Today I attended the local Tenants Forum hosted by Acorn and North Somerset Council and I am left contemplating the power imbalance between renters and landlords.
As with most injustices, it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Improving Housing Conditions”
We heard about the council’s ‘action area’ scheme which aims to improve the quality of private rented homes in Weston Central and Hillside wards.
These two wards have been chosen for action following research compiled by North Somerset Council showing poor quality private rented housing is concentrated in Central and Hillside wards.
The ‘action area’ scheme asks landlords to apply for voluntary accreditation with the landlord-led organisation NCLE. Alongside Acorn, I was part of a small Weston Labour team who campaigned against this option when the consultation was open early in 2018.
Landlord licensing is needed
We campaigned against the voluntary ‘action area’ approach and for a mandatory selective licensing alternative.
The evidence is on our side. A joint report from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) ‘A licence to rent‘ published in January 2019 analysed 20 selective licensing schemes:
“Our research found clear evidence that property‘A licence to rent’
standards have been improved. The high number of
inspections carried out as part of the schemes often
shed light on the high level of non-compliance and
the prevalence of dangerous properties being rented
out in licensable areas.”
The ‘action area’ approach chosen by North Somerset Council is inferior because it is reactive. Rather than proactively carrying out inspections of all properties to ensure they are fit to live in and improving a high number of properties that are not, it prioritises inspections based on complaint data received.
In June 2016, the same officers and councillors who are now promoting the ‘action area’ approach were on our side too. They proposed and voted for selective licensing, saying
“To not implement a scheme would mean that we would continue to provide a responsive service to complaints about housing conditions but would not have the increased and targeted powers to tackle the problems highlighted in the report and evidence base.”REPORT TO THE EXECUTIVE: SELECTIVE LICENSING OF THE PRIVATE RENTED SECTOR IN WESTON SUPER MARE
This actually hurts to type, but this is what that decision report says:
“It was felt the introduction of a Selective Licensing Scheme…was the best way to achieve the overall objective of improving the poor quality housing… [but] The landlords have formed a local group to campaign against the scheme and we understand they have raised the funds needed to launch a legal challenge to the scheme”DECISION NO: P&C 23
So the landlords stamped their feet and got their way.
What’s the difference between the schemes?
‘Action Area’ Scheme
This is the ‘action area’scheme North Somerset Council have now chosen.
- All private landlords in Central and Hillside are sent a letter containing a checklist of hazards that must not be present in their properties.
- They are encouraged to join the voluntary NCLE accreditation scheme.
- Landlords who do not join the accreditation scheme will be inspected over the next 5 years (priority will be based on complaints received).
- Landlords that join the scheme go to the ‘back of the queue’.
- Upon inspection, if hazards are found the council will take action including serving improvement notices (if it’s a category 1 hazard), financial penalties and if necessary prosecution.
- Landlords will be charged for the inspection if hazards are found.
Mandatory selective licensing
This is the scheme Weston Labour and Acorn campaigned for.
The most obvious benefit of this scheme is that all private landlords in Central and Hillside would be inspected – meaning no landlord can sneak to the ‘back of the queue’.
Most importantly, selective licensing offers the most protection of tenants.
Voluntary accreditation puts tenants at risk
The ‘action area’ scheme prioritises inspections based on complaint data and therefore relies on complaints either from the tenant or someone else visiting their home.
Complaints are a risk for tenants – they literally risk losing their home if a landlord decides to evict rather than repair. This is known as a retaliatory eviction. This risk is real. Citizen’s Advice reported last year that
“Tenants who made a formal complaint to either their local authority or to a redress scheme had a 46% chance of being issued with a section 21 eviction notice within 6 months of doing so.”Touch and go: how to protect private renters from retaliatory eviction in England
Selective licensing scheme inspections do not rely on complaints being received. All landlords in the designated area are inspected. This removes the risk from the tenant. It shifts the balance of power towards the tenant and away from the landlord.
Are tenants protected?
I am not convinced that the ‘action area’ approach will adequately protect tenants, and I have voiced my concern to council officers. The Private Rented Sector team at North Somerset Council claim that tenants are protected in two ways.
- A rogue landlord form has been created so that tenants, and other people who visit homes, can anonymously complain.
- Inspections of private rented properties in a particular road will be carried out, rather than at individual properties – so that an individual’s complaints will be in effect ‘concealed’.
I’m not sure landlords are that daft.
And if they’re not, the risk of a retaliatory eviction remains. Tenants are only protected from this if a category 1 hazard is found and an improvement notice is issued by the housing team. If a lower level 2 or 3 category hazard is found, there is no legal protection from a retaliatory eviction.
How many improvements will there be?
The ‘action area’ scheme launches in April 2019, so we don’t yet have figures available to assess how many hazards are found or how many improvements made. I’ll leave these figures here for when we do.
Where mandatory licensing has been introduced in other areas:
- 69-84% of properties in licensed areas needed works to be done to bring the properties up to a decent standard. (Source)
North Somerset Council improvement in housing conditions
I hope I’m wrong
I will be keeping a very close eye on this scheme. I remain to be convinced that the ‘action area’ approach will protect tenants, or improve enough properties quickly enough. Local renters deserve better.