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CLG Select Committee on PRS and Draft Tenant Fees Bill - the borough councils

Friday 23 February 2018

On 21 February 2018, representatives from various borough councils gave oral evidence to the CLG Select Committee as they continued their scrutiny of the private rented sector (PRS) and the Draft Tenant Fees Bill.

The evidence session continues the committee's in-depth look at the PRS and the Bill, taking statements from local authorities, academics and landlord and tenant groups on the role of councils in the private rented sector, licensing schemes and whether there are sufficient powers to deal with bad practices and MPs are likely to want to put some of the points raised to the Minister.

We give an overview of session one, from 21 February below, which featured witnesses from Wandsworth borough council, Bournemouth Borough Council and Boston Borough Council.

You can also find an overview of session two here, which saw witnesses from the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. 

The consensus from local authority representatives in the first session was that they welcomed the powers given to them to deal with problems in the PRS and issue financial penalties, Cllr Robert Lawton, from Bournemouth Borough Council said that if the resources aren't there to implement them, local authorities were left in a difficult situation. This was a key point the ARLA Propertymark Chief Executive David Cox made in his evidence session previously. 

Responding to a question on whether local authorities had sufficient resources to undertake enforcement duties, Lawton pointed out difficulties with some landlords being difficult to catch and problems with fines being too lenient and not acting as an effective deterrent for rogue landlords.

Cllr Clare Salier, Cabinet Member for Housing at Wandsworth Borough Council said that Wandsworth had achieved a good balance between resourcing and enforcement, but said officers could benefit from a national benchmarking scheme which would enable local authorities to share best practice around enforcement.

On further enforcement issues, Salier also commented that any extension of mandatory licensing would make it difficult to find the staff which were skilled to enforce it.

Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS)

Cllr Lawton argued that much of the supporting information on the HHSRS was out of date, and the guidance had not been updated since 2006. Salier said that the many landlords and tenant weren't sure what kind of issues they should report to councils and they rules need to be simplfied to make them easier to understand for laymen. Andy Fisher, Head of Housing Health and Communities at Boston Borough Council added that the lack of training meant that staff found difficulty in trying to explain the system. 

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Stanrds) Bill

Fisher said that whilst there was "real merit" in the Bill, which is at committee stage, caution needed to be taken over the possibility of fraudulent claims, questioning also how widely and extensively it would be called upon by tenants.

Lawton and Salier also raised concerns on how vulnerable tenants would be protected, with Lawton noting that a tenant complaining to a landlord about an issue could be threatened with eviction.

Selective Licensing

Witnesses were asked what consideration their authorities had given to adopting a selective licensing scheme, with all three panel members outlining the reasons why their authority had chosen against its adoption.

Lawton raised concerns on the licensing fee being fiscally neutral, the fact that selective licensing didn't really cover HMOs, and the possibility that landlords charged licensing fees could increase their rents.

Both Fisher and Salier agreed that licensing could add burdens to those already doing a good job, with Fisher suggesting the idea would prejudice the majority of landlords because of the actions of a minority.

In the previous evidence Session, ARLA Chief Executive David Cox argued that licensing scheme simply don't work and enforcement was poor. It seems that we're not alone in this view. 

Draft Tenant Fees Bill

The panel of local authority representatives were in agreement that there should be a sliding scale of financial penalties to act as a deterrent for inappropriate activity Salier also suggested that penalties for a first offence shouldn't be too low, or else it wouldn't act as a deterrent.

Responding to a question on how she envisaged a lead enforcement agency working with local authorities, Saliers said that if there was a lead agency working outside of a local structure, she would be cautious of giving councils a duty, but powers to another body which the council had no control over. 

NB: Since the two sessions on 21 February, there has also been a further session with witnesses from MHCLG including Heather Wheeler MP, Minister for Housing and Homelessness.