Safe housing ‘too often out of reach’ for private renters, MPs warn

Local authorities face a ‘fragmented and disempowered’ regulatory system, made worse by ‘piecemeal’ interventions, according to a report.

12 April 2022

Safe housing is “too often out of reach” for private renters, who face a “complex and costly” redress system that is unfit for purpose, MPs have warned.

Local authorities are constrained by a lack of support from central government, according to the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), as they attempt to navigate a “fragmented and disempowered” regulatory system, made worse by “piecemeal” interventions.

In a report, the PAC warned it is “too difficult” for private renters to “realise their legal right to a safe and secure home”, with some tenants exposed to “serious illness, harassment or homelessness”.

The committee pointed out the private rented sector in England has doubled in size in the last 20 years, and now houses 11 million people.

It said an estimated 13% of privately rented homes in England have at least one Category 1 hazard, which equates to “a serious threat to health and safety that landlords are legally obliged to address”.

This costs the NHS an estimated £340 million each year, the PAC said, adding that enforcement is a “postcode lottery”.

It warned that many tenants feel unable to exercise their rights and raise complaints with local authorities as they fear they may be evicted.

The PAC said those who do want to complain face “severely limited” access to redress mechanisms, with the “highly complex” system requiring “significant time and resource to pursue court action”.

This will be especially difficult for vulnerable tenants who may lack knowledge of their rights or how to enforce them, it added.

The committee said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) is considering a mandatory redress scheme for landlords, but noted that “the way this is designed will determine how helpful it will be”.

“For example, multiple redress schemes instead of a single ombudsman may create a market for landlords to choose from but be more confusing for renters,” it said.

The PAC said there is “evidence of discrimination” in the market, with 25% of landlords unwilling to let to non-British passport holders and 52% unwilling to let to tenants who receive housing benefit.

The committee also warned that local authorities do not have the “capacity and capability” to ensure an appropriate level of protection for private renters, and accused the DLUHC of not doing enough to support councils to “regulate effectively”.

“The dozens of legislative powers used by local authorities are complex and spread across multiple enforcement bodies, creating a fragmented and disempowered regulatory system,” the report said.

“Local authorities say that they could regulate better with more support and sharing of good practice, but the department is not sufficiently proactive at providing this.”

The PAC said the DLUHC does not have a “good enough understanding” of the kind of regulatory approaches that work at local level, and lacks an “early warning system” to identify where private renters are being failed.

The committee also said the department does not hold “good enough data to understand the nature and extent of problems renters face”.

“For example, it lacks robust data on complaints, overcrowding, harassment and evictions, and has a limited understanding of who is vulnerable and how this impacts their renting experience,” the report said.

The DLUHC also lacks data to evaluate the effect of recent legislative changes on the overall operation of the market, and so is “unable to benchmark success”, the committee added.

The PAC urged the department to set out how it will support renters to understand their rights and improve their ability to exercise them.

It also said the DLUHC should conduct a “realistic assessment” of the resources needed for local authorities to regulate effectively, and take a more proactive approach to supporting local regulators and sharing good practice.

The department should also develop a “coherent data strategy” to improve its understanding of the problems faced by renters and evaluate the impact of legislative changes, it said.

The PAC said the DLUHC’s forthcoming White Paper on the private rented sector offers an “opportunity for significant improvement”.

But it said the department “will not be able to take this opportunity without a full grasp of the challenges in the sector, an overarching strategy for how to address these challenges and a good understanding of the expected impacts of the reforms”.

Dame Meg Hillier
Dame Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chairwoman of the PAC (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

Dame Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chairwoman of the PAC, said: “Unsafe conditions, overcrowding, harassment, discrimination and dodgy evictions are still a huge issue in the private rented sector.

“And yet the sector is a growing provider of homes and rents keep rising, meaning that safe, suitable housing is too often out of reach for renters.

“Renters with a problem are faced with a complex and costly redress system which is not fit for purpose and many tenants give up at the first hurdle.

“We need to see a change in balance. We expect DLUHC to produce the promised White Paper in a timely and effective fashion, and start to turn around its record on addressing the desperate housing crisis in this country.”

Ben Beadle, chief executive of the National Residential Landlords Association, said the PAC report “rightly makes the case for a comprehensive, data driven strategy for the private rented sector”.

He added: “Such a strategy needs to include assessing the impact of reforms on the supply of homes for rent at a time when demand for them is soaring.”

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “Councils should use the powers we’ve given them to crack down on rogue landlords, including issuing fines of up to £30,000 and banning those who rent out unsafe homes.

“As part of our mission to improve housing conditions and to give residents the power to hold landlords to account, we’ll introduce new legislation to improve the quality and regulation of social housing and explore proposals for a national private landlord register in England.

“We’ll also publish a landmark White Paper this spring and consult on introducing a legally binding Decent Homes Standard in the private rented sector for the first time ever.”

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