Renters in England can now sue landlords over mouldy, cold or noisy properties – if they can afford to

Those were the days: cold flats, 1934 style. Image: Getty.

A new law recently came into force, which gives tenants in England greater powers to hold landlords to account over homes which are difficult or dangerous to live in. Before these changes, landlords had only limited obligations to keep properties in good repair during tenancies, and as a result it’s estimated that almost 1m rented homes pose a serious risk to health and safety.

The law means that landlords leasing out properties for less than seven years must ensure the place is fit for people to live in at the beginning of the lease – and that it stays that way throughout the tenancy. The legislation covers a wide range of potential issues. For starters, homes must be stable, free from serious damp and mould and have adequate natural light and ventilation.

Tenants who face issues with their home’s state of repair, water supply, drainage or cooking facilities, will be able to use the law to push for repairs, if the problems are so bad that the home is deemed unfit for occupation. The law also protects tenants against hazards such as fire, overcrowding and pests.

Where homes fall below these standards, tenants can insist on repairs and claim damages for costs such as health problems or inconvenience caused by living in the property, damage to their furniture or the cost of temporary accommodation.

Left unprotected

These may seem like basic provisions, but previous laws gave tenants very little protection. Before the new act, provisions to ensure properties were fit for human habitation only applied to houses rented below a certain price: £80 per year in London, and £52 elsewhere, to be exact. These rent levels had not been updated since 1957, and given the cost of housing today, they effectively no longer applied.

The only really helpful obligation was section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, which required the landlord of residential property, let on a short lease, to keep the structure and exterior and gas, electricity and water installations in repair.

But under section 11, the landlord need only repair the property where it has deteriorated from a previous better state of repair. They do not have to ensure that the property is fit for habitation or safe at all times during the tenancy.

Common problems such as mould and condensation are rarely caught by these provisions, even though they can damage furnishings and make tenants ill. In one case, the Court of Appeal decided that even though a house was “virtually unfit for human habitation”, the landlord could not be held responsible.

Residential tenants could, and still can, complain to the local housing authority about poor conditions. Under section 9 of the Housing Act 2004, the authority can carry out a Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) inspection, which rates hazards in the tenant’s home according to how serious they are.

The difficulty with this provision is that the tenant must complain to the local housing authority, rather than take action directly against the landlord. Inspections, notices and enforcement action are uncommon and enforcement rates vary considerably between different councils. As local authorities cannot enforce the HHSRS standards against themselves, the standards are useless for council tenants.

Landlords’ new duties

Tenants can now take direct action in court when a landlord fails in his or her obligations, rather than relying on the local housing authority to prosecute. This applies to all new tenancies from March 20, 2019 – and to prior tenancies, if they’re still in place by March 2020.

The only think stopping tenants will be getting access to legal advice and representation. Legal aid is only available in the most serious cases, and there is a shortage in the number of housing lawyers.

Good landlords are unlikely to have any problem with the law, as it only requires them to provide the most basic standards, which are already enforced under the HHSRS.

The fire at Grenfell Tower showed the importance of giving tenants power to take direct action against their landlord – whether private or social – where there are legitimate concerns about housing safety. This new law finally enables them to do so.

The Conversation

Emily Walsh, Principal Lecturer in Law, University of Portsmouth.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.