A Commons select committee report is arguing for a change in the law to force private landlords to have to fix mould within days, as is now the case with landlords in the social housing sector.
The Commons committee has singled out the private rented sector (PRS) as a problem area for poor quality housing and recommends rolling out new laws to force landlords to address hazards in the rented properties they own.
The new drive for safety follows the tragic death of 2 years-old Awaab Ishak in December 2020 in a rental flat in Rochdale, albeit this occurred after living in appalling damp, condensation and mould conditions in a housing association (social housing) flat since he was born.
The death followed a series of complaints to the housing association landlord. It came out at the inquest that little remedial action had taken place.
The coroner concluded that his death was caused by “chronic exposure to mould” in his family’s social housing flat, which occurred soon after his second birthday.
Earlier this month, the levelling up secretary Michael Gove published a consultation document on an amendment to the Social Housing Bill to be known as ‘Awaab’s Law’. This is legislation designed to speed up landlords’ responses to reports of damp, condensation and mould in rental accommodation in the social housing sector, but it leaves the regime in the PRS untouched.
The social housing amendment is to require landlords to investigate reports within 24 hours, and tackle identified hazards within 14 days, completing fixing them within a further seven days. Emergency “emergency repairs” will need to be tackled within 24 hours.
Those social landlords failing to comply – and all the available evidence available from to date shows the problem is even more severe in the private housing sector - could face a court trial and a hefty compensation fine, payable to their tenants.
Private landlords should have to fix mould within the same tight deadline constraints introduced for social housing providers, the committee MPs said in a recent report published by the House of Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee.
The MPs argue that the above amendment should be extended to the private rented sector. Tory MP and committee chairman Steve Brine wants to see the private rented sector come under the same scrutiny, and private tenants given the same safeguards, as social tenants.
Michael Gove’s department had already argued that plans to introduce tougher new laws under the Renters (Reform) Bill, currently passing through Parliament, were sufficient to improve standards in the PRS, when the “Decent Homes Standard” was introduced to the sector for the first time. But Mr Brine’s committee thinks otherwise.
Other plans in the Bill include the creation of a new rental sector ombudsman to help resolve tenants’ issues quicker and “empower tenants to challenge poor practice".
Mr Brine’s report says that it is estimated that while only 0.2% of properties in the social rented sector have a category one - considered the most dangerous level of hazard, including damp or mould – that figure was at around 3.6% of properties in the private rented sector.
The latest available English Housing Survey puts 23% or nearly 1mn (990,000) occupied private rented sector dwellings as estimated to fail the Decent Homes Standard. This, it says, is a higher proportion than in the social rented sector (10% or 380,000 dwellings) and in the owner-occupied sector (13% or 2 million dwellings).
A higher proportion of private rented sector dwellings are estimated to fail the decent homes standard in nearly all regions but the biggest disparity appears in Yorkshire and the Humber. Here, 38% of private rented sector homes are estimated to fail, compared to 18% of owner-occupied homes and 10% of social rented homes.
In 2021, 14% of private rented sector homes were estimated to be unsafe. That is judged using the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). And dwellings where households are in receipt of housing support are more likely to contain a hazard than those not receiving support.
14% of private rented sector homes, or 615,000 occupied dwellings, are estimated to contain a Category 1 hazard according to the HHSRS. This is higher than for social rented (4%) or owner occupied (10%) dwellings.
Those households in the private rented sector in receipt of housing support are more likely to live in a home with a Category 1 hazard (19%) compared to those not in receipt of support (12%).
The MPs' report is part of a wider inquiry into prevention in health and social care. It’s this greater proportion of issues in the PRS that Government statistics point to private rentals contributing to both the total number of poor-quality homes, and the costs that poor housing causes in the NHS, that have persuaded the committee’s recommendations.
The committee chair Mr Brine said the government had "dragged its feet" on updating the 'Decent Homes Standard' for social housing properties, and extending the standard to private rentals. Given the slow progress of the Renters (Reform) Bill, it is likely implementation of the Bill could still be some while off. "Poor quality homes can have a catastrophic impact on the health of those who live in them," he says.
