Guest blog: Local authorities should be given the freedom to raise housing standards

Poor conditions are putting renters at risk. Nearly one million renters have had their health affected by their landlord failing to make repairs or deal with poor conditions such as mould, damp, or electrical hazards.

At the same time, the number of families relying on the private rented sector has risen sharply. In the last 10 years the proportion of families with children renting has grown by 69 per cent. Understanding how we can improve conditions in the sector is therefore crucial.

Last month the Local Government Information Unit and the Electrical Safety Council published an important report that seeks to address this issue. The report makes a number of interesting recommendations. It also details particularly insightful front-line experiences from the wide range of councils that were surveyed.

LGiU Policy Researcher, Andrew Walker, outlines its findings below.

3.6 million households currently live in the private rented sector in England according to the 2011 census. This is almost double the number a decade earlier. At the same time 35% of Private Rented Sector housing fails to meet the Decent Homes Standard, which sets a minimum level for quality. In a report published last week the LGiU and the Electric Safety Council argued that local authorities have an important role ensuring that good standards are met, yet there are obstacles that get in the way.

We surveyed 178 English councils and found overwhelming agreement that local authorities have an important role to play in the PRS. 80% said that they expected this role to increase in the future, though there was concern that they do not currently have the capacity.

There are some straightforward, practical policy changes that would enable councils to take a more active approach. Under restrictions in the 2004 Housing Act local authorities are unable to license private landlords unless there is anti-social behaviour or a problem with low demand. Amendments to the Act would give them the freedom to regulate the sector and maintain standards in the local area.

Often councils lack sufficient knowledge of the PRS in their jurisdiction. If they were given access to the relevant data such as the land registry or national tenancy deposit protection schemes, they could build an accurate picture of their housing stock. Furthermore, a sector-wide organisation could provide guidance and share best practice, enhancing the capacity of local authorities and building their confidence to take the lead.

The LGiU are not alone in calling attention to this part of the housing sector. Shelter has been vocal on the issue, and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee has called for simplified legislation and regulation of letting agents. The Labour Party has also published a policy review, which includes consideration of a national register for landlords and a national PRS standard. And the Government’s work on rogue landlords is an important first step.

The situation varies from location to location, however, and it does not follow that every local authority should take the same course of action. They should be flexible and responsive to local conditions.

Some councils might decide to license all private landlords, as the London Borough of Newham has done. Others, like Southend-on-Sea, might take a more collaborative approach and engage with landlords. Schemes like Liverpool City Council’s Ten Point Pledge, or the London Rental Standard, are also interesting as non-statutory models, which provide a mark of approval once certain standards are met. Others still might emphasise working with residents’ organisations to ensure that they are informed and provide another layer of regulation.

Having a good standard of housing is essential for our wellbeing. If they are to ensure good standards local authorities need to be given the freedom and the capacity to take action.