When a landlord tries to get a licence so they can rent their home out, they have to confirm that no one will die from a preventable gas leak. On that basis, you might think licencing is a necessary safeguard for all 1.5 million renters in London. Not so. Government policy says anyone running a dog kennel needs a licence – but not necessarily anyone renting a home to a family.
When 1 in 6 private renters in England live in a home containing a hazard, it’s curious that last week, Redbridge Council, an area with a high number of private renters, failed to convince the Secretary of State that they should be allowed to require all landlords to have a license. The rules were changed last year so that councils have to get the government’s permission to do this. It now seems that permission won’t be granted lightly. Enfield also recently withdrew its plans for licencing following a legal challenge. No doubt other councils will now be deterred from trying.
The whole system is in fact something of a mess, as there are at least three different systems of landlord licensing in operation in London alone. To understand this, we have to look at the history. In the nineties, poor conditions were associated with large rented properties. To tackle this, the government introduced compulsory licencing for large, three-storey plus properties containing multiple households (called ‘houses in multiple occupation’ or HMOs). Twenty London boroughs now have no more than this minimum compulsory level of licencing.
At the same time, local councils were also given the power to introduce two further types of licencing if they met specific conditions. Eleven boroughs have taken advantage of this and introduced either or both ‘additional licencing’ for large rented properties which fall outside the remit of compulsory licencing, and ‘selective licencing’ to tackle problems with anti-social behaviour or poor conditions among rented properties in precise geographical areas.
Two councils have exercised their discretionary powers and introduced borough-wide licencing, meaning every landlord has to be licenced (with some very limited exceptions).
This three-tier system of licencing has created a patchwork quilt of uneven protection for renters, with landlords left to work out what their responsibilities are from property to property, borough to borough. In some boroughs, landlords face a fine of up to £20,000 if they get it wrong. The system is both unattractive and confusing, and now it seems even councils are a bit lost. It’s hard to keep up: Future of London produced a useful map of licencing schemes in London last summer, but things have already moved on.
Snapshot of licencing schemes in London, January 2016
The news about Redbridge suggests other councils may not be able to follow Newham and Barking’s lead. It seems that there could be a view in government that outer London boroughs don’t need full borough licencing – but if so, that needs interrogating. We know the private rented sector is growing rapidly in those precise areas, and poor conditions are now found in rented homes of all shapes and sizes.
If central and local government are struggling to make licencing work for London, it’s time we looked to the Mayor to make London’s renters safe. We know that licencing can make a difference. Our survey of private landlords, indicates that landlords surveyed who were licensed or a member of a trade body were more likely to be following the law and good practice on safety, and less likely to be struggling with repairs.
There are now pleasing signs from government that they recognise that licencing can drive up the quality of rented accommodation. However, current government plans fall short of full licencing. Many London renters will continue to languish in licence-free deserts.
Opponents to licencing argue that landlords can be encouraged to voluntarily vouch for the quality of the homes they provide, through for example, joining an accreditation scheme. The sad fact is that very few landlords join voluntary schemes, as the underwhelming take-up of the Mayor’s London Rental Standard has shown.
That’s why we need the next Mayor to show real leadership by campaigning for full, coherent licensing for the whole of London. Even without the power to introduce London wide licencing, the Mayor could work with London boroughs to make the existing licencing system work far better for London’s renters and landlords.
Parity between London’s renters and dogs shouldn’t be too much to ask.