Blog Post

Empowering Tenants to Drive Real Change in the Private Rental Sector

The State Of It

The number of households renting from private landlords has doubled since the year 2000 to 4.6m but quality of housing and protection for private tenants has not kept pace.

According to Environmental Consultant Dr Stephen Battersby, there are 4 times more damp homes in the private rented sector (PRS) than in the social rented sector.

Four years after the Tories promised to reform the private rented sector tenants are as vulnerable as ever to bad landlords. ‘No fault’ evictions, known as Section 21 evictions, are in fact soaring – up 76% on last year according to the BBC. While figures are skewed by the ban on evictions during the pandemic, in the first quarter of 2022, claims and orders in private landlords’ possession cases had returned to a similar level to 2019.

This is a miserable situation for private renters in this country – paying steep sums for terrible conditions and insecurity, while the government drags its feet over promised reforms.

When the Renters Reform Bill was finally announced last year in the Queen’s Speech, long-awaited by organisations like Marks Out Of Tenancy and our colleagues at the Renters Reform Coalition, one thing that was notably lacking was details of any extra money or enforcement powers or bodies which will be put in place to back up the new rules.

Herald A Substantial Shift

In the absence of any new enforcement from government, Marks Out Of Tenancy allows renters to take matters into their own hands by providing written feedback and a score for the landlord, property and area. This gives tenants a much needed mechanism to call out sub-standard properties and problem landlords, providing desperately needed transparency and accountability in the PRS. 

“A longstanding characteristic of the sector is poor information and communication,” writes Professor Alex Marsh of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.  

He continues: “Small-scale landlordism coupled with transient tenants compounded, in many areas, by high demand means that there is a market for poor quality and the market does not discipline poor quality providers. The arrival of websites like Marks Out Of Tenancy may eventually herald a substantial shift in this dynamic: they allow the market to develop a form of memory.”

Meanwhile current enforcement falls short. Convictions of rogue landlords under the Prevention of Eviction Act 1977 remain startlingly low; a May 2022 report by Safer Housing shows that of a total of 6,930 reported offences under the act in 2020 only 23 had proceedings brought against them and only 12 resulted in a conviction. 

The PRS has been left to self-regulate for too long and it simply has not worked. Landlord associations and voluntary landlord registration schemes on their own can’t regulate landlords, and overstretched local authorities can’t do any more to challenge bad landlords than they already are doing – but there is space for a regulatory force outside the market and the state.

Introducing ‘Decentred Regulation’

The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence makes the case for ‘decentred’ regulation in response to the current crisis in the PRS in a 2020 report entitled Improving Compliance with Private Rented Sector Legislation (page 34). 

The report explains: “Much regulatory thinking starts from the state – in the case of the PRS: local authorities, licensing agencies, trading standards and the police – as the core of the regulatory regime. Decentring regulation is an invitation to look more widely at the organisational landscape of a policy sector to understand what else is going on and which other organisations and social actors are acting in a regulatory capacity. Approaching regulation as “decentred” frequently signals a concern with processes of self-regulation.”

This is precisely what Marks Out Of Tenancy exists to do. As the report states, Marks Out Of Tenancy is a platform that seeks to regulate quality in the PRS via tenant feedback and rating completely independently of the state.

In the context of decentred regulation, Ben Yarrow, CEO of Marks Out Of Tenancy says:

“Imagine a scenario where a local authority had imposed restrictions on properties that can be used as Airbnb rentals – and the Airbnb platform reported back to a local authority when a property was being let without a licence. Or imagine a scenario where Checkatrade or Trustatrader reported non-compliant plumbers who were operating without Gas Safe certification. These scenarios are unlikely to occur – these companies would be hurting their own business by reporting their own customers, however Marks Out Of Tenancy differs significantly in that we have no vested financial interest in the rental transaction.”

Marks Out Of Tenancy needs help threading review data with enforcement; while a well-publicised bad landlord may struggle to find a new tenant, all the bad reviews in the world will not force them to make the necessary repairs if they are not minded to. This is where it becomes essential to work closely with existing regulatory and enforcement bodies at the Local Authority level. 

