A report by the Safer Communities Services Manager
The Safer Communities Service Manager presented the report confirming the review had been convened following significant concerns by many members at the quality of some private rented housing within the borough. The rationale for the review was to investigate whether officers were being provided with the appropriate regulatory power in order to improve the quality of living for many residents within the rented sector in the Borough of Boston, to hold landlords accountable for the condition and standard of their properties and if applicable to introduce / look at the possibility of alternative licensing options for rented accommodation. It was anticipated that the outcomes would improve housing standards in private rented accommodation, improve the health of the residents within the Borough and reduce incidents of environmental crime and improve the appearance of the Borough
Under the Housing Act officers from the Housing Standards Team utilised two primary sections to carry out enforcement work. The Housing Health and Safety Rating Scheme – Assessing the 29 hazards that may be present in a home and determining whether the risk to the occupant(s) warrants the intervention of enforcement action, e.g. improvement notice, prohibition orders, emergency remedial action and, the Mandatory House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) Licensing Scheme – requiring landlords of larger HMOs, rented out to 5 or more people who form more than 1 household, to register with the Local Authority, provide relevant certification, co-operate with programmed inspections and maintain the property to the standards contained within the guidance of the act. Under a Selected Licensing Scheme a Local Authority can define a geographical area, covering some or all wards, which would be subject to specific requirements of the Housing Act. Under such a scheme all landlords of private tented properties, regardless of whether they are a single household or multi-occupied, would be required to register their property with the Local Authority, provide proof of specific detailed documentation e.g. gas safety, electrical safety, energy performance etc. and cooperate with the requirement for regular checks to be carried out by the Housing Standards Team. The cost of administering such a scheme would be covered by licensing fees, paid by the landlord of the registered property. Any set up costs for the scheme, for the evidence gathering, rationale and stakeholder consultation could also be recuperated through the licence fee.
The evidence gathered had been wide ranging with most in person, some via written representation with a few refusing to attend at all. The meetings had been scheduled to allow a cross-section between attendees which had proved positive with a meeting with representatives from two other authorities where selective licencing had been trialled, one meeting with the police, fire and council officers and others with letting agents, with immigrant communities and with the councils own housing team.
On considering the representation in respect of selective licensing it was recognised that an area of the town would need to be defined and within that area all private rented property would need to be registered. Although selective licensing would not fix all the issues identified on its own, it would assist in supporting other parties however it would enable officers to visit all properties. The downside being that the good landlords would need to register also. A financial commitment would be required up front to allow evidence to be gathered to justify the rational.
Issues identified through the consultation process included common subjects including not knowing who the landlord is with issues of sub-letting leading to lengthy enforcement action. Environmental Crime and accountability. Concerns within the migrant communities of fear of retribution if they complained about poor housing, fear of liaising with the authorities and ongoing problems in respect of what is identified as a family group size.
The mini task force of housing standards, police and fire representatives endeavoured to visit as many homes as possible in line with housing legislation which helped identify the residents and the visits enabled intelligence gathering. There had been an increase in enforcement work undertaken in the previous 18 months with FPN’s being issued.
Councillor Paul Goodale the Chairman of the review group addressed the meeting at this part in the proceeding and advised he would be happy to take questions during debate, but tabled his thanks to Councillors Welbourn and Woodliffe for their contribution to the review. He stated that some of the testimony received had been quite harrowing and difficult to listen to in respect of some of the problems residents were continually subjected to and it had focused the group on the rationale for the review.
Member deliberation followed which included:
A member stated they felt the report to be quite one sided, stating they knew that the properties they were responsible for were immaculate and looked after and the report did not reflect the private landlords’ who did look after their tenants, who paid the higher taxes and who would be subject to selective licensing even though they had done nothing wrong. The member further stated that a landlord could not tell a tenant how to live but only ask them to look after the property. Seconding the comments a further member who stated he now used an agent to deal with his tenants added that he knew there were bad landlords but it was the agents who should be accountable and responsible for checking properties.
Referencing a similar project some ten years previously, a member recalled that the same issues had been addressed at that time when rogue landlords had been prevalent within the town and funding had been secured to implement the rogue landlord scheme. The issues continued and had indeed escalated to present day and the member stressed that the ambition of the regulatory scheme was not to attack the small scale good landlords, but had always been to target the rogue landlords and letting agents – the people who continued to benefit significantly but provide poor housing. The issues identified for the rational of the review needed to be addressed. The sub-letting of rooms was an ongoing serious problem which had to be tackled urgently.
Further comments commended the thorough report which had been produced following the review, stating that it did not criticise the good landlords at all and the rational was very clear in that it was looking at poor housing standards. Notation was also made of the support of some of the Councils own officers in introducing selective licensing noting is would make a significant difference. Reference was made also to the success of the scheme trialled at other authorities with the substantial increase in inspections permitted which had resulted in vast improvement in standards overall. Reference was made to representation stating that workers on zero hours’ contracts were rejected by good landlords and had no option but to go to the poor ones for accommodation which was sub-standard.
The Safer Communities Service Manager offered a point of clarification at this time and confirmed that the terms of remit of the review had been to look at poor quality housing and as such, by default the focus had been on poor landlords which was the main concern. Whilst the borough did have some good letting agents and some bad letting agents it was the landlords own choice of which agent they wanted to manage their property.
A member of the group echoed the sentiments and stated clearly that the review had not been to vilify good landlords or good agents. Committee was asked to recognise that as in many reviews, evidenced information had been submitted in exempt measures and considered on its value for inclusion in the final determination. Such evidence was not made public due the nature of its content.
The Safer Communities Service Manager offered a further point of clarification in respect of recommendation 4 noting that it was not to provide a translation service, but just to recommend that the sister scrutiny committee take into account all the representation received by the migrant communities, some of which was not specific to housing, within a review of the migrant communities which had already been suggested for that committee.
Summarising Councillor Goodale stated the review had not been an attack on landlords and significant evidence had been received for both good and bad landlords. The aim of the recommendations was to create a level playing field and not penalise good landlords or agents. It was solely aimed at penalising bad landlords. The review as also just for private rented it was not aimed as social housing. The current Council could only lay the foundations as it would be dissolved in May 2023 and the new Council would then take whatever decisions agreed forward. The evidence base was strong and compelling and the report identified that. The report does not say all issues are all the landlords fault as clearly damage and other incidents are the responsibility of the tenant, but quality of housing, lack of facilities and others are their responsibility. By trialling selective licensing which would raise the standards of that area which could impact on other areas and it would also provide the important tools to enable officers to go in and inspect all properties quickly and without hindrance. Some of the evidence received in exempt measures relating to ongoing court cases had noted Category A hazards within properties. With the possibility of unidentified people living in similar circumstances the Council had a duty to do something. There had been overwhelming disbelief from all those who made representation that there was no legal register identifying all the owners of rented accommodation.
That the Environment and Performance Committee recommend that Cabinet: