Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Birmingham City Council

1.0 The quality of private rented housing, and steps that can be taken to ensure that all housing in the sector is of an acceptable standard

1.1 It is recommended that a full review of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System is undertaken.

The current system was introduced with the Housing Act 2004, and has not been subject to review since it’s’ introduction. It is felt to be subjective, burdensome, over-complex, and difficult to enforce. In addition, the statistical evidence is out-of-date. The system does not allow officers to address many of the issues that are of concern to tenants, leading to dissatisfaction amongst tenants.

1.2 It is recommended that the Government introduce common, enforceable, standards in housing.

These standards should incorporate the guidance issued by Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services on fire safety and overcrowding. It should also allow Local Authorities to enforce the Decent Homes Standard, and address minimum standards for kitchen and bathroom amenities.

1.3 It is recommended that all properties that are let, or are available for letting, are registered with the Local Authority.

This should be a simple registration scheme, allowing the Local Authority to secure essential information about each property, relating to ownership, the letting agent or manager, and any other interested parties (such as mortgage companies). It should require a plan of the property, which will allow the maximum number of occupants to be determined. This will allow the Local Authority to be able to effectively respond to problems relating to any rented property within their area. Such a measure would deliver savings in time currently spent on researching ownership and complex letting arrangements. It would also provide a secure database to support engagement with the sector.

1.4 The Government should provide financial incentives to compliant landlords

This may be through initiatives such as Green Deal, loans or grants to bring properties up to improved standards, or for passive energy-generation systems.

2.0 The levels of rent within the private rented sector—including the possibility of rent control and the interaction between housing benefit and rents

2.1 This will be difficult to introduce due to the current high demand for accommodation. It may be alleviated by encouraging mortgage providers to increase the funds available for people to buy their own property.

2.2 It is recommended that Government create a link between the provision of benefit for housing and the minimum standards required in rented accommodation.

This will ensure that benefit is only paid when the landlord and the property are registered with the Local Authority. Benefit should only be paid when the property meets the minimum acceptable housing standard.

2.3 Review the methodology used for setting LHA rates.

Our analysis of market rents suggests that only c16% of the private rented sector is available to residents in receipt of LHA. LHA should represent 30% of the market.

3.0 The regulation of landlords, and steps that can be taken to deal with rogue landlords

3.1 It is recommended that all landlords should be registered with the Local Authority.

This should be a simple registration scheme, allowing the Local Authority to secure essential information about each landlord, and their manager or agent. It should incorporate the requirement for photo identification, a “fit and proper person” test, a basic Disclosure and Barring Service check, and a list of all the rented properties owned or managed by that person, company or organisation. This will enable the Local Authority to know who to contact regarding problems regarding any rented property within their area.

3.2 It is suggested that Government should introduce an offence of retaliatory eviction.

Landlords often serve Notice to Quit upon tenants who complain about poor housing conditions. This would prevent eviction by unscrupulous landlords or agents, and encourage tenants to seek help from the Local Authority for poor housing conditions.

There are regular examples of landlords responding to complaints of disrepair and rent increases by way of serving a Section 21 notice to end the tenancy. The Section 21 “no fault” ground as it currently stands deters tenants from complaining about poor conditions. The availability of retaliatory eviction therefore encourages unscrupulous landlords to seek out the most vulnerable who are far less likely to complain about poor conditions and standards of management. Serious consideration needs to be given as to how tenants making genuine complaints can be given the opportunity to raise retaliatory eviction as a defence to Section 21 proceedings.

3.3 The Government should introduce a national register of prosecutions.

Tenants should be able to easily see whether their prospective landlord has been prosecuted for any housing–related offence, such as harassment, violence or contravention of housing legislation.

3.4 It is recommended that the Government streamline the enforcement process.

This will make the process faster, and easier, for a Local Authority to serve notice upon non-compliant landlords, and to speedily relieve poor housing conditions.

3.5 The Government should make it easier for tenants to reclaim rental income as an element of any Proceeds of Crime Act claim.