For our local authority partners, we provide legally compliant, timely and accurate data from tenant reviews.

On a basic level it enables licensing and enforcement teams to find out:

  • Which properties are being rented
  • Who was acting as the landlord
  • How many people were living in the property
  • If the property needed a licence
  • If it was licensed at the time it was being rented
  • If the property complied with Minimum Level of Energy Efficiency (MEES) standards

Through the Marks Out Of Tenancy portal, housing officers are also able to open communications with the tenant who left the review.

Using pre-written templates, officers are also able to send letters through the Marks Out Of Tenancy portal, addressed to landlords of flagged properties inviting them to comply with licensing requirements, MEES legislation or even a friendly chat.

The platform continues to grow in scope and ambition, having recently secured a significant grant to fund our work for the next three years. This funding will enable tenants in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth to make better-informed decisions about where they choose to rent. The platform reach will also be expanding nationally at the same time.

The Ask

A single review of a landlord and rental property can make a huge difference to the decision making process of an individual renter – but we’ve built the technology and infrastructure to impact and drive change across the whole industry. If every tenant used the platform they could force a substantial shift in the way landlords treated them.

We want Marks Out Of Tenancy to help bring about a shift in the fundamental relationship between tenants and landlords. But it requires stakeholders like Local Authorities and existing regulatory bodies to allow us in – this platform can be a valuable resource when combined with agencies with enforcement powers against bad landlords.

Marks Out Of Tenancy invites housing professionals at Local Authority level to begin looking outside of the purely enforcement and regulatory systems currently at play, recognise that trade associations or professional landlord bodies do not aid with actively rooting out the poorest quality providers, but rather, that tenants on the frontline can provide an invaluable insight into the service provided by landlords and the products they’re obligated to maintain.

Ben Yarrow is CEO of Marks Out Of Tenancy, a PropTech firm focused on improving housing conditions.


Blog Post

Are the Tories really serious about fixing social housing or listening to tenants? 

The tragedy of the death of Awaab Ishak as a direct result of the poor conditions in his social rented home has rightly awakened a storm of protest about the state of rented housing in this country. It is shaming to have to admit that our rented housing is failing so many people, but particularly the public sector stock that many of us are so proud of. 

Michael Gove’s attempt on the Today programme on 24th November to lay the blame for mouldy walls and damp conditions entirely on social housing providers is unfair and just does not hold water. The Tory Government should take some responsibility for where we are now – but it won’t, of course. 

Firstly, the point should be made that the housing sector has had to deal with massive funding pressures since the Tories came into power in 2010. This started with the Spending Review of 2010 which saw investment in building new housing association homes cut by two thirds. Caps on subsidy, followed by rent caps (to save on Housing Benefit expenditure), and the end of funding for Decent Homes improvements meant that the sector stopped putting enough cash into maintenance. We also saw continual extensions of the Right To Buy reducing incomes from rents, and housing providers diverting funds into work to support tenants to cope with shrinking incomes through welfare “reforms”. The plain truth is that the failures in the stock are systemic and were predictable, and Gove’s attack on the sector is totally opportunistic and hypocritical. 

It is really shattering to hear so many tenants still saying that their landlords are not listening to them, but Gove’s claim that the current government is on the side of the tenant does not compute. He said they are bringing forward legislation “to allow us to hear the voice of tenants more clearly”, but he clearly does not remember that it was the Tory-led Coalition Government which, in short order after their election in 2010, as well as abolishing the Tenant Services Authority and the Audit Commission, thereby reducing the regulation of social landlords, also abandoned both National Tenant Voice (NTV) and the National Tenant Council, leaving tenants with no national representation at all. NTV would have had 4 distinct roles: 

  • advocacy
  • research 
  • communication
  • support

By contrast, as Marianne Hood pointed out in LHG’s recent In Conversation session, Robert Jenrick (former Secretary of State) saying he wanted tenants to feel more empowered did not mean, as Marianne comments, that tenants will be more empowered under the Tories’ plans. Indeed, the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill currently going through Parliament contains no mechanism to hear the collective voice of tenants, gives powers to the regulator but none to tenants, and provides tenants with little by way of accountability or redress, despite claims made by the Tories. Tenants – seen as consumers with a range of choices – will have no additional sanctions; only the Social Housing Regulator has these powers.  

