Councils are failing to protect tenants from bullying landlords

Rental properties in Coventry. Image: Getty.

If your rented home has a broken boiler, mould growing up the wall, or a kitchen that’s falling apart, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not unusual. But it’s by no means acceptable: serious defects in the home can harm your health, so the law rightly requires landlords to keep their properties free of them.

Nevertheless, one in seven private rented homes has at least one severe hazard, and is classed as unsafe. That’s more than 600,000 households spending a large portion of their income on something that could make them ill.

Councils have responsibility for enforcing standards in the private rented sector. If environmental health officers find hazards on inspections of rented homes, they can take enforcement action, such as serving an improvement notice on the landlord, who is then compelled to carry out repairs. Failure to comply can result in prosecution, or, since 2017, a civil penalty of up to £30,000.

Yet most councils are not using their powers. Generation Rent made Freedom of Information requests to 102 of the councils with the largest private renter populations. Just 78 reported the Category 1 (severe) hazards they found in 2017-18 – a total of 12,592 of them. But in the same period, these councils served only 2,545 improvement notices – so only 21 per cent of landlords with unsafe homes were forced to do anything about it.

Just eight councils had a ratio of improvement notices to Category 1 hazards of more than 75 per cent, and five appear to have issued no improvement notices in the whole 12-month period.

Some councils tell us that taking informal action – such as sending warning letters and “hazard awareness notices” – is usually enough to convince landlords to make repairs before they need to reach for an improvement notice, which involves more staff time. But this pragmatic approach means that tenants are left exposed to a retaliatory eviction.

Because landlords can evict tenants without needing a reason – under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – many use this to intimidate tenants into putting up with unsafe conditions. In 2015 Parliament passed the Deregulation Act which makes a Section 21 notice invalid if the council has served an improvement notice for severe hazards.

Our data show that only a handful of councils are reliably providing tenants with this protection. If councils aren’t routinely using their powers then tenants will continue to be cowed into silence.

This week a new law comes into force which goes some way to addressing this lack of support. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 gives people starting tenancies from Wednesday onwards the ability to take negligent landlords to court over hazardous conditions. As well as forcing landlords to carry out repairs without relying on councils – which are, after all, experiencing deep budget cuts – courts can also award compensation to the tenant.

But unlike council-issued enforcement notices, the Homes Act does not protect plaintiffs from the no-fault eviction notice their landlord might issue in response. While compensation would be incentive enough for some to take action, there is a risk that any award would be swallowed up in the costs of moving home.

You’re much more likely to have a squalid home if you are on a low income, so the threat of having to find a new home when you have negligible savings is a potent one. Rather than rely on the Deregulation Act, tenants need to have basic assurance that they won’t be evicted for no good reason. Abolishing Section 21 would mean landlords would need valid grounds for eviction, so they couldn’t simply hang the threat of a forced move over tenants living in damp, draughty conditions. This – along with restrictions on rent increases, that other weapon of intimidation in criminal landlords’ armoury – would finally give renters confidence to exercise their rights.

Last summer the government consulted on a proposal for three-year tenancies, which would be a step forward in preventing retaliatory evictions, albeit only within the fixed term. We are still awaiting ministers’ decision on the next steps, but pressure is building across the political spectrum. On Saturday, the conservative Centre for Social Justice joined the growing chorus to scrap Section 21. Without reforming tenancy law substantially, the government can expect bullying of tenants to continue and the number of unsafe homes to remain stubbornly high.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.