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Local authority enforcement in private rented sector “more reactive than proactive” amid concerns over barriers faced and lack of capacity

Local authorities face significant barriers to tackling poor conditions in the private rented sector, resulting in an uneven picture of enforcement, a study commissioned by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has found.

The findings of the study – carried out by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University - were based on survey responses from 140 local authorities in England, and 80 interviews with stakeholders in 14 case study areas.

The report said: “Overall, the findings suggest that the powers and enforcement measures available to local authorities are valuable tools for tackling poor conditions in the private rented sector.

“Local authorities who participated in this study made wide use of statutory improvement notices and civil penalties were reported to be effective as an enforcement tool and as a deterrent, and there was evidence of increasing use of banning orders against rogue landlords.

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“The consensus view was that mandatory licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) and selective licensing helped improve standards and conditions.”

However, the report found that few local authorities participating in the study had sufficient, comprehensive knowledge of the local private rented stock to inform strategic decision making.

“Enforcement capacity was so limited in some teams that they described mostly ‘fire-fighting’,” the study said.

It added that local authorities lacking political or corporate commitment to improving housing conditions found it difficult to robustly enforce private rented sector standards.

The study concluded: “With some notable exceptions and pockets of good practice, these and other challenges appear to leave many enforcement teams operating a reactive, rather than proactive service that is narrowly focused on fulfilling statutory duties and targeting only the worst standard properties. Addressing these barriers is likely to result in increased and more effective action to improve conditions and standards in the private rented sector.”

The key messages from the report were:

  • Local authorities have a duty under Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 to keep housing conditions under review and identify action needed, but local authorities participating in this study were not always well informed about the private rented sector stock. Only a small number carried out regular reviews of the stock. This partly reflects the partial nature of secondary data about the sector, such that gathering evidence was described as ‘one of the biggest challenges’ enforcement officers faced.
  • Local authorities were generally found to operate a ‘reactive’ enforcement service that responded to complaints, although a small number were making proactive efforts to identify and tackle poor conditions. There are questions about the extent to which relying on tenant complaints is a robust basis for identifying poor conditions. Officers reported that tenants in the ‘sub-standard’ private rented sector can be fearful of reprisals or eviction and have limited understanding of their rights, and so may not report issues.
  • There was significant variation in local authority approaches to enforcement, with a small number making full use of the tools and powers available and proactively tackling substandard housing; and others where formal enforcement action was a ‘last resort’. Few authorities could demonstrate convincingly that their approach was driven by the known effectiveness in a particular local context. For example, some explained limited use of enforcement with reference to high levels of landlord compliance with informal requests but acknowledged that they were unlikely to encounter the worst properties.
  • The factors found to shape different approaches to the sector – the ‘key drivers’ of enforcement - were:
    • the capacity of enforcement teams;
    • the experience and expertise of enforcement teams;
    • political will and strategic commitment to tackling poor housing conditions.
  • Additional barriers to effectively tackling poor standards and conditions were
    • issues relating to the legal framework, such as the range and complexity of laws relevant to enforcement work;
    • difficulties gathering evidence to support enforcement
  • Local authorities were in favour of all forms of private rented sector licensing schemes because of the associated powers to inspect and enforce, and the setting of clear standards. Mandatory licensing had prompted greater focus on historically problematic private rented markets and, as a result, was unanimously thought by case study participants to have helped improve standards and conditions. However, issues with landlord compliance and local authority capacity to monitor compliance means that further efforts may be needed to fully maximise the impact of licensing on private rented sector conditions and standards.
  • Civil Penalty Notices (CPNs), introduced for some housing offences in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, were also viewed positively by enforcement officers and reported to be effective as both an enforcement tool and a deterrent. CPNs were compared very favourably to prosecutions as a means of tackling poor housing conditions.
  • Collaborative working with other local authority teams and external agencies was found to bring significant benefits to enforcement teams. Collaboration increased team capacity, and partners such as trading standards officers and financial investigators brought valuable additional powers.

The report can be viewed here.

 

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