Marianne also pointed out that genuine effective participation can lead to better design, better policies, and better use of scarce resources, and indeed to the avoidance of costly mistakes. The diminution of the tenant participation movement by the Tories from 2010 onwards – along with the end of tenants being required to be on Housing Association Boards – is part of the story of the tragic waste of life at Grenfell and elsewhere, as shown in Rochdale and sadly, likely in other places too. 

As I show below, some responsibility has to be taken by architects keen to use the latest but untested ideas of new design and new materials. We can also guess that structural problems, becoming rife in the private house-building in recent years, are likely to affect social housing too, since the problems are largely due to cost-cutting, under-supply of building inspectors, and poor regulation of the construction industry.

It is also shattering to hear that landlords are still alleging that their “lifestyle” is to blame for the damp and mould. 46 years ago, one of my first tasks as a new housing aid worker covering the North East of England was to help families living in a fairly new council estate who were lumbered with electricity bills of £200-300 a quarter, an unthinkable amount in the mid-1970s. The ceiling heating installed there was simply not suitable for the concrete “scissor” blocks, and many of the maisonettes were not only cold but had green and black walls, furniture rotting from the mould, and soaking wet carpets. As happens today, tenants were told they were not managing the heating properly, should stop drying clothes inside the rooms, and to turn up the heating and open the windows. The estate was demolished in the 1990s, with no-one in any doubt that the cheaply-built mass-produced concrete homes, and the ceiling heating, had not met the council’s original vision of the estate as a “bold pioneering showpiece development”. 

Of course the many stories about damp and mouldy homes heard since the inquest have been these problems in the private rented sector too. Michael Gove tries hard to persuade us that they are taking action to make life safer and more secure for private tenants. The abolition of S.21 no-fault evictions, first promised by the Tory Government in April 2019 is still awaited: the Renters’ Reform Bill will not go before the House of Commons until well into 2023, if we are lucky. Legislation to prevent retaliatory evictions will be included: surveys done by Shelter in 2014 led to the conclusion that around 200,000 private tenants had been evicted after asking for repairs to be carried out.

The cut in the numbers of Environmental Health Officers employed by local councils is also a huge contributor to the lack of enforcement on poor housing conditions. In 2019, Unison found that EHO budgets per head of population had more than halved – falling by 52.92% between 2009 and 2018 – and enforcement visits by EHOs had dropped by nearly a half. CIEH (the environmental health professional body) reported in 2021 that 9 out of 10 EH teams had used agency staff in 2020 because of lack of resources or recruitment problems, and 56% of councils had vacancies left empty for 6 months or more. Teams which now cover Covid-19 planning and contact tracing, food hygiene, emergency planning, trading standards, and business advice, in addition to their housing work, are widely said to be struggling to deliver some of their statutory environmental health duties. 

Finally, Gove’s statement on the radio that everyone has the right to a home fit for habitation would be great if it were true. Whilst the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2019 introduced by Karen Buck MP gives landlords a duty to make sure that homes are safe, healthy and free from hazards that could cause the tenant and their household serious harm, there is as yet no right to a home enshrined in UK law. LHG and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights are together doing our level best to ensure that this right is built into English law when we have a Labour Government in place. This would indeed ensure there is effective enforcement, redress for tenants, accountability of all landlords, and a voice for tenants, both individually and collectively. 

As Karen Buck herself points out, “with the Human Rights Act itself once again under attack by this Government, we must remain focused on what can be achieved and must be demanded right now, to end the misery endured by so many people trapped in unfit homes.” 

