Jayne Dowle: The scandal of sub-standard rental property

Theresa May during a visit to a London housing estate when she promised to put the issue at the top of the political agenda.
Theresa May during a visit to a London housing estate when she promised to put the issue at the top of the political agenda.
Have your say

I KNOW a week is a long time in politics, but it seems aeons since the Prime Minster announced that she was on a “personal mission” to solve Britain’s housing crisis. In fact, it was back in November at the time of the Budget.

It’s been three months since then. And it’s all gone very quiet. With the Prime Minister’s mission in mind, people were expecting great things for housing from the January reshuffle.

Dominic Raab is the Housing Minister.

Dominic Raab is the Housing Minister.

Instead, Dominic Raab, MP for the distinctly leafy constituency of Esher and Walton in Surrey, was appointed Housing and Planning Minister, the seventh incumbent in the past decade, and his boss Sajid Javid’s title had the word ‘housing’ added to his brief as Communities Secretary.

It doesn’t take a political genius to work out that this rapid turnover at the helm says a lot about why this Government never seems to make any sustained headway on housing.

So far, Mr Raab has been rather quiet (other than on his ‘pet’ subject Brexit where he’s only too happy to tour the TV studios). In an attempt to wake him from his slumber, here are some startling figures.

It’s about the forgotten millions who have no housing option but to rent from a private landlord. Somewhere in the Parliamentary debates about inheritance tax, land banking and the green belt, this ever-growing demographic appears to have been left out of the picture.

Did you know that almost a third (29 per cent) of private rented homes in this country are now failing basic health and safety standards? How can any politician talk about the national Decent Homes Standard when such a huge number of rental properties are not fit to live in? It makes a total mockery of any kind of housing policy. And don’t get me started on energy performance certificates and Government initiatives on insulation. What’s the point of lagging a loft when the boiler’s on the verge of blowing up?

In reality, it means that 1.4 million households – families, single people, sharers and couples – are living in unsafe or insanitary rented accommodation, almost 20,000 more than in 2013.

This is Britain in the 21st century, not Victorian times. All this focus on home ownership has entirely missed the point that countless people have no choice but to rent from a private landlord. Other options are limited. There simply isn’t enough social housing to go round and the cost of buying a home with a mortgage is impossible for many. That “first step on the ladder” will always be just out of reach.

I only have to drive around Barnsley town centre – or any town centre – to see the slums taking root whilst Government ministers look the other way. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.

It’s a terrible situation for those who must live there, but the decline of neighbourhoods because of negligent investors has a knock-on effect. Decent landlords are selling up and moving on, leaving tenants even more at the mercy of the unscrupulous.

I know plenty of private landlords who look after their tenants. These responsible citizens would be appalled to think that their properties were dangerous or falling into disrepair. However, I know of plenty more who don’t care about anything except receiving their monthly rents.

The most hazardous dangers in rented properties are designated “Category 1”; dangerous boilers, exposed wiring, overloaded electricity sockets and infestations of vermin. The English Housing Survey, which contributed to this latest research, notes that 795,000 homes rented from private landlords – 17 per cent of the total – contain this highest level of hazard, a rise of 53,000 in the last three years.

I wonder if Dominic Raab and the Prime Minister know this. If not, it’s about time they did. After all, they are part of a Government which has repeatedly refused calls to introduce compulsory licensing for private landlords.

Instead, Ministers have shifted the responsibility onto local government by giving councils the power to impose fines of up to £30,000 on landlords who fail to keep their properties in an adequate condition. The catch of course is that these very same councils are struggling under centrally-imposed budget cuts and simply don’t have enough staff to keep up with demand.

Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s spokesman on housing, says that councils need more resources from the Government to crack down on standards, and to help build more social housing.

I hope Dominic Raab listens. It is politically irresponsible for any Government to promote home ownership above all, to the detriment of the millions who live in dangerous squalor with no choice but to rent privately. If the seventh Housing Minister in a decade really wants to make an impact, he should develop – and then implement – a policy with much firmer foundations.