The prosecution of landlords should be linked to financial penalties for tenants who have suffered from the actions of unscrupulous landlords, managers and agent.

4.0 The regulation of letting agents, including agents’ fees and charges

4.1 It is recommended that all agents are registered with the Local Authority.

This should be a simple (light touch) registration scheme, allowing the Local Authority to secure essential information about each manager or agent. It should incorporate the requirement for photo identification, a “fit and proper person” test, a basic Disclosure and Barring Service check, and a list of all the rented properties managed by that person, company or organisation. This will enable the Local Authority to know who to contact regarding problems regarding any rented property within their area. Agents who are shown to incapable or unwilling to work within the law should be debarred from operating.

4.2 It is recommended that there is regulation of all letting agents.

Landlords and tenants regularly express concern about the activity of unscrupulous agents. They should not be allowed to charge tenants for any service relating to a tenancy—these charges should be paid by the owner or landlord. This will stop agents serving Notice to Quit to end a tenancy simply in order to re-let a property in order to charge additional fees for arranging a new tenancy. Agents should also be required to demonstrate professional competence, and be required to join a professional body.

4.3 There should be maximum fees that a letting agents can charge and agents should have to openly display their charges.

4.4 The Government should introduce a national register of prosecutions.

Tenants should be able to easily see whether their prospective agent has been prosecuted for any housing–related offence, such as harassment, violence or contravention of housing legislation.

5.0 The regulation of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), including the operation of discretionary licensing schemes imposed by a local authority for a category of HMO in its area

5.1 It is recommended that the Government Introduce a universal HMO licence fee and licence period.

This would remove the variety of fees currently being charged, and enable landlords to know how much any licence would cost and a consistent approach to delivery. However, sanctions should be introduced where a landlord has deliberately tried to avoid licensing a property or properties.

5.2 It is recommended that all landlords and agents to be registered (see above) with the Local Authority.

See 1.3 above. An effective registration scheme could in practice negate the need for burdensome licensing regimes and enable authorities to focus on non compliant landlords.

5.3 The Government should introduce greater clarity on the definition of a House in Multiple Occupation.

It is noted that the definition of a HMO varies considerably between Housing Law and Planning Law, and there should be a universal definition. All agencies should then adhere to the common standards for HMOs (see above).

5.4 It is recommended that any licensing scheme is based upon the number of bed spaces available, rather than on the proposed number of occupants.

Licensing should be based upon the number of bed spaces provided within the property. This would ensure that a property should be licensed if there is bed space for five or more persons, regardless of the actual occupation level. This requires common space and amenity standards (see above).

5.5 The Government should provide guidance to the courts to allow them accept evidence from Authorised Officers.

The courts currently place too much reliance upon the evidence from tenants, who are often either unwilling to attend court, or who have moved from unsuitable accommodation. This increases the difficulty in proving that an offence has taken place.

6.0 Tenancy agreements and length and security of tenure

6.1 The Government should make it a duty for the Local Authority to prepare a strategy, and provide a service, to enforce the Protection from Eviction Act.

This will secure the future of good tenants and prevent unscrupulous landlords from evicting tenants without good cause. Evictions should only be considered where there is a gross breach of the tenancy agreement.

This will ensure that local authorities effectively use their powers to deal with unlawful eviction and harassment. Unlawful eviction and harassment are at the very worst end of the scale of bad experience that a private tenant can have. Lack of encouragement from central government over a period of 20 years or so has led to a tendency for local authorities to reduce the importance of investigation and enforcement of these criminal offences. Effective and consistent enforcement of powers under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 is a strong deterrent and will lead to a better managed private rented sector. It should also reduce the number of homeless applications.

6.2 The Government should introduce legislation in support of longer-term tenancies.

This would make the sector a more attractive offer to tenants and would assist in the discharge homeless duty. It is understood that it works well in other European countries, and would encourage settled communities.

7.0 How local authorities are discharging their homelessness duty by being able to place homeless households in private sector housing

7.1 The City Council is investigating an option to commission a Social Letting Agency to secure properties to assist in the delivery of these provisions.

January 2013

Prepared 16th July 2013