Karen Buck

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Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill – My attempt to raise standards in the private rented sector



Picture 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1.  The premier of Jailhouse Rock. The average house prince topped £2,300. And the maximum rent level below which a tenant could legally require their landlord to ensure their rented property was fit for human habitation was last updated.

So there is, in effect, no meaningful requirement for a home to be let or maintained in a fit condition.  So when people express their surprise that there is no legal requirement for landlords to ensure properties are let- and kept- fit for human habitation, the answer is: “They are, but only if your rent is less than £52 a year!"

Perhaps the long term failure to update the law reflected the decline of private rented housing over much of the same period (and it is within the private sector that conditions are worse overall). But if that was true throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, it is certainly no longer true now.

The private rented sector has dramatically reversed its long decline and now accommodates more households than the social rented sector. The law needs to change to reflect that - and the not unrelated fact that conditions in the private rented sector are worse than those in other tenures. This is what my Private Member’s Bill set out to do.

Of course many landlords are responsible people (let’s leave important issues like rents and tenancy lengths for the time being). Yet nearly one in five privately rented homes (18.9 per cent) contains a Category 1 hazard – as defined by the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (this from a Yougov/Shelter survey 2014) and 61% of tenants have experienced mould or damp; leaking roofs or windows; animal infestations or a gas leak in the last 12 months.

Ten per cent of tenants report that their health has been affected in the last year because their landlord has not dealt with poor conditions in their property, and nine per cent of private renting parents said their children’s health has been affected. My postbag is full of such cases, such as the mum concerned for her vulnerable daughter, who wrote:

"For years my daughter has had damp in her home to the point where the walls were black. Many times surveyors comes out and the situation doesn't get resolved. This year workmen were sent out to deal with the damp and thinking the problem was solved, but two months ago it was back again. My daughter has lived with the damp, ruining her health, numerous times reporting it and nothing is done. She's vulnerable and although I as a mother try and look after her affairs I cannot be with her 24/7 as I work.  My daughter is under the doctors …she suffers from depression, self-harm, has high blood pressure, drinks to block things out, has counselling and was abused by and i know that is part of her problems. I know if my daughter was to get out of the flat it would help her situation immensely, but her landlord is not doing what they should be doing and that is addressing the situation with the damp so that we can move forward."

Local authorities do what they can, but resources are incredibly limited and getting more so. A simple change in the law would have given legal rights to tenants to take action themselves against their landlord when properties are in an unfit condition- brining the law into line with what already exists in respect of disrepair.

It added no new duties to landlords- it simply gave better redress to tenants. All this also simply put into effect a recommendation from the Law Commission from the mid 90s- itself strongly backed by the Court of Appeal.

I was quite hopeful that such a practical and modest step- elegantly put together for me by leading members of the Housing Law Practitioner’s Association- would not meet opposition. Who could oppose a requirement to make homes fit for habitation, and redress against the minority of bad landlords who fail to do so?

The answer turned out to be, the government, and Conservative MP Philip Davies, who ‘talked the Bill out’ yesterday. But what won’t go away is the need for action- a need that was powerfully reinforced by new research which led in the Times today. So we will try again. And, if necessary, again…

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