3 million people live in unsafe and unhealthy homes, give tenants the powers and rights they deserve
The poorest and the most vulnerable, those with the least power, are the most likely to be trapped in substandard accommodation, says Karen Buck MP.
For those millions of people who don’t have a decent- safe, secure and affordable- home, everything else in life is potentially undermined.
Rising poverty levels in the UK are driven in part by high housing costs. Education and family and community support networks are damaged by the upheaval of constant, involuntary moves. And health is put at risk for those living in the most squalid, substandard and sometimes simply dangerous accommodation.
We are concerned with vital public services like the NHS, schools and yet have too often regarded housing as essentially a private matter, with renting a poor relation to homeownership. Yet massive social changes in recent years are forcing a re-evaluation of our whole approach, as the private rented sector has reversed its long decline and become once again a major provider of homes for families and for low income households.
The unprecedented horror of the Grenfell fire also brought a long overdue focus onto social housing, not least the ability of tenants to have their concerns heard and responded to. The government’s response to both the shifting trends of housing tenure and the Grenfell tragedy has included stronger powers to act against rogue landlords, the Hackitt review of Building Regulations and most recently a Green Paper on social housing, and there is much to be said about all of these- some good, some less so.
What we can agree on is that tenants need greater protection, and that whilst having a stronger voice in decisions affecting them is vital, so too are clear, enforceable legal rights.
My Housing (Fitness for Human Habitation) Private Member’s Bill, which is set to return to the Commons for its Report stage on October 26th, seeks to address exactly this.
At present, private tenants can take action against their landlords where their property is in serious disrepair, but not when the property is unfit. If the boiler has broken down, a tenant has rights. If the property is riddled with damp and mould because of the design of the building or type of windows, they don’t. Fitness standards that used to exist in law have ceased to have effect over time as the rent limits below which tenants could enforce them have not been updated for half a century.
The Housing Fitness Bill will also extend to social housing tenancies, correcting another anomaly. At the moment, private tenants can call upon their local council Environmental Health officers to act on their behalf, although there is plenty of evidence to show that such enforcement is inadequate and highly variable across the country. Tenants in social housing lack even this protection- councils cannot enforce against themselves. The Bill also extends the legal rights tenants have to include the common parts of a building, permitting them to go to court if a landlord failed to act on fire safety in a block of flats or HMO.
Some 3 million people live in homes which are unsafe and unhealthy, with long-term trends towards improvement levelling off in recent years. And we know that the poorest and the most vulnerable, those with the least power, are the most likely to be trapped in substandard accommodation.
A clear legal path through which to challenge bad landlords is just one measure in what needs to be basket of policies and investment to improve housing stock and given tenants more rights, but it is an important one.
With wide support from housing campaign groups to the main landlord associations- the latter appreciating the best landlords have nothing to fear and are reputationally damaged by the worst- I am also really pleased to have government backing for the Bill on this, my second attempt. Roll on, Royal Assent and let’s give tenants the powers and rights they deserve.
Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North.