to seriously tackle low demand and regenerate some of England and Wales most deprived areas.