Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Fifth Report

5 The private sector

The applicability of the target in the private sector

192. The scope of the decent Homes target in the private sector differs from the social sector in two crucial ways. In the private sector, the Decent Homes target applies only to dwellings occupied by vulnerable households, be they rented or owner-occupied. A household is defined as vulnerable if its members are in receipt of certain means tested or disability related benefits or tax credits.[174] A second key difference from the social sector is the fact that the Decent Homes target in the private sector is set at only 70% compliance by 2010,[175] as opposed to 100% in the public sector.

193. The reasoning for limiting the scope of the Decent Homes target in the private sector appears to be a pragmatic evaluation of the scale of the problem, the cost of rectifying it, as well as the view that fundamentally, owners of private property are themselves responsible for its maintenance. When questioned on this issue, ODPM officials told us that:

"The level of non decent homes in the private sector is very large. A total of five million homes are non decent in the private sector. We are focusing on a narrow target of the one million most vulnerable households. Over time we want to make progress, but we think that vulnerable households will change and they might appear in non decent homes. It will only be possible to get to 100 per cent decent homes if we deal with the whole five million non decent homes in the private sector. That is an enormous target and we have to be realistic about the progress we can make because of the cost of this."[176]

194. In other words, the large number of non-Decent homes in the private sector and the cost associated with bringing all of them up to the Decent Homes standard dictates the need to limit the target so as to concentrate only on vulnerable households. The focus on vulnerable households in turn necessitates a target of less than 100% compliance because the population of vulnerable households constantly changes, and people move in and out of non-Decent homes.

195. The number of non-Decent Homes in the private sector stood at nearly 5.2 million dwellings in the 2001 English House Condition Survey. Of these, 1.16 million were occupied by vulnerable households. Figure 5 below shows the proportions of vulnerable and non-vulnerable households in the social and private sectors who lived in homes failing on the four Decent Homes criteria in 2001. With an overall failure rate of 49%, the privately rented sector has the worst record of any tenure. The figure illustrates how vulnerable households in private accommodation (rented or owner-occupied) are far more likely to live in non-decent homes than any type of household in the social sector or non-vulnerable households in privately owned accommodation. Privately rented dwellings occupied by vulnerable households are far more likely to fail the standard on both fitness, disrepair, and thermal comfort than other tenures. The levels of failure on the four Decent Homes criteria is not fundamentally different for the owner occupied sector than it is for registered Social Landlords, with Local Authority stock being somewhat worse. Figure 5: Vulnerable and other households living in non-Decent Homes

SOURCE: The English House Condition Survey 2001, Table A4.28

196. Many of our witnesses were opposed to the limitation of the target to cover only vulnerable households in the private sector, albeit on a number of different grounds. One reason for opposing the limited applicability of the target in the private sector arises from the notion that every tenant should have a statutory right to a Decent Home. Mel Cairns, an independent Environmental Health Consultant and Chairman of the Health & Housing argued that:

"tenants themselves should be provided with a right to decent conditions in their rented property. […] As long ago as 1996 The Law Commission recommended that this implied term 'fitness at the time of letting' should be re-enacted. Many in this field would support that proposition. This would give force to much of that the DHS seeks to achieve by putting a duty on landlords which can be legally enforceable. Since this implied term would apply to all tenancies it would therefore also result in making improvements in the private sector stock."[177]

197. The Committee believes that every household has a right to a Decent Home. The Government should set a longer term target for bringing all homes up to the Decent Homes standard, say by 2015. The Government should consider carefully how to provide both funding incentives and statutory enforcement vehicles in order to achieve such a target in the private sector.

198. Other witnesses questioned the operational efficacy of having to establish where vulnerable families live. Crawley Borough Council questioned how it would be possible for local authorities to "achieve an adequate sample" for assessing the level of compliance with the target in the private sector, given that properties will move in and out of the target group, and that households may also move in and out of the 'vulnerable' category. For reasons of data protection, Local Authorities are unable to cross-reference data about individual households with data on individual dwellings. Consequently, it cannot be established accurately which households come under the target, and which do not. As Crawley Borough Council puts it, it is doubtful how a "meaningful link can be made between the number of non-decent dwellings and the number of vulnerable households."[178] The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) makes a similar point, arguing that because stock-condition surveys are anonymous, Councils may have to engage in a resource intensive processes in order to match vulnerable households with properties.[179]

199. The Committee sees little sense in limiting the target only to a proportion of dwellings inhabited by vulnerable households. Making such distinctions is likely to waste resources in monitoring, and also to render monitoring and enforcement inaccurate and ineffective. Instead, the Decent Homes target should be applied to all dwellings in the private sector as well as the social sector.

