Examination of Witness

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:53 pm ar 14 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Dr Henry Dawson gave evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield 3:11, 14 Tachwedd 2023

Good afternoon. We will now hear oral evidence from Henry Dawson from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. For this panel, we have until 3.30 pm. Will you please introduce yourself for the record?

Dr Dawson:

Hi. My name is Dr Henry Dawson. I represent the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you for coming to give evidence. Could I ask you about the decent homes standard? In what is, I must say, a very welcome move—we have been very clear about that—the Government have made it clear that they intend to require private rented homes to meet the decent homes standard, and have committed to bringing forward legislation, in their words, “at the earliest opportunity” to see that enacted.

I suppose I would like to probe what you think the consequences are if that legislation takes some years to deliver. How does the delay bear on the other reforms that this Bill enacts? How might we use the Bill to tie into that other legislative process? How does this Bill need to relate, if at all, to that forthcoming legislative decent homes standard for the PRS?

Dr Dawson:

Thank you for the question. I have a few thoughts with regard to indications we have had that the decent homes standard might be brought in through the Bill. That is something that the CIEH is very keen to see. At the moment, the decent homes standard provides a fairly simple set of criteria, which are measurable, are fairly easy to understand, and provide the opportunity for both tenants and landlords to have some consistent standards to refer to when considering the condition of the property. Not having that in the private rented sector results in an odd disparity: we have social rented accommodation with the highest standards, and conditions have improved considerably through that standard, and then there is private rented accommodation that does not have that standard.

We find it very difficult for the sector to self-regulate and for landlords to organise their own repairs and maintenance schedules, when they very often have to wait for a local authority inspector to visit their property to carry out an inspection under something like the housing health and safety rating system schemes. It is something we can also get some benefit from through the Housing Act 2004 licensing, which allows us to set some of these conditions, and allows us to tailor them by area. However, bringing in a national standard across the sector would be very advantageous and provide a very clear requirement, although the CIEH would like to see some more clarity and would like to be involved in the consultation on the proposed changes to the decent homes standard.

The standard could be implemented in the sector at a later date, after being included in the Bill in order to get it enacted. That would give us a two-step process, and then we could bring the standard in when the amendments had been made and we had the updated standard to work from.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q It would be interesting to know your thoughts on the portal, and on how we can make the most use of it to support councils in taking enforcement measures.

Dr Dawson:

The CIEH is very happy to see the portal introduced. I am based near Wales, and I sit on the advisory panel for Rent Smart Wales on behalf of the CIEH. We have seen the portal brought in, and it has been very effective. It provides a lot of data on where rental properties are, and who their landlords are. Local authorities have quite a hill to climb in trying to find that out independently. It will be a very useful source of information. It is also a good source to look at when collecting certificates on properties.

However, we find that the portal has limited impact with regard to the condition and contents of properties, and management practices. It is an information-gathering tool. It has the potential to be a central information portal that landlords and tenants can refer to—a sort of single source of truth. On very small landlords registering with landlord bodies, 85% of landlords own one to four properties, and we are finding what an author referred to as a cult of amateurism. These landlords have differing levels of expertise, and of knowledge of a complex legislative environment. The portal can be a central reservoir of information for them, with quite a bit of scrutiny behind it.

As I say, we welcome the portal when it comes to providing data on where the properties are and who the landlords are, though the more unscrupulous operators will still try to avoid the register so as to evade their duties. I would not go so far as to say that it will make a significant impact on the condition and contents of properties, or the management practices of landlords in the sector.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Q Can I go back to the decent homes issue? The repair and maintenance of properties is central to the issue of the security of tenants who are seeking to enforce their rights, and who sometimes have landlords act against them. How do you see the decent homes standard being enforced? How do you see the decent homes standard interacting with other overlapping measures and standards in law, and the tools available to environmental health officers?

May I also ask a question about enforcement, which is central to this issue? As we know, the enforcement record is very patchy in local government. In your view, why is that?

Dr Dawson:

With regard to the use of the decent homes standard in the sector, I have found through my personal research on the sector that there is a lot of variation in the licensing conditions and standards set for private landlords in different sub-markets up and down the country. It is only right that local authorities tailor their approach to suit their local market, but there is great need for more consistency between the licensing conditions that they set and what they require in their area.

If we were to bring in the decent homes standard across the sector, licensing standards could be revised to accommodate that new duty and any updates made to the decent homes standard. That would provide a fairly common set of grounds for properties nationally. Then, local authorities need only make small changes to what they require of properties in their area to fit local peculiarities of housing; for example, northern back-to-back houses are something to burden yourself with only if you need to be aware of the issues that they present. You get steel-framed houses in some areas and concrete houses in others. Local authorities need to be able to focus their approach and the standards that they require to fit what they have going on in their area.

We still have the opportunity to use the housing health and safety rating system under the decent homes standard. The updates to the HHSRS will come through fairly shortly; we will welcome their being brought into practice. Use of the HHSRS would remain a common requirement during the inspection of properties, to satisfy the requirement on properties not to have serious hazards.

A whole range of factors influence levels of enforcement in local authorities. At the moment, we have about 2.2 qualified environmental health officers for every 10,000 private rented sector dwellings, so that is already a pretty low rate. Where we have larger authorities and significant political backing, we see more environmental health officers, with better recruitment, better political backing and more funding for those officers, which is key, so you start to see a collection of experience building up and the legal backing behind it. For example, Newham has something like 100 environmental health officers or enforcement staff in its departments, and they can move their way through more than 200 prosecutions in a year. In contrast, a rural authority may have one or two environmental health officers, who must share their duties across all the regulatory functions of environmental health, including food safety, health and safety, environmental protection and public health.

One of the profession’s big problems is ensuring consistency in funding. When funding is renewed annually and you are looking at changes each year, it is very difficult to do succession planning. We have seen a gradual reduction in the number of people coming through university environmental health programmes in order to support the profession and provide a reservoir of expertise for the inspectorate. We are also seeing more of them going off to private sector employers, rather than the public sector.

A range of issues are affecting the sector, and the sustainable and predicable funding such as we get with Housing Act 2004 licensing has been a real lifeline for the sector. Where we have big schemes going, it has managed to keep the nucleus of staff that is required for the expertise and the momentum to move large-scale enforcement forward. My apologies—that was quite a long answer.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q You touched on your experience in Wales. We are aware that there are similar, but not necessarily identical, reforms in Wales. What lessons can we learn from the reforms implemented there?

Dr Dawson:

When Wales first implemented the scheme, about 196 penalty notices were given out in the first couple of years and there were about 13 prosecutions. The main reason, from the Welsh Government’s own analysis, is that they did not set up clear systems and processes for liaison with local authorities ahead of the formation of Rent Smart Wales.

There is a process whereby local authorities are expected to carry out enforcement functions and can then bill Rent Smart Wales, through an agreement—a memorandum of operation—that they have all signed up to. However, because they are trying to account for small amounts in hours and tasks, it is very difficult for local authorities to predict the workload and allocate officer time against it. That has become somewhat of a Cinderella to local authorities’ other duties.

One of the higher impact areas is that, although Rent Smart Wales provides licensing and can therefore enforce conditions, it also has a separate registration function, which is purely information gathering and gives it the ability to send out mailshots to landlords and letting agents about changes to the law and training courses that are available. However, landlords have the opportunity to exempt themselves from those communications, and a very large proportion did so at the point at which they registered. Therefore, they receive no communications and no updates, so they are none the wiser, despite the benefit of having registered and made themselves available to get that information. That was a sad loss, and there is not much you can do about it now.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Can I ask about the proposed property portal? Of course, some of the enforcement must be through local authorities, as you have just been talking about, but earlier we heard about the idea that, by using the property portal, tenants themselves could seek enforcement. The proposal was that, if a landlord has not met certain standards required for registration on the property portal, there would be rent repayment orders, so that the person who has been harmed is the person who benefits. What is your view, first, on the use of a property portal as a repository of all the information and, secondly, on the ability for tenants to take action rather than having to wait for the local authority?

Dr Dawson:

I think we could probably do with the portal as an information repository. That is very welcome. Research shows that a lot of landlords tend to deal with the need for information on a reactive basis, when a situation presents itself. As most of them are not members of recognised landlord bodies, they are using things such as internet portals, chatrooms and blogs to get information on what is required of them. Through local authority licensing, local authorities are getting much better penetration and being brought closer to landlords, and that allows them to provide advice, but landlords in general will tend to use online resources to get information. We would like them to use a single portal that we have quality control over.

The same goes for tenants. At the moment, one of the main reasons for tenants’ not complaining is ignorance of their rights; I am sure that Generation Rent will have raised that in its submissions. If we can point to a single, consistent source of information, that will help the sector to regulate itself. Given that so many landlords are small scale—85% of properties in the sector are owned by landlords with portfolios of one to four properties —providing the opportunity for more self-regulation in the sector would be a big help. Local authorities have limited budgets, and because the regulations are so complex and there is such a range of operators—there is a sort of sliding scale from the good to the poor—a more interventionist approach is required. Using rent repayment orders incentivises tenants to keep an eye on landlords.

Things like the three-month period in which you are unable to re-let a property after you have used grounds 1 and 1A will be exceptionally difficult for a local authority to follow up on. We just do not have the resources to react in that sort of time and proactively go out and visit these properties. Six months to a year would be much more sensible.

On incentivising tenants to take action separately from the local authority, the only thing we would say is that we should be able to give them advice. Under the original rent repayment order clauses, we were prevented from giving advice to tenants on cases. If we are taking action, they will often come to the local authority and ask for information. We have not looked at that as an option. We would certainly be open-minded to it, and we would support anything that helps the sector to regulate itself.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q You suggested two things there. The first was that the period that applies to grounds 1 and 1A should be more than three months—perhaps six months to a year—to enable your enforcement.

Dr Dawson:


Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

The second was that there needs to be some sort of amendment to allow you to give advice to and support tenants through the rent repayment order process.

Dr Dawson:

At the moment, there is nothing that specifically prohibits that in the Bill, and the original legislation has been updated to permit us to provide advice. We are just keen that, in the regulations that will be used to implement many of the changes introduced by the Bill, we do not see anything that interferes with our ability to do that.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

That needs an agreement between you, the portal and the housing ombudsperson.

Dr Dawson:


Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

If there are no further questions from Members, I thank the witness for his evidence.