Briefing: Happier and healthier: improving conditions in the PRS

By: Vicky Pearlman  Published: September 2017


Too many homes in today's private rented sector are in very poor condition, severely compromising families' health and wellbeing and, in the most extreme cases, putting lives at risk. New powers in the Housing and Planning Act extend the range of measures local councils can use to take tough enforcement action and crack down on rogue landlords. This briefing is part of our work to ensure that local councils are motivated to use their new powers to improve conditions in the private rented sector.

Summary

Everyone should have a home that is warm, safe and secure.

But too many homes in today’s private rented sector are in very poor condition, severely compromising families’ health and wellbeing, and in the most extreme cases putting lives at risk.

Property conditions in the private rented sector are worse than any in any other tenure. We know that there are also problems with conditions and enforcement in social renting and we are undertaking separate work on this. The private rented sector is, therefore, the focus of this briefing. As the cost of home ownership rises and the lack of social housing endures, the private rented sector is playing an increasingly important role in housing people. It is vital that these homes are safe and decent.

Local councils have responded in a wide variety of ways to the different challenges they face in improving conditions in their local PRS. The case study councils featured in this briefing have made imaginative use of their existing powers, both formal and informal, to empower renters and target poor landlords.

But while conditions in much of the PRS are undoubtedly improving, thanks to existing legislation and inspection regimes, there is still more to be done.

Hard fought new powers in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 extend the range of measures local councils can use to take tough enforcement action and crack down on rogue landlords who, either wilfully or through ignorance, allow their tenants to live in poor conditions, causing ill health and distress. These new powers allow councils to build on their existing initiatives and impose banning orders, civil penalty notices and rent repayment orders on landlords who fail to improve conditions in their properties, and to maintain a database of banned landlords and those convicted of a banning order offence. They will be able to share this, along with information from tenancy deposit schemes, to better build and share intelligence about rogue landlords.

But problems with the supply of, and demand for, private rented homes (including the lack of security of tenure), diminishing resources for local council enforcement teams and the difficulty renters face in exercising their consumer power and taking action against poor landlords themselves, means that, on their own, the new powers will not be enough to significantly improve conditions in the private rented sector.

Shelter is optimistic about the prospects for a new Homes (Fit for Human Habitation) Bill, presented as a private members’ bill in July 2017. Renters must have a right to expect that homes are fit to live in. Most good landlords already provide this, but renters must have a direct route independent of local authority resources and priorities to enforce basic housing standards in their home, without fearing eviction and homelessness as a result.

Recommendations

Local councils have responded in a wide variety of ways to the different challenges they face in improving conditions in their local PRS. The case study councils featured in this briefing have made imaginative use of their existing powers, both formal and informal, to target poor landlords and empower renters. They have demonstrated how important a mixed, localised, resource-clever approach is to crack down on rogue landlords. Common themes across their work have included:
- Targeted and proactive inspection of the local private rented sector
- Bids for additional funding to support adequately resourced enforcement teams
- Use of prosecutions as a method of formal enforcement, when notices are not complied with
- Building proactive relationships with the local private rented sector through accreditation and licensing schemes
- Harnessing the skills and knowledge of other agencies
- Working to educate tenants and landlords of their rights and responsibilities

To make a significant improvement to conditions in the private rented sector, there needs to be a fundamental review of housing standards, including updating the evidence base that sits behind the HHSRS (which is now 20 years old) and reinstating some basic housing standards that are easy for both renters and landlords to understand.

This must then be supported by increased consumer rights for renters to take their own action against landlords who fail to keep their properties in a safe and decent condition, freeing up local councils to concentrate their limited resource on the worst offenders.

We continue to call for increased security of tenure in the private rented sector. This would significantly increase tenants’ ability to enforce consumer standards themselves, without fear of being evicted. Ending the freeze on local housing allowance, and restoring rates to at least the 30th percentile of the local rental market, would put renters in a stronger position to complain, knowing that, if the worst did happen and they were evicted, they would have more chance of finding a new home that they could afford.

Access to free legal advice when a problem first emerges has been hugely restricted as a result of changes following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2012. Free advice now kicks in only at the point of crisis – when a family faces imminent homelessness or disrepair has become a serious risk to their health or safety. The power imbalance between renters and poor landlords could be significantly reduced if the government reinstated Legal Aid for issues of disrepair.

Work to prevent homelessness should go hand in hand with enforcement. Councils should examine how Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 funding could assist with this. This should include identifying those tenants at risk of becoming homeless and helping them to stay in their existing home, challenging illegal and revenge eviction and harassment and defending no fault evictions wherever possible. If all this fails, the council should help them find another home.

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