200. Some Local Authorities and Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) also felt strongly that the Decent Homes standard should apply to all dwellings, be they owner-occupied or privately let, because of the negative impact on neighbourhoods of clusters of non-decent privately owned dwellings. Their point is that such clusters can hamper the efforts of RSLs and Local Authorities to regenerate neighbourhoods and estates. Riverside Housing Group, for example, argued in their memorandum that:

"there is absolutely no reason why the decency standard should not also apply to private rented dwellings and owner occupiers in the same neighbourhoods where we work and our tenants have their homes. […] the volume of poor standard homes owned by others in the areas where we work significantly affects our ability to mange our own stock."[180]

The private rented sector

201. In the private rented sector, applying the target only to vulnerable households may lead to a reluctance among private landlords to let to vulnerable households. As Crawley Borough Council wrote to us:

"An obvious way to reduce the number of vulnerable people in non-decent homes would be to encourage them to move and a non-vulnerable household to occupy in their place. […] landlords may become reluctant to let to "vulnerable" households if this attracts even informal action from the local authority. This would be a worrying situation as it could lead to marginalised households being further excluded from the housing market."[181]

202. Consequently, we consider that the limitation of the target to vulnerable households is likely to disadvantage such families even further, especially in areas of high demand.

The owner-occupied sector

203. In the owner-occupied sector, properties often end up falling below the Decent Homes standard because owners are cash poor, even if equity-rich. Elderly owner-occupiers in particular, often come into this category. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health explained that the only way in which this group:

"can be encouraged to make the necessary improvements to update their bathroom facilities would be by incentives through different forms of grants. The Regulatory Reform Order that came out recently had given local authorities far more flexibility in offering financial assistance, but the problem is that in many local authority areas that assistance is not being given, the local authorities are exercising their prerogative to decide on where the money should be spent and that is an entirely reasonable concept, but with the scarcity of resources money is not being made available in the private sector in many cases and if equity release is to work then it has to be used in such a way that there are directives for people to improve the aspects of their properties that need improving."

204. This problem is clearly particularly acute in areas of low demand where the low values of properties may make it impossible for the owner to get a mortgage on the property

205. The Government should ensure that equity release mechanisms and / or financial assistance be made available to owner-occupiers whose homes do not meet the Decent Homes standard, helping them to finance the undertaking of vital repairs and improvements in order to bring their home up to the Decent Homes standard. Financial assistance and advice should be targeted particularly at areas where low property values make it difficult or impossible for owners to take out a mortgage in order to make repairs.


206. The Committee received many representations to the effect that much better means of enforcement are required if the Decent Homes target is going to have any real meaning in the privately rented sector. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) explained to us that in the private sector, only one of the four criteria making up the Decent Homes standard, namely the fitness standard, later to be the HHSRS, can actually be enforced:

"there is no enforcement mechanism for achieving the decent homes standard at the level of the individual dwelling - the minimum housing standard is one of four components of the standard. For the standard to be attained, there should be a mechanism for requiring the achievement of the other elements, such as a compulsory improvement notice."[182]

Crawley Borough Council reinforced this point:

"the Decent Homes standard is not a statutory standard and is not enforceable in the same way that the current fitness standard is. Where finance is not forthcoming, or an owner occupier or landlord sees no reason to modernise adequate fittings which fail decent homes standards, there is little a local authority can do to change the situation."[183]

207. The Committee recommends that Local Authorities be granted powers of enforcement vis-à-vis private landlords, as well as funding sufficient to carry out such enforcement.

208. Another crucial point in relation to enforcement was made by Mel Cairns who argued that the most effective way of achieving the Decent Homes standard in the privately rented sector would be to introduce a statutory right for tenants to a Decent Home, giving tenants the possibility of pursuing failing landlords in court. Quite apart from the equity of the notion that tenants should have a statutory right to a Decent Home, an added advantage of this option is that it would not imply the provision of public subsidy for private sector housing, and it would also avoid the situation where Local Authorities bear the sole burden of enforcement in the privately rented sector.[184]

209. Mel Cairns drew our attention to a very similar argument which was made by the Law Commission in its 1996 report "Landlord and Tenant: Responsibility for State and Condition of Property", where it was argued that the enforcement regime for the fitness standard (currently one component of the Decent Homes Standard) should be altered so as to provide a civil law as well as the existing public law obligation on landlords to maintain rented properties in a state fit for human habitation. In other words, the Commission believed that the current public law provision whereby enforcement powers against landlords failing on the fitness criterion rest with Local Authorities is inadequate The Commission stated that:

