I didn’t comment here on Eric Pickles announcement of a ‘Tenants Charter’ at the Tory conference because, on inspection of the DCLG press release, it looked like a burp of a soundbite, with absolutely no significant likely effect. I contented myself with being rude about it in 140 characters on twitter, as that seemed sufficient. This didn’t stop some landlord organisations and journals getting terribly over-excited about the perceived threat of ‘required’ longer tenancies. There was (and remains) no such requirement.
However, the latest, slightly more detailed, press release does have some interesting bits in it, and perhaps more telling is the direction of travel – the recognition that private rented sector tenants are now a very large sector of the population, are likely to remain so, and that on the whole, things aren’t exactly fabulous in the PRS.
So, what is Mr Pickles proposing to bring about this brighter future, at least for hardworking tenants?
In the ‘ambitious package of proposals’ Mr Pickles:
Announced that, within days, he would publish new regulations that will force letting and property management agents to join a compulsory redress scheme. 3,000 agents, 40% of the entire industry, have yet to join one of the schemes, which will ensure tenants’ complaints about hidden fees and poor service are investigated independently, and where a complaint is upheld, they receive compensation.
Revealed that, for the first time the government will publish a new code of practice setting standards for the management of property in the private rented sector, with a view to making it statutory to provide greater confidence for tenants in what they can expect.
Announced he will publish a draft of a new tenant’s charter. The charter will help tenants understand what they should expect from their rental deal, and how they can take action if they are the victim of hidden fees or poor standards of accommodation.
Set out the timetable for the introduction of a model tenancy agreement, which landlords can use to offer longer tenancies of 3 years or more, which will, provide extra security and stability for families.
Committed to produce extra guidance for local councils on how to protect tenants from illegal eviction, how to push for harsher penalties before magistrates for housing offences where these have a real impact on peoples’ lives, and to plan for new private rented developments in the future, including on their own land.
Mr P will also be talking to lenders about longer tenancy terms and:
The government will review the process by which tenants can raise concerns about the standard of their private rented property and the response they should expect from their council in enforcing standards of safety and hygiene
The review will also consider requiring landlords to repay rent where a property is found to have serious hazards. This could include allowing councils to recoup housing benefit so that taxpayers’ money is not used to support landlords who provide sub-standard property.
The only substantive element of this seems to be the imminent ‘compulsory redress scheme’ for letting agents (not, of course, a licensing scheme or setting regulatory standards, just a ‘Code of Practice’ for management of lets). One presumes that the ‘independent investigator’ will be the Property Ombudsman. (In that regard, following the BBC London expose of letting agents perfectly willing to breach Equality Act obligations and agree not to let to black potential tenants, it might be worth noting that of 36 complaints to the Ombudsman about racial discrimination by agents in the last 3 years, two resulted in a full investigation and none were upheld.)
The longer term tenancy bit remains as, at best, a right for tenant to ask for a longer tenancy. Nothing more. The landlord can refuse away without consequence or conscience. But here is the draft ‘Tenants Charter’ Guidance note for discussion anyway.
The guidance for councils might be useful in some cases. Some councils apparently still regard private sector disrepair as something they really don’t have any powers to deal with and illegal eviction as something to make tutting noises about. But without any extra funding, there will be hollow laughter from hard pressed TROs and EHOs in the councils that do take their responsibilities seriously.
The suggestion of a review of potential rent or HB repayment for properties with serious hazards is interesting, however. Where some third of London’s private rental properties fail to meet decent homes standards according to a London Assembly report, and where some 45% of PRS properties in the South West suffer from significant damp, cold or other defects according to a Shelter survey, this is clearly a problem on a very large scale. But ‘a review’? I suspect we are, at best, in ‘after the election’ land, even if there are any concrete proposals resulting.
Oh and money? There is an announcement, which may be a sleight of hand:
A £3 million fund for councils in England will help them tackle acute and complex problems with rogue landlords, and build on work to tackle ‘beds in sheds’, where £2.6 million was provided to 9 councils and backed by a ministerial task force. More than 500 illegally rented outhouses have been discovered since 2011 and action is being taken against the owners.
So is that a new £3 million, or a new £400,000?
Perhaps not an ‘ambitious package’. And of as little practical effect as a kazoo in a bagpipe band (a long story, I am still scarred). But at the very least there is a recognition that the current PRS has severe problems and that there is an increasing need for more secure, longer term tenure in the sector, given the ongoing housing crisis.
Oh and ‘hardworking’ tenants? No idea. I don’t see anything that would separate off the hardworking from the astonishingly indolent tenant. So perhaps a prize for the most jarringly awkward shoehorning of the party political buzzword du jour into a policy announcement goes to the DCLG.