RLA at 20 essay collection: RLA Policy Director David Smith on why legal reform is vital for a 21st Century rental market
5 Oct 2018 11:42 AM
The RLA launched a collection of essays looking at the future of the PRS as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations.
David Smith, RLA Policy Director, was one of the contributors to ‘Private Renting: A Vision for the Future’. You can read the essay below.
The private rented sector has come a long way in 20 years. What was once a tenure primarily housing the young is now increasingly being used by families with children, the elderly, those in receipt of benefits and the otherwise homeless.
It is little wonder then that the private rented sector is now such a politically important issue
for all parties. We should start by taking stock of where we now are. A large majority, 84per cent, of private sector tenants are satisfied with their housing according to the most recent English Housing Survey, a higher proportion than those in the social rented sector.
An almost as large a proportion, 72 per cent, of private sector tenants are satisfied with the way that their landlord carries out repairs or maintenance, compared to 66 per cent who said the same in the social rented sector.
On average, private sector tenants have been living in their homes for almost four years, increasing to 17 years for those aged 75 and above whilst 90 per cent of tenancies are ended by the tenant rather than the landlord.
However, the perception, fuelled by the media, is one of frightened tenants living in poor-quality accommodation, who are afraid to complain lest they be evicted. While the truth is likely to lie somewhere between the bland statistics and the emotional reporting, we should not ignore the significant challenges the sector faces over the years ahead.
Legislation overhaul It is important that the sector ensures high standards, secures swift and effective access to justice when things go wrong, and ensures that the large volume of powers to protect tenants from poor housing are being effectively used. Importantly, the sector must be seen to do these things.
We need an overhaul of the legislation affecting the sector. The RLA’s own research has found there to be over 140 Acts of Parliament containing more than 400 individual regulations affecting the sector. We cannot expect a 21st century rental market to be run under a legal framework that is now more than 40 years old.
The Housing Select Committee has called for a Law Commission review of legislation affecting the sector and the Government has committed to discussing this. We welcome this and would call for it to begin swiftly to ensure the legislation governing the sector is fit for purpose. This includes considering which of the recent raft of changes have been effective and which have not, and understanding why this is the case rather than just adding new legislation on top.
It is vital that tenants and landlords have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities. Too many tenants enter into agreements without having the information they need to hold their landlord to account over their obligations to the property and to the tenant. Likewise, the majority of landlords are not members of trade associations, leaving them difficult to communicate with and, in the worst cases, ignorant of their responsibilities. Policy needs to recognise and encourage those landlords who join trade bodies to ensure they understand what being a landlord requires and seek to access the training and support that is so vital to ensuring tenancies work for both the tenant and landlord.
The Government has made a start by updating its guidance for landlords and tenants. This is a practical step which is to be welcomed. We now need to focus on ensuring it is read and understood by all parties.
More informed tenants need to be supported by clear and effective enforcement. The RLA’s own Freedom of Information data suggests that action by councils is patchy at best when confronted by properties that are not up to scratch.
We concur with the Select Committee’s calls for greater political leadership within local authorities to address poor housing in the rental market. For too long enforcement has been seen as a Cinderella service which is not given the care it deserves. Poor housing blights lives and local authority attention needs to reflect its damaging effects.
Changing the culture
Changing the culture needs also to be matched by changing the level of resources made available to address the challenges.
We welcome moves to enable councils to charge and retain larger fines against landlords failing to look after their properties.
For too long good landlords have been aggrieved that through payment of licensing fees they have subsidised action taken against those who will never willingly make themselves known.
We need new upfront seed funding for councils to help kick-start the kinds of enforcement action tenants and good landlords rightly expect.
Finally, we need much swifter and more effective access to justice when things go wrong. The court system as currently designed is intimidating for tenants and unable to respond quickly when landlords are faced with anti-social tenants or those not paying their rents. This needs to change.
Ministers have pledged to consult on establishing a housing court. We welcome this and believe it vital that such a court is established as speedily as possible, building on the work of the existing Property Tribunal.
For too long debate around the private rented sector has been polarised, pitting tenant groups against landlords.
Over the next 20 years we need to break free from this false division and pledge ourselves to a new deal for the sector that recognises that common interest of tenants and good landlords in having and providing quality homes to rent on terms that work for all.