An influential Select Committee has called for private sector tenants to be safeguarded from retaliatory evictions, rent increases and harassment from their landlords. It also wants councils to be given extra powers to takeover properties from rogue landlords.
MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee say strong measures are needed so tenants can safely make complaints about poor conditions in their homes and demand essential repairs and maintenance works are carried out. In a new report on the private rented sector, the Committee says there is a ‘clear power imbalance’ in parts of the sector with tenants often unwilling to complain to landlords about conditions in their homes such as excess cold, mould or faulty wiring, for fear of reprisals. They called for more robust penalties to deal with the worst landlords and for the Government to give local authorities the power to confiscate properties from those committing the most flagrant offences and whose business model relies on the exploitation of vulnerable tenants.
During their inquiry, the Committee heard how in some areas up to 25 people could be found living in houses of just three-bedrooms, while some landlords charged rent of up to £500 for a bed in a room with four bunkbeds. Meanwhile the Residential Landlords Association has responded by saying sufficient regulatory powers already exist and the main problem is that councils lack the resources and in some cases the political will, to take enforcement action where necessary against bad landlords who let down the whole sector. Last year the RLA conducted a Freedom of Information exercise across all local authorities in England and Wales to measure enforcement activity over a five-year period, 2012/13 to 2016/17. This found there was a three per cent fall in inspections by councils related to the regulatory standard for private rented housing, known as the Housing, Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). There was a seven per cent decrease in the number of Hazard Awareness Notices issued. While the Committee acknowledged the legislation introduced in recent years to strengthen protections for tenants – including civil penalties of up to £30,000 and banning orders for criminal landlords – the Committee heard that local authorities have insufficient resources to undertake their enforcement duties. MPs want to see stronger powers, harsher fines and a new commitment to cracking down on unscrupulous practices.
Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, said: “The imbalance in power in the private rented sector means vulnerable tenants often lack protection from unscrupulous landlords who can threaten them with retaliatory rent rises and eviction if they complain about unacceptable conditions in their homes. Local authorities need the power to levy more substantial fines against landlords and in the case of the most serious offenders, ultimately to be able to confiscate their properties. “Such powers are meaningless if they are not enforced and at the same time councils need more resources to carry out effective prosecutions. Stronger powers, harsher fines and a new commitment to cracking down on unscrupulous practices will go some way towards rebalancing the sector and protecting the many thousands of vulnerable residents who have been abused and harassed by a landlord.” The report recommends: • Tenants need greater legal protections from retaliatory eviction, rent increases and harassment; • The establishment of a new fund to support local authorities to undertake informal enforcement activities; • The introduction of new ways of informing tenants and landlords of their rights and responsibilities; • A requirement for local authorities to publish their enforcement strategies online; and • A review of legislation relating to the private rented sector aimed at bringing more clarity for tenants, landlords and local authorities. The report found a significant minority of homes in the private rented sector are shockingly inadequate. While the proportion of non-decent homes has declined over the last ten years, the absolute number has increased as the sector has grown. The Committee concluded that enforcement of existing legislation to protect tenants had been far too low with six out of 10 councils not prosecuting a single landlord in their areas in the whole of 2016. RLA Chairman Alan Ward supported much of the Committee’s findings, but added: “It is vital that Ministers adopt the Committee’s recommendation for the speedy establishment of a new housing court. This key proposal called for by the RLA would improve the speed of and access to justice for tenants and landlords. At present the courts are not fit for purpose when seeking to uphold tenant and landlord rights.”
By Patrick Mooney, editor