Sheila Spencer is the Secretary of the Labour Housing Group.

Blog Post

Awaab Ishak’s death and the failure of democracy within social housing

Image: Family handout

The damning verdict of the Awaab Ishak inquest has thrown a spotlight on the poor housing standards faced by many tenants across Britain. In Rochdale, where I am a Councillor, this tragedy has obviously hit home.  

Widespread media coverage means that most people have read about this awful case and seen the photos of the house where two-year old Awaab died, as a result of mould which the landlord – social housing provider Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) – failed to deal with. I can’t stop thinking of Awaab and his family.

National and local news outlets have rightly, in my opinion, reflected public sentiment: the buck for RBH’s failures stops with the housing association’s senior bosses including Chief Executive, Gareth Swarbrick. Michael Gove demanded a meeting with him earlier this week, but so far, no one from RBH has stepped down. 

Arguably, this is an exercise in blame avoidance – the Housing Secretary is keen to ensure the Government doesn’t take the rap for this, despite the fact that it’s part of a national problem. Many people living in social housing across the UK are suffering due to inadequate maintenance after over a decade of Tory cuts in the sector. The new cap on social housing rent increases, announced by the Chancellor the Autumn Statement, will make things even worse.  

Mr Gove stepping in ‘from the top down’ is also at odds with what would be happening here, if the social housing provider was adhering to its own mission statement.  

RBH is an independent, separate entity to Rochdale Council. It was previously an arm’s-length management organisation (ALMO) but became fully responsible for the borough’s council housing stock – over 12,000 homes – a decade ago, in 2012. RBH chose to call itself a ‘mutual’ rather than a housing association, and frequently emphasises its claim to be ‘the UK’s first tenant and employee co-owned mutual housing society’ with organisational values such as ‘responsibility’, ‘equity’ and ‘democracy’.

In relation to ‘democracy’ RBH says, on its website: ‘We are democratic. Our democracy is rooted in our mutual status and evidenced in our governance through our Representative Body and Board. Our tenants, employees and communities have a voice and power over what we do, and how we operate.’

This is simply not the case.

RBH does have a ‘Representative Body’ from which the only elected representatives of the community  – two Labour councillors, one of whom is the Council’s portfolio holder for housing – were removed by RBH officials at the start of this year. They publicly disagreed with the housing association’s plan to demolish council flats in Rochdale town centre. RBH is not allowing the Council to put the representatives it has nominated on this panel.    

Labour councillors have also questioned RBH’s credentials as a ‘mutual’. Under a proper mutual system, the tenants and communities RBH purports to empower would have democratic control, and surplus would be re-invested in the housing stock. In Rochdale, RBH executives have been enjoying repeated, substantial pay rises.

Following the coroner’s verdict on RBH this week, Rochdale Council’s housing portfolio holder has intervened by writing to them. It is a strongly worded letter and I agree with its content, but I’m sorry to say: it’s only a letter. This is the opposite of ‘communities having a voice and power’.

One reason this sad case stands out is that a mouldy home making people ill is something one might expect to see from an irresponsible landlord, hellbent on making a profit at any human cost, in the private rented sector. Awaab Ishak didn’t die in private rented housing, though.

Social housing providers need to make a surplus: enough money to invest in, and improve, their stock. Unlike in the private sector, social landlords’ main concern is not profit making – arguably they should not be doling out continued, significant pay rises and quashing scrutiny from elected representatives.

All bodies whose work significantly impacts the community, like RBH does, should have some form of democratic representation on their boards from a local authority. Social housing providers should also refrain from placing directors of other housing associations on their boards as this does not result in adequate scrutiny when it comes to decisions about executives’ pay. 

Political oversight (or at least involvement) should come from the most local level possible. This is a vital element of ensuring that social housing providers listen and respond to people’s needs, at a time when – as this case tragically illustrates – standards appear to be declining. 

Without input from community representatives with confidence and ‘know how’ about how boards and local democracy work, social housing providers like RBH will continue to fail to acknowledge and understand public opinion. Most importantly executive directors should feel that, when they are making decisions about the lives of so many people, ‘the public’ are sitting in the room.

