Much is written by housing watchers, including myself, on the problems with enforcing against poor behaviour and standards of landlords and letting agents in the private rented sector and the properties they run, being hampered by lack of staff and resources in the local authority who are charged with the main responsibility for policing the PRS.
This unassailable fact of life doesn’t stop the landlord community from complaining that council enforcement officers arent doing enough and before I move on from this point it is worth pointing to Dr Stephen Battersby’s revealing supplemental report on staffing levels among EHOs published in March 2018 he tells us that:-
“The average number of Environmental health officers available to inspect and enforce in respect of private rented accommodation was 2.46 in London and 2.2 elsewhere for 10,000 properties.”
This report is now 3 years old and was based on the size of the PRS at the last census in 2011, which as everyone knows has roughly doubled in the past 10 years. As Dr B points out:-
“It would be difficult for these staffing levels to cope with complaints alone never mind take the initiative and seek out the criminal landlords”.
Three years on I doubt things have improved that much and lets not forget 2 other important elements, Tenancy Relations Officers (TROs) who deal with harassment, illegal eviction and complex housing law problems are currently, since the last big round of austerity cuts in 2015, an endangered species, whilst Trading Standards Officers (TSOs) charged with policing letting agents struggle in their own way by simultaneously being responsible for dealing with doorstep crime, underage sales, counterfeit tobacco etc. Plus there are possible even less TSOs than housing enforcement.
Enforcement officers of all stripes struggle to cope with the sheer volume of work. I don’t know if things have improved for them but when I last worked for London Borough Lewisham as their TRO, there were three planning enforcement officers with a caseload of 900 complaints each.
However, leaving aside staffing levels v. size of the problem, there is also another issue that could do with addressing, the fractured landscape of legislation governing the PRS.
Frankly it’s a mess, with bits and bobs located all over the shop, some breaches buried deep in legislation where it often sits ignored or simply unknown (section 4 Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 anyone?) and with different teams responsible for policing different problems.
At the end of the day they all relate to breaches of standards and behaviour by landlords and letting agents but the powers are so often diluted and lack focus precisely because they are spread all over the place.
I have long thought it questionable to have legislation relating to the activities of letting agents, to be the sole preserve of trading standards when it comes to enforcement. Not just because there are less TSOs than housing enforcement but because so many of the breaches an agent can be brought to book for under consumer protection regs, relate to conduct under housing law, such as issuing sham licenses.
Housing enforcement work often coexists alongside the work of teams focused on preventing homelessness but because the law sprawls far and wide there is little connection between the officers doing the work.
For instance, a person could be legally homeless due to the poor conditions of the property because it might be considered unreasonable for them to remain but whilst this is a statutory definition in the Housing Act 1996, which is the preserve of homelessness officers, assessing the conditions of the property is the preserve of the Housing Act 2004, the natural stomping ground of EHOs.
I usually find that homelessness officers know little to nothing about the requirements of property licensing and licensing officers similarly vague on how homelessness units work.
Where harassment is defined in the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 there is also the extremely common and specific occurrence of landlords and agents “Demanding money claimed under a debt in ways that case alarm, distress and humiliation”, sitting under the Administration of Justice act 1970.
On the same tip, illegal eviction, again under the PFEA can also in many instances constitute a breach of s6 Criminal Law Act 1977.
Of course many of these examples arise because they relate to more than just rogue landlord activity but it doesn’t take away the overall problems of having a sprawling and fractured regulatory framework which is also incredibly unhelpful for renters seeking assistance. When considering a client’s circumstances so you can advise them, you have to divide up all their problems into different pathways, “Damp? Ok that’s environmental health, dividing up the house? Planning enforcement, threatened with illegal eviction? TROs” and so on.
This also often impacts on the possible civil routes to redress available to the renter because they will rely on determinations by council officers as evidential support. If housing professionals get confused by the plethora of laws and who is responsible for dealing with them, what chance a poor tenant in a rat infested HMO? (environmental health) where the landlord is erecting a weird structure in the back garden (Planning) a huge proposed rent increase (Civil challenge or homelessness application) and wanting to know if they can do anything about their lost deposit (Housing advice)
Of course multi team working is and always has been essential. I saw the light about 10 years ago when the face of rogue landlording really started to change from one bloke and his baseball bat to criminals and fraudsters entering the market, attracted by a housing shortage, high rents and a limited chance of being detected.
In their excellent August 2020 report, Dr’s Harris, Cowan and Marsh suggest:-
“A positive way forward is not only to consider the application of formal penalties but to take into account broader regulatory techniques. This includes aims and purpose (does the adopted understanding of the problem capture all relevant dimensions?), holistic thinking and multi-agency working (what is the role of other organisations within this process?), internal design (how are PRS teams are configured? Do they work collaboratively?), and how outcomes are defined and measured”.
Being an old school TRO ripped directly from the pages of the Old Testament I confess that I tend to only be excited by the “Formal penalty” bit there but I totally agree with the idea of holistic, multi agency approaches. Unfortunately this methodology is still thin on the ground among local authorities, although it is getting a lot better, even in the past 5 years.
Its one of my hobby horses I’m afraid. Badly drafted laws and weak sentencing create a perfect seed bed for criminal landlords and agents to grow in. A fractured regulatory framework is the fertiliser but the absence of a multi-agency working provides the trellis work that allows the weeds to take over the garden..
Safer Renting have recently been talking to the MHCLG and University of Kent in part on encouraging the Law Commissions to look again at the PFEA and other legislation to try and consolidate it and reduce the sprawl.
It will be a long haul but nowadays at least more people are coming to the same conclusions on the problems with policing the PRS, that it isn’t just staffing levels alone.
By Ben Reeve Lewis