While gas and fire safety requirements have become paramount across the PRS, the emphasis on electrical protection is yet to catch up. Phil Buckle, of charity Electrical Safety First, explains how this is changing.
For almost 20 years, landlords have had to provide annual gas safety certificates, while in October 2015 the requirement for carbon monoxide alarms in private rented sector properties also came into force. But, until recently, there was no equivalent legislation covering electrical safety in the sector – yet it kills more people than gas or carbon monoxide poisoning combined. According to the English Housing Survey, in 2014-15, 19 per cent (4.3 million) of households were renting privately – a trend replicated across the UK.
The PRS is now a fundamental component of the housing landscape being used by an increasing number of people – but such rapid growth brings its own problems. While most landlords are responsible and law-abiding, the accelerated expansion of the PRS has highlighted safety concerns and electrical safety as a particular issue, as electrical problems tend to be invisible until an accident occurs.
This is particularly worrying as the demographic of the PRS has changed, from mobile younger people to families with children. Fires with an electrical cause are (conservatively) estimated to produce £1bn worth of damage to homes a year and lead to almost half of all UK house fires. But legislation now placing electrical safety in the PRS on a par with gas and carbon monoxide protection is happening – although in a rather piecemeal fashion throughout the UK, and Scotland is leading the way.
The disparity occurs because the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can introduce new laws on a range of issues, including housing, through their devolved powers. Over the last couple of years, Electrical Safety First has worked closely with Westminster and the devolved governments to ensure electrical regulations for PRS homes are fit for purpose.
While regular electrical safety checks are considered best practice by some leading landlord bodies, unless houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) are rented out, landlords’ legal obligations around electrical safety have been rather broadly defined. The general requirement was simply to ensure that the electrical installation in a rental property is safe when tenants move in – and that it is maintained in this condition during the tenancy – along with any electrical items supplied.
The new regulations Electrical Safety First called for make such requirements much more specific: regular electrical checks undertaken every five years by a competent, registered electrician, of both the installation and any electrical appliance supplied with it. In addition, landlords should undertake a visual inspection of the property after each change of tenancy. These proposals are, according to the charity, a cost-effective, simple way to protect both people and property.
This is why Electrical Safety First were delighted when the most recent Housing (Scotland) Act included these checks as legal requirements and today, all PRS landlords in Scotland are required to ensure the electrics in their properties are inspected at least every five years. A copy of the latest EICR, or electrical inspection condition report must also be provided to the tenant.
When the Scottish Government introduced this requirement, it proved itself a step ahead of the rest of the UK – and aware of the real impact of dangerous electrics. To ensure compliance, landlords were given a period of grace, with the regulation initially only covering new tenancies beginning in December 2015. Landlords with existing tenancies were given an additional or ‘transitional’ year – until 1 December 2016 – to organise inspections for their properties.
In Wales, Electrical Safety First worked closely with Assembly Members on the Renting Homes (Wales) Act, which was granted Royal Assent in January 2016. Following consultation, fitness for human habitation provisions will come into force and regular PRS electrical inspections are fully expected to be included. In Northern Ireland, despite the current political uncertainty, the Department for Communities has stated that they would like to press ahead with mandatory PRS electrical checks as soon as possible. When England’s Housing and Planning Act gained Royal Assent last May, it contained an amendment on electrical safety, which we sponsored.
However, until the regulation has been passed by the Secretary of State, we will not know the extent of the obligations, so Electrical Safety First have continued to work on the issue as members of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) PRS Electrical Safety Working Group.
The DCLG has now drafted a report, which will be submitted to the Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, recommending mandatory electrical checks. The next step is to wait for ministerial approval. If successful, draft regulations will be proposed, followed by a parliamentary debate and further public consultation. Given Brexit, among other things, we would not expect any changes to impact the sector until much later this year.
Safety for everyone
While our focus has initially been on the PRS, it doesn’t stop there. We want everyone to live in a safe home, regardless of whether they rent privately, live in social housing or are home-owners. To this end, Electrical Safety First have just launched a new campaign in Scotland called Inequality Street.
It calls on the Scottish Government to extend five-yearly electrical safety checks to all social housing and, as a first step, to add this protection to those living in owner occupied flats, where the risk of fire spreading to other households is increased. And we want to see the installation of RCDs- which quickly cut the current to prevent fatal electric shock – to be fitted in all rented homes. Electrical safety can’t stop at the PRS, but improvements are starting there.
Phil Buckle is chief executive of Electrical Safety First.
This feature was published in the May 2017 issue of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine.
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