Our mission to drive up private rented housing standards

12th August, 2013 3:22 pm

No-one should live in a home that is damp or mouldy. Nor should anyone be forced out of their home, for no good reason, after living there for just six months.  No-one should have their children develop health problems because they are too afraid of going to the toilet at night which they have to share with strangers, and no-one should live in overcrowded homes where slum landlords cram people in a family to a room. These might sound like blatantly obvious statements, but the truth is in modern Britain people are enduring these conditions in the private rented sector.

In launching the Labour Party’s Private Rented Policy Review Shadow Housing Minister Jack Dromey MP said:

“We want to see all families enjoying a decent home, at a price they can afford. While the majority of landlords are responsible, there can be no place in future for homes that are damp, cold and unfit to bring children up, holding them back at school.”

Like many people who’ve rented I’ve experienced poor conditions myself. When studying at  Birmingham University I rented privately for three years and had to put up with windows that didn’t close, heating that didn’t work and mould. I then rented for a further four years in Southwark after graduating. I was evicted from the first flat when my landlord failed to pay his mortgage and the property was repossessed, we were charged last minute fees of nearly £200 for “admin” for the second flat – which seemed to consist of some photocopying – and we had to put up with mould and damp at the third. I know I’m not alone and we know that other people are having to endure much worse conditions. Back then I didn’t know my rights and due to very high demand we had to take what properties we could before they were let out.

There are many issues that need solving in the private rented sector. We need better conditions, to reduce estate agents fees, reduce rent rises or rents themselves, we need longer tenancies and to stop the forced turnover of people on shorthold tenancies. Many of these problems require government action to change the law.

It is clear from the national policy review that the Labour Party is intent on tackling rogue landlords and poor conditions when we win in 2015. While we wait for the Coalition to be consigned to the dustbin of history, locally Labour should be doing what we can with the powers already available.

In Southwark there are now over 70,000 private rented tenants, 24% of our borough’s population, living in 28,500 privately rented properties. This has doubled since 2001 and if the Greater London Authority’s predictions are correct this will rise to nearly 44,000 by 2025. It is estimated that 10,500 privately rented properties in our borough have a “Category 1” hazard as defined by the Housing Act 2004, with the vast majority being due to exposure to excess cold. With higher turnover of people in the sector, due to enforced short leases, community and social cohesion is weakened and the phenomenon of ever more overcrowding is leading to real strain on local services.

We are also seeing prospective tenants charged fees at the last minute that are often high and with little or no justification. Assured Shorthold Tenancies allow this kind of behaviour, they also allow unscrupulous landlords to conduct “retaliatory evictions” when tenants ask for improvements or repairs to be made to their properties. The constant churn of people in the sector contributes to a lack of social cohesion and is very expensive for the tenants as they are constantly being charged fees and having to raise deposits. More and more families are living in this sector and the impact on children of moving regularly and being uprooted is detrimental to their development. At a national level the government should be doing all it can to enable longer tenancies and promote stability for private renters.

So, what are we planning on doing about these problems locally? In Southwark our Labour-run council has decided to take three key steps:

  • Firstly an education campaign for landlords and tenants so that as many people as possible understand their rights and responsibilities to one another.
  • Secondly, we will set up an accreditation scheme for all of the private rented properties in which we place people for temporary accommodation. This is a new trend and we need to make sure people get good quality accommodation and that taxpayers’ money isn’t spent on shoddy properties.
  • The third step, which will take longer due to the restrictive nature of the current legislation, is to scope out and set up a licensing scheme for private sector landlords who operate in Southwark. This final step will give the council real teeth to tackle poor conditions and rogue landlords. We will also work with good private landlords to make sure our scheme helps them to continue delivering good quality housing, and work with tenants to make sure our scheme meets their needs.

At a time when so many people are living in poor conditions, struggling with the ever rising cost of living and with private rents increasing by 9% a year in London it is incumbent on us as elected representatives to take action and help our constituents. Quite simply enough is enough. We have listened to our residents and Southwark Labour is taking a stand. The market is clearly failing, our residents are suffering – we must act.

Mark Williams is Deputy Cabinet Member for Private Rented Housing on Southwark Council

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