Getting housing policy right – “If the Conservatives won’t do it, we should be proud to say that the next Labour Government will”

Lewis Young is a member of Open Labour and Former Executive Member for Economic Development and Infrastructure, with responsibility for housing policy, on Middlesbrough Council

“If you get housing right, you have a base to properly tackle poverty and improve lives”. This was told to me by the former Mayor of Middlesbrough Dave Budd when he appointed me as his Executive Member with responsibility for housing, and it has been something that has stuck with me ever since. From the Wheatley reforms of 1924 to successive Housing Acts in 1949 and 1969, to the reforms to deposit protection and HMO regulation in 2004, the Labour Party have always placed housing on a foundation stone to conquer the five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness.

Although easy to miss amongst the culture war red meat of Channel 4 privatisation and protest bans and noticeable lack of measures to tackle the cost of living crisis, the Queen’s Speech unveiled this week not one but two opportunities to “get housing right” again: the Social Housing Regulation Bill and the Renters’ Reform Bill. Although a Conservative Government’s agenda, it is beholden to the Labour Opposition to make sure they offer meaningful reform and, in the likelihood of Conservative MPs voting down amendments, to use these as one plank in a future Labour housing policy.

Born from the midst of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Social Housing Regulation Bill seeks to enhance the rights of tenants to hold social housing providers to account and beef up the powers of England’s social housing regulator to deal with and act upon tenant’s complaints.

For the private housing sector, a much less regulated system, the Renters’ Reform Bill will seek to abolish notorious Section 21 “no-fault” evictions and applying the “Decent Homes Standard” to the sector. So far so fine, but there is much more that can and should be done to reform the private rental sector.

Remove the “Selective” from “Selective Landlord Licensing”

Under the 2004 Housing Act a council can apply for an area to be designated a “selective landlord licensing” area, forcing all private landlords to apply for the privilege to be a landlord. Those seeking to rent out housing for profit have to prove they are a “fit and proper person”, abide by the license, allow their property to be inspected by the local authority, and have satisfactory management structures in place. In Middlesbrough this was applied to North Ormesby ward, an area of predominantly Victorian two-up, two-down housing stock with a big landlord presence and a reputation of being a place of “last resort” as a result of poor conditions and high anti-social behaviour.

Inspections found houses with faulty boilers, people living in damp and mouldy conditions, and twenty-five category one hazards – that is where the most serious harm outcome (including death, permanent loss of consciousness, loss of limb or serious, threatening injuries) is identified – within the first three months of the scheme being in place. Through Selective Landlord Licensing landlords were forced to up their game and take responsibility for their property or ship out. Although North Ormesby still faces big challenges, the designation and intervention of the council made a positive difference to the community.

But why stop at “selective”? The Renters’ Reform Act is the perfect opportunity to roll-out landlord licensing across the board, ensuring every private landlord is “fit and proper” and every private rental is subject to inspection and remediation if needed. Selective Landlord Licensing is applied to communities with a reputation for bad housing – often areas of significant deprivation like North Ormesby, but bad landlord practices can occur anywhere regardless of location. Licensing protects tenants, ensures every private rental is fit for habitation, and all landlords are held responsible for their property. If they’re happy to take the rent every month they should be happy to pay a license fee and be held to certain conditions. If they’re not, then perhaps they shouldn’t be landlords.

Ban discriminatory “no DSS” practices

No decent person would accept “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” signs in letting agency windows these days yet the discriminatory practice of “no DSS” is still widely used in the twenty-first century. In 2020 York County Court ruled that these “no DSS” notices on rental properties were unlawful on the basis of sex and disability discrimination yet despite this, a YouGov survey found that 63% of landlords continue to operate a “no DSS” rule or refused to let properties to people on housing benefit or Universal Credit. If someone has been discriminated against, they can complain, but they still need a home, and they will most likely find themselves discriminated against again by landlords applying this policy. The Renters’ Reform Act offers the perfect opportunity to ban this unlawful practice, forcing letting agents to comply with regulations and putting landlords at risk of losing their license if found to be operating contrary to the law.

 A better deal for private renters

The private rental sector needs significant meaningful reform and while Renters’ Reform Bill does set out measures that could make positive changes to the sector, I fear it doesn’t go far enough. The Labour Party has a real opportunity to use the upcoming legislation to push forward a radical reform agenda that properly regulates private landlords, ensures houses are fit for human habitation and provides tenants and prospective tenants with legal backing against bad practices and discrimination – and we should be proud to say that if the Conservatives won’t do it then the next Labour Government will. Private tenants deserve nothing less.

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