Making (some) things rightPosted: March 13, 2023 | Author: julesbirch | Filed under: Private renting, Regulation, Social housing, Temporary accommodation |Leave a comment
Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.
‘Making things right’ is the government’s theme of the month for housing and two new pieces of legislation represent significant steps in that direction.
Unfortunately they also beg some real questions about what’s happening, and not happening, elsewhere.
The Social Housing (Regulation) Bill passed its final hurdle before Royal Assent with its third reading in the Commons on March 1. The proactive consumer regulation regime and inspections that were dropped in 2010 will now be restored.
While its long-term impact remains to be seen, the Bill was considerably strengthened by last-minute government amendments to implement ‘Awaab’s Law’ time limits for landlords to investigate and fix damp and mould problems and to mandate professional standards for social housing staff.
On March 3, the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill got its third reading in the Commons before moving on to the Lords.
The private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MP Bob Blackman (also the architect of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2017) aims to stop the exploitation of vulnerable tenants by rogue landlords in the exempt accommodation sector.
The two Bills, and the spirt of cooperation in the debates on them, highlight a significant change in attitudes within government since Grenfell.
That change was first evident in the success of another private member’s bill, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act introduced by Labour MP Karen Buck, which received Royal Assent in 2019 just three years after the government had abruptly rejected a similar amendment to its own Housing and Planning Bill.
The justification for rejection given by then housing minister Marcus Jones back in 2016 now reads like something from a different era. As he put it: ‘Of course we believe that all homes should be of a decent standard and all tenants should have a safe place to live regardless of tenure, but local authorities already have strong and effective powers to deal with poor quality and safe accommodation and we expect them to use them.’
If that statement seemed hopelessly inadequate at the time, the need for the latest legislation makes it only too clear.
However, as the 99,000 homeless families and 126,000 children languishing in temporary accommodation while waiting for non-existent social housing can testify only too clearly, real progress depends not just on legislative intent but also on finance and what happens in the rest of the housing system.
The debates on the two latest Bills revealed some welcome flexibility in government thinking, most clearly in Awaab’s Law but also in the amendment on professional standards that it had previously rejected on the spurious sounding grounds that it could trigger another Office for National Statistics reclassification of housing association borrowing.
But that’s where the questions start. Take, for example, the ‘Make Things Right’ advertising campaign launched by Michael Gove last week.
In a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) press release, the housing secretary cites the amendments on damp and mould and professionalisation as examples of ‘decisive action’ taken to protect tenants.
‘We are shining a light on rogue landlords that ignore their tenants time and again and allow families to live in disrepair,’ he says. ‘This campaign will make sure tenants know their rights and how to make a complaint – giving them the confidence to go to the Ombudsman and ensure action is taken.’
So far, so good, but why just social tenants when we know that rogue landlords, disrepair and damp and mould are far more prevalent in the private rented sector?
A recent report by Citzens Advice estimates that 2.7 million private renter households and 1.6 million children are living in cold, damp or mouldy homes and calls for Awaab’s Law to be extended.
Why is there no ombudsman for private renters to complain to except if their landlord or letting agent has signed up voluntarily with the social housing one?
True, the government is promising to scrap 21 and is consulting on extending the Decent Homes Standard but merely asking the questions highlights the absence of rights that consumers in other markets take for granted.
Perhaps the justification is that social tenants are more ‘vulnerable’ and that ‘social’ landlords should be held to higher standards, but we also know that need for social housing hopelessly outstrips supply and that poor and disadvantaged households are concentrated at the worst end of the private rented sector.
And what about those families stuck in temporary accommodation? An amendment proposed by Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh in the debate on the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill would have tightened up regulation of the enforcement of the homelessness code of guidance for temporary accommodation.
In theory, the code should ensure that temporary accommodation is suitable for families and children, but in practice councils face overwhelming demand and lack the resources and the staff to ensure it is suitable let alone the permanent social housing to replace it.
Ms McDonagh is chair of the all-party group on for households in temporary accommodation. She quoted data from the national child mortality database that found that temporary accommodation was a ‘contributing factor’ in the deaths of 34 children, most of them less than a year old, between 2019 and 2021. The most likely cause was lack of safe sleeping provision such as cots but other explanations are damp and mould and overcrowding.
She cited multiple breaches of the code from a mother and newborn baby placed in a hostel where she was the only woman to the inevitable cases of disrepair, damp, mould, mice and cockroaches.
Meanwhile there are 26,000 families in temporary accommodation away from their local area that means moving miles away from work, school, friends, family and places of worship. Research from Shelter last week shone a new light on the impacts.
Levelling up minister Dehenna Davison rejected the amendment on the grounds that it was outside the scope of the bill but pledged that ‘we will certainly explore it with her to make sure that we drive up standards in temporary accommodation as well’.
Those standards will be needed more than ever with budgets for new permanent homes under pressure from soaring costs, below-inflation rent rises, the Right to Buy and the investment required in the existing stock. This at a time when DLUHC is reporting significant underspends on major housing programmes.
The good news in the last month represents real progress but it also highlights how much there is still to be done.