Labour has achieved many things for the millions of private tenants in the UK. The 2004 Housing Act made it easier for local authorities to prioritise action on health and safety hazards in privately rented homes, as well as introducing the more well-known tenancy deposit protection which came into force in April 2007.
But this has by no means guaranteed that every tenant rents a property which is fit to live in. According to the English House Condition Survey 2007, 45% of homes in the private rented sector in England fail to meet the Government’s Decent Home Standard – that’s defined as ‘warm, weatherproof and [with] reasonably modern facilities’. So almost half the private tenants in England are cold, or exposed to the elements, or effectively living in the last century.
I see some of these tenants every day in the CAB – the family who despaired at the mould in their baby’s bedroom; the students who went without hot water for weeks at a time; the woman whose landlord failed, despite repeated promises, to provide even the most basic furnishings, and sexually harassed her for good measure – and every time I see a case of sub-standard privately rented housing, my day gets a little bit worse, because I know how hard it is going to be for the tenants to do anything about it.
If the problems in their house constitute a health and safety hazard they can get the local authority to enforce standards. If they can afford the time and the expense, they can take their landlord to court. If not…in short, they can put up with it, or they can find somewhere else to live.
And if they do choose to use the courts or the council to try and make their house fit to live in, their friendly local CAB adviser will have to be sure to remind them how vulnerable they are. A combination of the demand for housing and landlords’ powers of eviction renders some tenants so effectively at their landlords’ mercy that it’s no wonder 1.8 million families would rather queue up for social housing than brave the cruel world of private renting.
In 2007, Citizens Advice produced a report – ‘The tenant’s dilemma‘ – showing how landlords can use Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 to evict tenants for daring to complain about the state of their accommodation. The report recommended a mechanism for tenants to halt their eviction under Section 21 if they could show that it was a retaliatory eviction; it also suggested a longer term measure whereby the use of Section 21 could be restricted to landlords registered with a national accreditation scheme.
Something resembling this scheme is in the pipeline. In May, along with much-needed protection for the growing number of tenants whose landlords are repossessed, the government announced proposals to introduce a ‘light-touch national register’ of every private landlord in England. This is to work alongside an improved complaints procedure for tenants to register official complaints about sub-standard landlords, who could then in some circumstances be removed from the register.
I’m delighted at these proposals, but concerned about their reach. Studies have shown that tenants in the worst accommodation are often the most vulnerable: very young, very poor, disabled or with limited English. These are often people who have never heard of tenancy deposit protection: how do you enforce a right you don’t know you have?
If the onus remains on tenants to report sub-standard housing – particularly if landlords retain powers of retaliatory eviction – then progress for those in the very worst housing will be slow. To protect the most vulnerable, the proposed national register must be backed up by a regulatory body to monitor and enforce housing standards and prevent the misuse of Section 21. While Building Britain’s Future, we need to make sure it’s a warm, safe, properly furnished future once it’s built.