When a caseworker at Safer Renting, a charity service that helps tenants in crisis, learns that their client lives in a home that should have been licensed, a cheer goes around the team. It makes all the difference when protecting tenants from illegal eviction, poor conditions and more.
But if licensing is such a force for good, why did Generation Rent’s research find that only 9% of English councils use the most powerful kind, called selective licensing?
A lack of Housing Officers
A growing body of research agrees that local authorities are suffering from a severe lack of housing officers, and this is what is behind the slow and limited implementation of licensing schemes in England.
Setting up and running a new licensing scheme takes a lot of time and work. And once the scheme begins, it will fail without skilled officers to run it. As one housing manager put it to me last year, “the last thing I want to do is set up a [more extensive] scheme and then not be able to deliver.”
So how bad is the staffing shortage? The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) found that 4 out of 5 councils resort to using agency workers to deliver environmental services such as those housing officers perform. When asked, the biggest reason managers gave for this was shortages in resources or delays in recruitment of new officers.
The shortage is best measured by the ratio of officers to houses. Stephen Battersby looked into staffing levels at local authorities in England in 2018. The report found an average of just 2.2 environmental health officers (EHOs) per 10,000 privately rented homes.
That means that even if the average EHO team spends 100% of its time inspecting rented properties, they would have to inspect 4 properties every working day in order to inspect every property just once every five years.
Clearly, the amount of enforcement, inspections and followup work that housing teams can devote to the private rented sector is extremely limited by staffing.
What is causing England’s Housing Officer shortage?
Last year I made a Freedom of Information request to each of London’s 32 boroughs to learn more about their licensing schemes. I then interviewed housing officers, team managers, councillors and licensing professionals. My conversations pointed to three main reasons behind England’s lack of housing officers.
A long pipeline
First, it takes a long time to create a new housing officer. The training required takes four years if beginning as a graduate, and six years if beginning as an apprentice. That puts housing officers up with vets, lawyers and pharmacists in terms of professional qualifications.
While it’s great for those working in housing to be highly skilled, we must question whether those we rely on to tackle illegal evictions also need to spend four years studying an Environmental Health degree which contains modules on food safety standards.
To speed up the pipeline, local authorities are working on smart solutions. At least one London borough is working with the CIEH to create a new, fast-track housing course.
Little interest from young people
But even if more streamlined courses are on offer, local authorities still need to attract 18-year-olds and uni graduates onto them. This is the second challenge. Local authorities used to pay to train and recruit new housing officers and then welcome them into secure, well-paid jobs ‚Äî but now a BSc course costs £9,250 for UK students and £14,000 for EU/international students.
One experienced council officer shared a view that most councils had been unable to invest in new housing officers over the last decade due to smaller grants from central government. Even when support is offered, a life as a housing officer is seen as a tough gig. A team manager at a different council told me a candidate they supported chose to go into an administrative role rather than work as a housing officer.
Not enough courses
Perhaps caused by this dearth of interest, very few institutions offer a course in environmental health suitable to become a housing officer. Only four universities in England offer an Environmental Health BSc approved by the CIEH. There are, by contrast, 343 local authorities in England.
In London for example, where millions rent privately, only one university offers the necessary BSc and MSc courses. They work closely with local authorities, and offer short courses for existing council workers to improve their housing work.
Fewer institutions means less choice for potential students. Those who live far from campus and can’t afford to rent nearby during their studies will simply not study the course. Commutes from Fulham, Peckham or Stratford to Middlesex University’s Hendon campus take well over an hour ‚Äî enough to deter all but the most determined officer in training.
Three things we can do to expand licensing
Licensing protects tenants and makes it easier to crack down on criminal landlords. Licensing schemes should be expanded to protect as many tenants as possible. How can we do it?
1. Nationwide licensing
England should have one nationwide licensing scheme that applies the same basic standards to all privately rented homes. There is already some limited nationwide licensing, but it only applies to properties with five or more tenants forming two or more households.
To give tenants maximum protection, we need licensing to apply to all rented properties, regardless of who is living in them. This will simplify the system for local authorities; instead of each council facing upfront costs to devise their own individual licensing scheme, this work can be done once by MHCLG. This is in effect very similar to Generation Rent’s existing proposal for a national landlord register.
If local authorities are allowed to administer the nationwide scheme locally, they will be incentivised to go out and sign up as many licences as possible, since they will keep the revenue raised (usually between £500 and £1,500 for a five-year licence) and reinvest it in growing their enforcement teams.
But this still leaves the staffing problem. We can begin to address this in two ways.
2. Streamlined training
It takes too long to train new housing officers to run licensing schemes. The requirement to complete a university course which includes irrelevant content like food safety standards needs to change.
Although it may have made sense in decades past, the UK’s private rented sector increased from 2.8 million to 4.5 million households between 2007 and 2017. Housing officers need a dedicated, shorter qualification to get into the workforce faster.
3. Funding training
Local authorities also need to be given more resources to make this employment path appeal to would-be apprentices and graduates. Funding of studies should return, and students should be ensured good jobs in local authorities when they graduate. Good salaries can be paid for by the revenue these new officers generate from their licensing and enforcement work.
The ensuing uptick in demand would then prompt more institutions in England to offer the course, making it even easier for students to enrol locally, keeping skills and knowledge in local communities where it can be more effectively deployed.
Sam Hurst is carrying out research into property licensing for Safer Renting.