Not only does this mean that thousands of renters are living in unsafe and unfit homes but also that renters are fearful of revenge evictions from their landlords if they complain. Council inaction is leaving renters vulnerable to retaliatory eviction, and makes it harder for them to claim back rent if their landlord fails to fix dangerous disrepair.
Ahead of the local elections, we are calling on councils to commit to serving improvement notices every time they find a dangerous private rented home, which will help to drive out criminal landlords and raise quality of homes for local renters.
What are Councils responsible for?
Local authorities in England are responsible for enforcing safety standards in private rented homes. If the most severe “Category 1” hazard is found on an inspection, the council can serve the landlord with an improvement notice, which compels them to make repairs. Category 1 hazards include: Threats to health from cold indoor temperatures, overcrowding, electrical hazards and (of course) damp and mould growth.
This prevents the landlord from serving the tenant with a retaliatory no-fault eviction for six months. If the landlord fails to act on an improvement notice, the council can fine or prosecute them, and the tenant can apply for a Rent Repayment Order.
Why are tenants in unsafe homes still going unprotected?
Generation Rent made Freedom of Information requests to 110 councils representing around two-thirds of the private renter population in England regarding their enforcement activity in 2019-20. Of the councils that responded, 76 recorded 11,570 Category 1 hazards in private rented homes. These councils served just 2,814 improvement notices, representing 24.3% of hazards found, and leaving thousands of tenants without the protections they are entitled to.
There has been no improvement since 2018-19, when the figure was 24.6%, though this was up from 20.5% in 2017-18.
Private renters have little confidence in their council taking appropriate action. In a poll of 1,008 private renters conducted by Survation in February 2021, 35% said they would contact the council if their landlord had failed to fix something – but 44% said they would look for somewhere else to live (read more).
What are we calling on Councils to do to protect renters?
Landlord licensing makes it easier for tenants to request inspections, and easier for councils to stop landlords from operating and seize unsafe properties. But only 55 councils have licensing schemes that cover more properties than the legal minimum, and only 10 of those have applied to the government to introduce schemes that cover more than 20% of the local rental market. Councils without licensing schemes must introduce them and Councils with existing licensing schemes must expand them. You can read more about landlord licensing schemes here.
Things have to get pretty bad before the council comes around to inspect a problem property and criminal landlords will try anything to avoid doing work. Inaction by councils serves only to discourage renters from reporting safety problems, and to embolden landlords who cut corners. With no council support, tenants move out, and because so many people are desperate for a home, the landlord has no difficulty in finding a new victim.
Budgets are tight, and there’s no question the government must provide more funding to drive out criminal landlords. But there are councils already doing the right thing across the country and these elections are a chance to elect councillors who will champion renters’ interests and adopt good practices to keep their homes safe.
Sign up here to join our campaign to get a better deal for renters.
Read our manifesto for councils here