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Why Britain needs the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill

The Citizens Advice Bureau estimates that around 740,000 families in the English private rented sector are living in homes that present a severe threat to their health. 

Harry Blain
21 October 2015
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Oliver Huitson. All rights reserved.

Sometimes real headlines look like jokes. Jon Stone’s piece for the Independent on October 16 provided a good example: “Landlord Tory MP Philip Davies says law requiring homes be fit for human habitation is an unnecessary burden.” Yet the headline was basically just a blunt factual statement: Davies is also a tenant, but is showing major concern over the fact that “[w]e’ve had lots and lots of legislation that affects landlords”, complaining particularly over the sense that “landlords appear to be an easy target for the Left in this country.”

He continues:

“The overwhelming majority of landlords, and I will put myself in this category, want to do the right thing and wouldn’t ever dream of renting out a property that isn’t in a fit state to be rented out and want to comply with every regulation that’s introduced.”

In other words, don’t demonise landlords in a frenzy of misguided populism. Yes, you’ll see some outrageous stories in the London Evening Standard – a landlord “renting a flat which tenants could only access by crawling on their hands and knees”, or a “beds in sheds” scandal – but don’t punish the majority for the abuses of a minority.

“It’s shocking”

But how many people are actually living in these conditions?  

On October 14, the housing charity Shelter gave us an idea. Commissioning a YouGov poll, they found 34 per cent of private renters reporting property with damp or mould; 10 per cent reporting electrical hazards; and about one in ten (70 000) households reporting infestations of vermin or cockroaches in the past year.

Back in May, the Citizens Advice Bureau also published research arguing that landlords were taking in £5.6bn in rent on homes that “don’t meet legal standards”, with around 740,000 families in the English private rented sector living in homes that present a severe threat to their health. That’s 16 per cent of privately rented housing – minority, yes, but a sizeable one.

If the numbers are scary, the human stories are worse. Take, for example, Leslie’s, published on Shelter’s website:

"When I found this flat, the landlady told me it had been newly decorated and refurbished, and I took her at her word, it did look lovely. But of course when you first go to see a property, it’s hard to detect underlying problems. I moved in with my baby son. I had virtually no furniture to begin with so we were sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a while, and the first thing I noticed was that the whole flat was infested with fleas. My four-month-old son was absolutely covered in flea bites. I had to pay out of my own money for the exterminator to come, although the landlady did eventually agree to refund me the money a few months later."

She goes on to describe mould, no hot water or heating for six months – and the fact that she had to fix most of the flat’s problems herself because the landlady didn’t respond to her requests.

No wonder Shelter’s chief executive asked us to “imagine trying to raise a child in a home crawling with vermin or falling apart at the seams, with a rogue landlord who refuses to fix it and nowhere else to go because of there’s nothing else you can afford.”

Beyond this is the constant problem of overcrowding. Newham, for example, in East London, has seen this on a worrying scale: with both the local council and the Office of National Statistics suggesting that close to half of private rented homes are overcrowded.

Newham has made progress in cracking down on abuses – introducing a licensing scheme for private landlords – but it shouldn’t take a story of 26 people in a three-bedroom property to make this a national issue.

Not just “an easy target for the left”

The chutzpah of Philip Davies, MP, to come out swinging against the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill – in light of the evidence repeatedly presented by the likes of Shelter and the CAB – is quite amazing. Maybe he thinks that 740 000 families living in literally dangerous conditions can be dismissed as “minority” cases, but he’s also wrong when he frames the issue of abuses in the private rented sector as a preserve of hardened leftists.

We should definitely welcome the fact that the Conservative government knows it can’t hide from the mounting human disaster facing renters. As Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of CAB, put it in the Guardian:

“It is a victory for renters that the government’s housing and planning bill will allow tenants to claim up to a year’s worth of rent refunds from landlords who fail to fix unsafe homes. It is similarly important that councils will be required to create lists of banned landlords. At the heart of this is the need for tough enforcement against landlords who repeatedly break the rules.”

Agreed. Whether we will actually see “tough enforcement” is of course another question. Landlords have faced prosecutions for renting sub-standard homes – but the average fine they face is £1,500. Nonetheless, what we are seeing is that even though a large number of our MPs are actually landlords themselves, they are realising that the language of “most landlords are behaving” is not good enough.

“There has been some surprise”

And that brings us back to the Private Member’s Bill drawing Davies’ complaints. Its author, Labour MP Karen Buck, told parliament that “[t]here has been some surprise since I introduced this bill that homes could be let that were not fit for human habitation, but extraordinarily, this is in the year 2015, the case.” As she points out, there was a law introduced in the 19th Century to ensure that low-rent homes had to meet certain basic standards, but it was last updated in 1957, meaning that it only applies to properties with an annual rent of below £80 in London and £52 elsewhere.

Unless you are the IT graduate able to help a Stratford landlord develop his “web/mobile development skills” (see this bizarre story), these homes obviously don’t exist. So, shocking though it is, in modern Britain we actually need the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill.

“It is very difficult”

We also need much more than this. Legal protections against abuse are vital but, when demand for rented housing outstrips supply so markedly (at least in London and the South-East), tenants are faced with a clear power imbalance.

This means that if the government was serious about addressing the deeper problem they would not be “abolishing demands that developers provide a certain amount of affordable housing to rent in new developments”, in a dubious attempt to create “Generation Buy.”

In the broadest sense, fixing the disastrous rental market would require the government to do what many people expect of it (in theory, at least): provide its citizens with shelter. But I wouldn’t count on this. To quote Mr Davies again: “it is very difficult to keep tabs on all the things that are expected of you.”  

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