We are in the middle of interrelated cost of living and housing crises. There is much more we need to find out about the state of the social housing stock across the country and questions about standards do need to be asked, because many of the people this affects are the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. 

Councillors across the country have important skills to contribute in these areas. 

Perhaps a future Labour Government could pass legislation to ensure that social housing providers have local authority representation on their boards. This would help to ensure that ordinary, local people have a stronger voice on these critically important issue.  

Elsie Blundell is a councillor, the Chair of Labour Housing Group North West branch and sits on Labour’s National Policy Forum.

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What does the Queen’s Speech mean for housing?

Despite presenting a large volume of legislation, overall the policy proposals in the Queen’s Speech will do very little to address the underlying causes of our country’s housing crisis.  Labour Housing Group has long argued for systemic change in the supply of genuinely affordable housing (the planning system and housing finance), reform of the benefits system, and regulation of the private rented sector and is campaigning for housing to be set in legislation as a human right. 

The legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech will not address the challenge of a desperate shortage of genuinely affordable homes, the poor quality and energy inefficiency of all housing stock or the growing problems of homelessness and temporary accommodation.  The legislative programme does not bring forward ideas for the failing social security system which is leaving families having to choose between heating and eating.  I have set out the outline of what is expected in each of the Bills and then highlighted what’s missing.

The Renters Reform Bill is expected to abolish ‘no-fault’ evictions by removing Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988.  We have heard this before and we must hold this Government to their promise to now deliver this.  The Bill also proposes to reform possession grounds for landlords – it is not clear what these will be or how the Bill will tackle the issues with administration of evictions.

The proposal for a legally binding Decent Homes Standard in the Private Rented Sector is certainly welcome but currently lacks detail for how this will be enforced, how the enforcement will be funded and how the works to ensure the Decent Homes Standard will be administered or paid for. Similarly, the introduction of a new Ombudsman for private landlords to resolve disputes could be a positive step forward but experience from the Housing Ombudsman, under-resourced and under-powered and struggling to keep up with the flow of escalated complaints from social landlords, suggests that unless this is properly funded this will create more uncertainty for renters.

The Social Housing Regulation Bill attempts to give more focus on consumer standards. With plans to enable the Regulator to intervene with landlords who are performing poorly on consumer issues there is hope for the many residents who struggle to secure a decent level of repair service from their landlord.  This is a u-turn from the Coalition Government’s abolition  of the Tenants Services Authority in 2010.  The impact of this Bill will only really be felt by tenants once the new powers and functions come through the Social Housing Regulator. Labour Housing Group will work with Labour MPs to make the case that the Social Housing Regulator is properly funded to deliver this expanded role. 

Enabling the Regulator to inspect landlords is encouraging – the tenants that I represent who receive a poor repairs service would welcome the chance to call for an inspection and to see the outcome of that inspection. This Bill still has gaps.  There is no stated role for Local Authorities or Local Councillors who are often the first to hear about the impact of poor consumer standards.

It is also silent on the role of local authorities with housing association disposals – local authorities have a responsibility to assess housing needs for their local areas and planning powers to secure affordable homes but there is no requirement for housing associations or the Social Housing Regulator to consult local authorities on the impact of disposals. Finally, this Bill is a missed opportunity to invest in tenant engagement including a requirement for tenants to be on Housing Association Boards or to have a say on local management decisions.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill promises mostly administrative changes to monitoring levelling up, alongside tinkering at the edges of the planning system. Anyone committed to seeing more affordable homes built will despair at the lack of ambition from this Bill. The idea of organising votes on a street by street basis to determine planning applications will just bring in unnecessary bureaucracy to an under-resourced planning system.

The focus should have been on supporting clear policies which prioritise affordable homes and high-quality design standards.  We await the detail on how the Bill will support local authorities to bring empty premises back into use and support the high street – currently local authorities have broad powers to support regeneration and so it’s difficult to see what more will be added which would have a meaningful impact.