"The premise on which our proposals for reform rest is that tenants of residential properties held under short term leases[185] should have civil remedies against their landlords if those properties are not fit for human habitation."[186]

The Law Commission explained that the anomalies in the current legal framework would not be a cause for concern:

"…if alternative remedies existed in public law to provide both a means of compensation and of compelling the landlord to carry out the necessary works. But public law remedies are not intended for the vindication of individual rights. […] Civil and public law remedies should operate in parallel to achieve their different, if at times overlapping, objectives."[187]

210. Referring to these Law Commission proposals, Mel Cairns told us that:

"Many in this field would support that proposition. This would give force to much of what the DHS [Decent Homes Standard] seeks to achieve by putting a duty on landlords which can be legally enforceable. Since this implied term would apply to all tenancies it would therefore also result in making improvements in the private sector stock."[188]

211. We urge the Government to implement, as soon as possible, and within a timeframe to facilitate our recommendation in paragraph 196 above, the Law Commission's recommendation, made seven years ago, for the creation of a statutory right for tenants to a home complying with specified minimum standards. Given that the fitness standard is soon to be replaced by the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (HHSRS), we believe the Government should opt for making the full Decent Homes Standard a statutory right for tenants, enforceable by them through the courts.


212. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) raised an important point about the Government's prioritisation of the Decent Homes target in the private sector as opposed to the public sector, and the apparent lack of commitment to the Decent Homes standard in the private sector when it comes to funding and enforcement. The CIEH argued that there has not been an adequate appraisal and prioritisation of the needs of the two sectors, and that a more realistic assessment of what can be achieved with the available funding is badly needed. They pointed out that

"…in many areas of the country, the condition of the public stock is significantly better than the private stock in terms of repair, unfitness and decent homes. There seems to be an almost unspoken assumption that the public sector requires and deserves more resources than the private sector and this has been reflected in grant allocations over the last few years."[189]

When giving oral evidence to the Committee, the CIEH added:

"the amount of resources and attention and effort that is given to the social sector, which comprises less than a quarter of the total housing stock, is out of all proportion to the needs of the private sector."[190]

213. Indeed, from the ODPM's memorandum to our inquiry, it would appear that the only dedicated funding available for the Decent Homes Policy in the private sector is an amount from the Sustainable Communities Plan:

"an extra £30 million would be available in both 2004/5 and 2005/6 to help authorities support new ways to fund repairs and improvements to the homes of vulnerable households. This will be allocated on the advice of the newly established Regional Housing Boards within the single capital pot, with an indication that it should be spent on private sector renewal"[191]

In other words, the only source of funding solely dedicated to dealing with the 1.16 million non-Decent Homes in the private sector inhabited by vulnerable families is a mere £30 million per annum: less than £26 per vulnerable household per year.

214. The Committee agrees with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health that there is an urgent need to re-evaluate the priority given to Decent Homes in the private sector. We urge the Government to make both statutory changes to tenancy legislation, and to the enforceability of the target in the private sector, and to provide sufficient and targeted funding for the standard to be effectively enforced in the private sector.

174   DEC01, para. 2.7, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Back

175   I.e. 70% of dwellings occupied by vulnerable households. Back

176   Q118, Jeff Hollingworth, ODPM. Back

177   DEC56, para 2.08. Mr M Cairns. Back

178   DEC10 para. 7, Crawley Borough Council. Back

179   DEC37, para. 13, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Back

180   DEC57, paras 2.2 and 3.1, Riverside Group. Back

181   DEC10, paras. 6 & 11, Crawley Borough Council. Back

182   DEC37, para. 2. Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Back

183   DEC10, para. 10, Crawley Borough Council. Back

184   DEC56, para 2.08. Mr M. Cairns. Back

185   A short Lease is defined as being less than seven years. Back

186   The Law Commission, Law Com No. 238, 1996: Landlord and Tenant: Responsibility for State and Condition of Property. Para 8.10. Back

187   The Law Commission, Law Com No. 238, 1996: Landlord and Tenant: Responsibility for State and Condition of Property. Para 8.12. Back

188   DEC56, para 2.08. Mr M. Cairns. Back

189   DEC37, para. 7, Chartered institute of Environmental health. Back

190   Q37, Sarah Webb, Chartered Institute of Housing. Back

191   DEC01, para. 6.2, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Back

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