Poppy Terry
Poppy Terry

By Poppy Terry

Witness the Fitness: Shelter backs new and improved ‘Fitness for Human Habitation’ Bill

On 19 January 2018, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Private Members Bill will have its Second Reading in Parliament. At Shelter we support this Bill and will be campaigning to get it passed. You may wonder why I’m telling you this now, almost two months ahead of schedule. But the history of this Bill tells us that we need to get moving now if we have any hopes of seeing it passed.

The Bill revives a clause which already exists in an old piece of legislation, requiring homes to be ‘fit for human habitation’ at the start of the tenancy and to remain so throughout. Extraordinarily, this is a not a protection currently enjoyed by any renter – social or private – in England. Although landlords have responsibilities to do repairs, there are some glaring omissions – including, for example, damp and mould caused by the structure of the building.

Crucially, the Bill empowers tenants by giving them the right to take their landlord to court if they fail to take action to resolve a problem. This is particularly important for social tenants, who currently have no truly effective means of redress over poor conditions.

Why we need this Bill

Too many renters are living in unsafe conditions. There are currently around one million rented homes with hazards that pose a serious risk to health and safety. This affects over 2.5 million people. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower provided the starkest reminder of the dangers of unsafe accommodation. It demonstrated the terrible consequences of letting these problems go unaddressed. Urgent action is needed to ensure that something similar isn’t allowed to happen again.

Rental conditions are so poor because renters’ concerns about their safety are too often ignored, their rights too easily neglected. Without a meaningful way of compelling landlords to take action on dangerous conditions, renters will continue to be put at risk.

This is precisely why we are calling on the government to adopt the ‘Fitness’ Bill as part of a cross-party, national response to the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Some things are too important for party politics and this is surely one. The Bill was introduced by a Labour MP and already has a Conservative MP sponsor – we hope that many, many more MPs of all political stripes will follow suit.

Hang on, haven’t I heard about this before?

Indeed, this isn’t the first time that ‘fitness’ has been on the political agenda. A version of the Bill was first introduced by Karen Buck in 2015. Unfortunately, it went the way of so many private members’ bills and was ‘talked out’. A version of the Bill was also proposed as an amendment to the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and was voted down by the government.

How things have changed this time round

Although the central aim of the Bill – to make rented homes ‘fit for human habitation’ – hasn’t  changed, the scope and remit of it has been updated and extended. Specifically, the Bill now applies to all areas of a building ‘in which the landlord has an interest’. This covers communal areas, such as stairwells, and ensures that the issues being raised by Grenfell Tower residents, such as fire alarms, sprinklers and gas pipes, would have been covered.

The categories that determine whether a house is ‘fit for human habitation’ have also been modernised. The Bill now reflects the list of 29 hazards from the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, created in 2004 for use by Local Authorities to enforce conditions standards in the private rented sector. By importing this list from the 2004 Act, the Bill avoids creating two parallel standards for conditions and doesn’t introduce new regulations on private landlords, as these are standards they should already be meeting. Indeed, the Bill has already garnered support from the Residential Landlord’s Association and the National Landlords Association.

Importantly, we are also operating in a very different context. The fire at Grenfell Tower has shone a light on the problems facing social tenants and has placed the issues of poor quality housing, tenant safety and the neglect of low-income renters on the public agenda. We live in a different world now. A world where, as the members of the Grenfell Action Group chillingly warned, it took a catastrophe for society to stop and pay attention.

What happens now

The Second Reading of the Private Member’s Bill is on Friday 19 January 2018 and it’s a big hurdle that the Bill must clear if it has any chance of success. It is crucial that we get 100 MPs to attend – if we don’t, the Bill could very easily be defeated by a handful of individual MPs. It’s a very high bar, made even harder by the fact that MPs go back to their constituencies on Fridays to meet constituents. They need a very good reason to stay, and we need to show them this Bill is one of them.

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