It is positive that the Energy Security Bill proposes to appoint Ofgem as the new regulator for heat networks. I represent residents in new build homes who have no control over their energy prices and no powers to demand transparency over costs or choice of provider.  The appointment should go further and provide clear local involvement for consumers so that they have a say in their energy provider. There is a huge gap in making plans to insulate and retrofit existing homes so that they are more energy efficient.  Only a street by street, block by block programme, with sustained investment from national Government will secure the reduction in energy use that is needed to get to Net Zero.

It’s clear what’s missing from this legislative programme.  The Government has failed to address the issue of short term lets, which is eroding the availability of affordable homes across the country, particularly in London and areas with a growing tourist economy.  The Government’s failure to really grasp this issue and tackle the impact on housing supply and on communities lets down both homeless families and those hoping to join the housing ladder. 

It is unsustainable for short term lets platforms to continue operating in central London without further regulation.  There is a gap where there should be a long term commitment to investment in genuinely affordable council and social housing.  This should be delivered through Government co-ordination of major new housing schemes alongside a sustained funding stream.

Going forward, Labour Housing Group will work with the Labour front bench and Labour MPs to make the case for the strongest possible action within these Bills to address the housing crisis.

<strong>Rachel Blake</strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is a Labour and Co-operative Party Councillor in Bow East and is Vice-Chair of the Labour Housing Group.

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Indecently decent

A guest post from Maureen C
Like Red Brick I’m pleased to see so much news coverage of housing and benefit issues as this new government appears to announce new, ill thought out policies, most of which they have no mandate from the electorate for, on a daily basis.  Even when the press get things wrong, as they have on some aspects of the HB reforms, it is nevertheless good to get the issues out there.
Grant Snapps made some statements yesterday on proposals to alter funding arrangements for Decent Homes which do not seem to have attracted attention yet. These represent more bad news for the many tenants who still live in homes that do not meet the decent homes standard. Interestingly the background papers on this state ‘46% of council owned non-decent homes will lie in London at end March 2011.’
The decent homes standard is fairly basic – it includes having modern kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems. But the previous government’s arrangements have quietly transformed standards in social housing all over the country. Millions of council properties in particular have been brought up to a decent standard after decades of under investment.
Some councils have done this by transferring their stock to housing associations. But where council tenants, understandably in many cases, voted against wholesale transfers , councils could get access to funding (largely loans) if the arms length management companies (ALMOs) they formed to run the housing got 2 stars in an Audit Commission inspection. The rationale was to incentivise councils to provide better quality, VFM services for their residents and ensure services were built around residents’ needs and preferences. As anyone who lives and works in this area knows -better housing, opportunities and stronger communities need much more than bricks and mortar. But decades of tenants’ pressure to improve services and design fell on deaf ears. No teeth and no real market to power better services.
Inspections assessed this independently and were widely credited with driving up services and standards. The reality is that housing organisations had to up their game and provide better, more customer orientated, VFM services to get 2 stars. These efforts produced good results for tenants that sadly previous decades of tenant and political pressure had failed to deliver. Over 20 ALMOs got top scores of 3 stars for excellent service and 40 have 2 stars – making them the best performing in the sector.
Now Grant Snapps has slashed the funding for future programmes to meet decency standards – down from £680 million to £260 million in 2011/12.
And the pressure is off landlords to improve their services as they no longer need to get 2 stars to access what little funding remains.  Under the banner of reducing the ‘hoops to go through’ funding will be decided upon by the regulator (what’s left of the regulator anyway). The proposals, published by HCA, state ‘We will work with the regulator to achieve appropriate assurance on value for money in the use of funding.’
So much for transparency and accountability.
They had a system that produced better services for tenants and decent homes. It wasn’t perfect but it did produce some of the best outcomes for tenants in social housing we’ve seen for decades. Now we can have no assurance that the reduced funding will fuel better services and choices for tenants who deserve much better than this.  Will this get picked up by the national media?