Recent newspaper headlines have focused on the estimated 10,000 rogue landlords in the private rented sector and why none of them currently appear on the new national database that is meant to protect tenants from harassment and dangerous property conditions.
The Guardian newspaper and ITV News led a media campaign exposing the long record of offences committed by a dozen or so landlords. They claim that legal loopholes are being exploited to allow the landlords to remain in business, while vulnerable tenants are paying rent for unsafe properties.
Forced into action, a spokesman for the Prime Minister delivered a swift U-turn and announced that the database will be made available for public inspection and scrutiny afterall. And MPs are contemplating the possibility of giving councils the ability to confiscate properties from serial offending landlords.
Damaging to reputations
But a new report has revealed that two thirds of councils failed to bring any prosecutions against private landlords in the past year. The Residential Landlords Association (RLA), who commissioned the research, say this reluctance to take action is failing both tenants and the good landlords, whose reputations are being damaged by the infamous rogues.
The research also showed that nearly one fifth of all councils did not issue any Improvement Notices last year. These require a landlord to carry out specific repairs or improvements to a property, usually to put right a health risk within a defined period. New powers to hit landlords with financial penalties are barely being used either.
Since April 2017 councils have been able to issue civil penalties of up to £30,000 against private landlords who fail to provide acceptable rented housing. These fines were intended to act as ‘on the spot’ justice, with the process being a quicker alternative to criminal prosecutions.
Even though councils are allowed to keep proceeds from the fines and can use this to fund their enforcement work, during the 12 months to April 2018 only 11 per cent of local authorities had used these new powers against a landlord or letting agent.
The average fine imposed during the first year of civil penalties was relatively low at £6,392, while of the 332 civil penalties issued across the whole country some 82 per cent (271 penalties) were made by London boroughs.
The low fines figures are not really that surprising when a half of all councils admitted they do not even have a policy in place for them to use their new powers. Something appears to be going badly wrong here, but what?
David Smith, the RLA’s policy director, said: “These results show that for all the publicity around bad landlords, a large part of the fault lies with councils who are failing to use the wide range of powers they already have.”
The RLA is calling for a renewed focus on enforcing the powers already available to councils. This includes ensuring their enforcement teams are properly staffed and funded, using council tax returns to help identify landlords and doing more work to find and take action against criminal landlords.
The association is very critical of the approach taken by councils setting up licensing schemes of private landlords operating in their areas. The RLA’s research team claims there is no clear link between a council operated licensing scheme and increased levels of enforcement.
They believe that law-abiding landlords are being forced to join licensing schemes, with the added cost of membership fees and paperwork, while criminal landlords ignore the schemes and go unpunished. The RLA wants to see co-regulation schemes developed, training organised for landlords to professionalise them and a five-yearly programme of property inspections.
They also want the Government to incentivise landlords to proactively improve their rental properties through a system of tax reliefs. This is particularly being pushed for energy efficiency work, which would also benefit tenants through reduced heating bills.
Unfit legal system
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: “The private rented sector is growing and, with limited resources and competing funding pressures, councils are working hard to ensure that complaints from tenants are prioritised and dealt with appropriately.”
He added: “When councils do prosecute they are too often being hamstrung by a system not fit for the 21st century.”
Those claims appear a little hollow when The Guardian and ITV investigation also found that more than one in seven councils in England and Wales had failed to prosecute a single bad landlord over the previous three years, despite some having very high numbers of homes classed as “non-decent”.
Direct action by tenants
Perhaps this is why MPs have recently voted in favour of giving tenants more powers to directly fight rogue landlords and to hit them in the pocket.
If Karen Buck’s private member’s bill becomes law – from next year tenants will be able to force landlords to remedy problems or hazards that make their homes “unfit” – and will also be able to seek compensation if the work is not carried out.
The bill will allow tenants to bypass council enforcement teams as well as giving council tenants an avenue for redress, as local authorities cannot bring legal cases against themselves where they are both a landlord and a property enforcement authority.