Mr Brine goes on:
"The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from a respiratory condition caused by mould in his home should leave ministers in no doubt that tenants in both the social and private rented sectors deserve greater protection by law.”
The committee, which is made up of 11 MPs, has concluded that the Government “should also consider how similar [to those in the social sector] safeguards could be extended to tenants in the private rented sector who are affected by housing hazards, such as damp and mould, that can pose an immediate danger to health”.
Awaab’s Law was added to the Social Housing Bill which received Royal Assent last year. The Renters’ Reform Bill, which will eventually apply to the private rental sector, is expected to be passed into law before the end of this Parliament.
On Thursday, Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall and other MPs tabled a series of amendments to the Renters (Reform) Bill which intends to get rid of Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 – otherwise known as ‘no-fault’ evictions – and fixed tenancies which would require tenants to live in a property for just four months before having the right to give notice to leave.
Councils in England inspect only around half of all mould reports in private rental housing
Given the weight of new rules and regulations facing private landlords, many experts in the industry warn, and have warned for many years, that unless adequate enforcement action is taken, nothing much will change.
Analysis of local government data has been reported as revealing that local authorities inspected just 11,897 homes during 2021-2022 when the total number of complaints received totalled 23,727.
Enforcement action has been below par in past years; it’s likely to get worse as local authorities struggle with their finances, many being on the point of insolvency.
Their budget cuts mean that on average councils are inspecting just about half the number of reports about damp and mould that they receive affecting the private rented sector, as reported by The Observer.
A recent government survey of more than 300 councils analysed by The Observer newspaper discovered that local authorities in England, in the vast majority (87%) of cases, where illegal and dangerous levels of damp and mould were identified – category 1 or category 2 hazards – the councils involved had taken an informal route to resolution.
Of the relatively few instances where more formal action was taken, authorities issued 1,539 improvement notices – these are legal orders that force landlords to make improvements – and 105 fixed penalty notices, only 27 prosecutions were brought against landlords for serious damp and mould in homes in 2021-22.
Almost 85% of over 300 English councils included in Observer data, blamed a lack of funding and resources as the biggest impediment to their ability to hold private landlords to account.
As reported by The Daily Telegraph, over two-thirds of councils said that the housing health and safety rating system – the risk assessment-based process, the main legal framework currently used to analyse and maintain quality in the private rented sector – needed reforming. One council suggested it was “not fit for purpose”.
“Councils do everything they can to tackle bad practice and are taking action, as appropriate, to raise standards in the private rented sector,” councillor Darren Rodwell, the housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA), told The Telegraph.
“However, many local enforcement teams do not currently have the resources and capacity to proactively tackle poor standards in the PRS due to the severe financial constraints facing councils,” he said.
A Government survey on the mould and damp data has found almost two-thirds of councils had five or fewer full-time staff working on housing standards and enforcement for private landlords in their boroughs. Those councils with the biggest and most proactive housing enforcement teams were those that had implemented selective licensing schemes.
A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson has been quoted as saying that it will be strengthening councils’ enforcement powers through the Renters (Reform) Bill, including by introducing a new standard for decent homes and increasing the size of compensation awards that can be awarded to tenants.
“We will fully fund any additional burdens the new system puts on councils. They will be able to ringfence the money raised through fines to fund this work in the long-term, ensuring that landlords are the ones to pay for enforcement.,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile Propertymark – the letting and managing agent’s body - has been urging the UK Government to extend qualifications to be applied to property managers in the social rented sector to those working in the private rented sector too.
Propertymark is arguing that the first step to bring the private rental sector in line with the social rental sector and ensure that there are fairer standards and protections for consumers overall, would be to enact the proposals laid out in the 2019 Regulation of Property Agents Working Group Report.
Helping tenants with damp and mouldy housing (England) https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/helping-tenants-with-damp-and-mouldy-housing-england/
Health inequalities: Cold or damp homes https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9696/
Regulation of property agents working group - https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/regulation-of-property-agents-working-group
Reforming the Private Rented Sector: Government’s response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2022-23 - https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmselect/cmcomloc/1935/report.html
Paul Shamplina on why tenants are asked to provide CVs: https://youtu.be/wO9ZTagwWJo?si=P4f5pLMriiyn7uD1