Should this be top priority for regulating the private rented sector?

Demands grow for better standards in the private rented sector. The latest, a joint report from the LGiU and the Electrical Safety Council, calls for clearer powers for councils to introduce licensing and recoup the costs.  It follows on from a CLG Select Committee report, the Labour Party’s own policy review and a bill from Graham Jones MP, all calling for stronger enforcement powers.

The drivers for these reports are pretty obvious.  On the one hand, we have the exponential growth of the sector, doubling in size over a decade. Because of policy changes such as allowing councils to discharge their homelessness duties via private lettings, the sector is not only growing but also accommodates more and more vulnerable households.

On the other hand, we have the continuing problem of poor standards in a significant proportion of private lettings.  More than a third of homes fall below the Decent Homes Standard and at least one in five are unsafe, according to the latest English Housing Survey.  Despite a range of standards and regulations applying to the sector, a proportion of landlords fail to comply and staff resources for enforcement action have been hit by spending cuts.  The government announced extra funds for enforcement in July, but the £3m promised won’t go very far.

Yet in its crazed drive to force down net migration, the government is pushing ahead with massive new regulation in the sector which has nothing to do with improving conditions for tenants and indeed could worsen the plight of some of the most vulnerable ones.  In theory, private landlords will soon have to check that all adults moving into a house have the right to live in Britain, a task which is simple if the prospective tenant has a UK passport but which can be mind-bogglingly difficult if their proof is any of a couple of dozen other kinds of document.  Not only is this difficult, but it will have to be carried out by two million landlords making over one million new lettings per year. A consultation on the issue closed in August, and despite the hostile response the government seems determined to push forward.

It is difficult to know which is going to be more demanding: training so many people (nearly three-quarters of whom only manage one property), or ensuring that they actually make the checks.  That the Home Office is about to take this on given its own staffing cuts and with all the other pressures it faces on immigration is astonishing.  As the response to the consultation from the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association says: We do not consider that the Home Office is in a position to take on a challenge of this scale. We urge caution. This project sets the Home Office up to fail. Again.’

Yet the measure is almost certain to be included in the autumn’s immigration bill.  What will be its effects in the sector?  One possibility of course is that it will be widely ignored and poorly enforced.  The government will be able to tell the Daily Mail it’s taking action, and it might be months or years before its failure is exposed. Another though is that it might drive migrant households (or any who don’t have UK passports) further into the hands of those landlords who are least likely to ask questions of new tenants or comply with the required standards for their properties.

Yet a further possibility is that it will encourage discrimination, which will be easy to get away with given that landlords will at the same time be making financial and other checks.  As the Scottish Association of Landlords says in its response: it will lead to discrimination against legitimate tenants whose residency status is in any way unclear or who are unable to obtain the required paperwork’.

The damage could be even worse if the government complies with its own ‘one in. two out’ requirement about new regulations.  The rule, created by the Business Department, means that the Home Office will have to find ways of cutting out two other forms of regulation to allow this one to start.  It is not yet clear how it will do this, although to some extent those dealing with the private rented sector can take comfort from the fact that it is the Home Office that has to meet the rule, not DCLG. They might have offered up existing regulations that affect landlords, thus making the whole thing even more bizarre.

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