The Homes Bill to Empower Renters
The Homes Bill (Fitness for Human Habitation) will overhaul the current wildly out-of-date legislation in the private rented sector, writes Lord Best
Private renting in England has witnessed phenomenal growth, doubling in size since 2010. Now, belatedly, Parliament is catching up with the consequences.
The government is bringing forward a lengthy list of important measures to protect tenants and root out the so-called ‘rogue landlords’ who, so unfairly, give all landlords a bad name. The government is also supporting a Private Members Bill – the Homes Bill (Fitness for Human Habitation) – from an Opposition backbench MP, the heroic Karen Buck. This Bill comes with the backing of the key bodies representing both tenants – Shelter, Generation Rent and others – and landlords – the National Landlords Association and the Residential Landlords Association. It takes pride of place among the range of new measures, addressing the most fundamental issue: it defines whether a house or flat is fit for human habitation and, if not, it empowers the tenant to get that sorted.
The Bill overhauls the existing wildly out-of-date legislation that already requires privately rented homes to be fit for purpose but only where rents are below a decades-old figure of £52 p.w. (£80 p.w. in London). It removes this utterly redundant constraint, giving tenants the right to take an offending landlord to court. No longer would a tenant need to rely entirely on their local authority to take action – which, for lack of resources, few do: in 2016/17 half of councils served no, or only one, enforcement notice on landlords. Yet we know there are around 750,000 privately rented properties which present a serious and immediate risk to the occupiers.
The Bill does not add any new regulations or requirements on landlords. In defining ‘fit for human habitation’, it simply draws together the existing obligations from the relevant Acts. But it gives tenants the means to enforce those obligations on their own behalf.
Importantly, the Bill also gives, for the first time, the same rights to the tenants of local authorities to insist upon the fitness of their property as it confers on tenants of private landlords. At present, the local authority, as the enforcement body, cannot take action against itself, leaving Council tenants powerless in this respect. The Bill enables these tenants to compel the Council to carry out the works needed for the property to meet proper standards.
Moreover, thanks to an amendment to the Bill in the Commons, its provisions cover health and safety hazards in shared areas and communal spaces in blocks of flats. As we all know from the ghastly tragedy of Grenfell Tower, there are apartment blocks where tenants are exposed to serious dangers. The residents of Grenfell Tower did raise their concerns about the safety of the building on many occasions; but their voices were not heard, and they had no means of forcing their landlord to take action. The Bill empowers council tenants – like private sector tenants – to take their case to the courts.
The great majority of landlords (and their tenants) will be unaffected by the measures in this Bill. But it will redress the obvious imbalance in a market where acute shortages currently empower the provider at the expense of the consumer.
Karen Buck deserves enormous credit for securing the passage of this Bill through the House of Commons in a brilliant example of cross-party action in the cause of social justice. I trust it will have an equally fair wind through the House of Lords this week.
Lord Best is a crossbench peer. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill will have its second reading in the Lords on Friday 23 November