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Housing: Conditions in Rented Sector

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent steps they have taken to improve housing conditions for both social housing and privately rented properties.

The Government set out their ambition in the levelling-up White Paper to reduce the number of non-decent rented homes by 50% by 2030, with the biggest improvement in the lowest-performing areas. We are making progress in the social rented sector by introducing a new proactive consumer regulation regime through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. In the private rented sector, for the first time, we consulted on applying a minimum quality standard and we remain committed to reviewing the decent homes standard.

From the latest English Housing Survey, the private sector has the highest proportion of non-decent homes, at 23%, whereas the figure is 10% in the social housing sector. While we had the White Paper, A Fairer Private Rented Sector, last year, we are still waiting on a renters reform Bill, which would introduce a decent home standard for the private rented sector, as well as ending no-fault evictions—something promised one way or another since 2019. When will the Minister, her department and the Government get a grip and take some meaningful action to prevent a repeat of the tragic experience that Awaab Ishak and his family faced in Rochdale? I note that the Government have introduced Awaab’s law in the social housing sector, but why are they neglecting the situation in the private housing sector?

We are fully committed to delivering a package of reforms that deliver our manifesto commitment to abolish no-fault Section 21 evictions, strengthen private sector renting and support both tenants and good landlords. The reforms are a once in a generation opportunity for change, and it is important that we get it right. Legislation on private rented sector reform remains a top priority for this Government and we will bring forward a renters reform Bill as soon as we can within this Parliament.

My Lords, further to the noble Lord’s Question, most private landlords keep their properties in a good condition, but a minority do not. In those cases, where the tenant complains to the local council about a dangerous property, that tenant can be protected from what is called “retaliatory eviction”, so long as the council serves an improvement notice on the landlord. However, this is happening in only about a quarter of such cases, meaning that three-quarters of tenants are exposed to eviction under Section 21. What can my noble friend do to ensure that more local authorities give tenants the protection that they are entitled to?

My noble friend is absolutely right: local councils are responsible for enforcing standards in the private rented sector and have a duty to take action where they find hazards at the most dangerous category 1 level. The Secretary of State has asked all local housing authorities to do everything in their power to improve the conditions for tenants and to have particular regard to high-score category 2 damp and mould hazards when enforcing current standards. The Secretary of State has also asked councils to provide an assessment of damp and mould issues particularly affecting private rented housing in their area. The department is currently analysing their responses to determine what needs to be done to address the issues raised by my noble friend.

My Lords, has the Minister’s department had a chance to look at the recommendation from the Affordable Housing Commission for a national housing conversion fund that would finance local housing associations to acquire from private landlords properties that need a lot of attention? This would increase the amount of safe, affordable, secure social housing at the same time as improving the property, ending or reducing fuel poverty and having an impact on climate change as well. Is this a real bargain for government?

I have not got an answer on that specific report, but I can say that this Government are investing £11.5 billion in new, good, affordable housing, £8.6 billion of which had already been allocated. So we are looking at more good housing and, at the same time, we are challenging to ensure that those responsible for social housing in particular are making sure that those houses are in good condition.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a landlord and a former renter. I am all in favour of a decent homes standard, but when will the Government introduce regulation of letting and managing agents? Some of these agencies are real cowboys. They deal in millions of pounds and they are completely unregulated. When will the Government stop dithering and introduce regulation?

I do not have a timescale for the introduction, but we are looking at this issue. We have found that some of these sectors are self-regulating much better than they were, but we will continue to keep an eye on this issue and forward it to legislation if necessary.

My Lords, what additional consideration is being given to the millions of pensioners, many living in poorly heated social housing and rented property conditions, who, despite existing support schemes and fearful of escalating bills, appear unwilling to turn up the heat and too often suffer in silence? Despite the excellent work of charities such as Age Concern, should not further support be given to targeting this vulnerable group with sensitive advice and even government-sponsored visitor support programmes, perhaps through a multiplicity of agencies?

The noble Lord brings up a very important point. As he knows, the Government have put £37 billion into supporting all households through this difficult economic time. Specifically for older people, what I have been doing, personally, as a Minister for Faith, is talking to faith and community leaders about doing exactly this—ensuring that older people, particularly, and disabled people, know what they are entitled to, making sure that they get it and also stopping some of the fear that is happening. I also thank the many warm hubs this winter that have been opening their doors in churches and community centres in order to look after these people and make sure they know what they are entitled to.

My Lords, there is an important rural dimension to this issue. In north Devon, the vast majority of privately rented property has been turned into Airbnb, creating a crisis in rural housing. Does the Minister think that the ability of local authorities to levy council tax is sufficiently robust to tackle this problem? If not, what plans do His Majesty’s Government have to legislate to address this problem, which is escalating every day?

I thank the right reverend Prelate. If he looks at the LUR Bill, he will see that we are dealing with this exact problem at the moment. It will probably be debated next week in this Chamber and I look forward to being able to tell him further about what we are going to do.

My Lords, during the passage of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, your Lordships’ House voted for an amendment that would have reduced energy costs in social housing. In the other place recently, without any explanation or debate, that amendment was removed. Is that not a gross discourtesy to this House? Can the Minister now explain why that amendment was removed?

No, I do not think it is a discourtesy to the House; it is part of the process and we will be discussing it further, I am sure, on Tuesday, when the Commons amendments come back to the House on the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill.

Does the noble Baroness agree that, in those cases where the only realistic way of having a house in appalling condition repaired is to sue the landlord, including social landlords, in the county courts, it is completely unconscionable that tenants should have to wait between a year and 18 months for those cases to be heard? What are the Government going to do to deal with the backlog in the county courts?

My Lords, the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill that we were talking about earlier will deal with a lot of that problem, particularly with Awaab’s law that has entered that Bill in the Commons. There will be clear timescales, first, for housing providers to respond to tenants, and, secondly, for any serious safety defects in housing to also be dealt with in a good timescale.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that housing associations are very keen to do more to regenerate existing housing but are unable to do so without additional government funding. Will she confirm that the Government will look to maximise the use of the existing funding through the affordable homes programme to support housing-led regeneration right across the country?

My Lords, it is the responsibility of social housing providers to maintain their properties, and that includes regeneration, but we have found a £30 million fund to help Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and we will be looking at what more we can do for the sector.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, for curtailing the previous Question with seven seconds to go. Hopefully, I will be more benevolent to him in the future.