Department for Communities and Local Government — Private Rented Sector

Part of Estimates 2013-14 — Ministry of Defence – in the House of Commons at 4:46 pm on 4th March 2014.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 4:46 pm, 4th March 2014

It is a pleasure to speak about the report on the private rented sector by the Communities and Local Government Committee—its first report of the 2013-14 Session. The report was produced through the Committee taking formal evidence in a number of sittings. Some of those featured more informal discussions and some involved landlords and tenants together, which was interesting. There was a visit to Leeds to look at how the council was operating with regard to the private rented sector, and a visit to Germany to look at the sector in a very different sphere of housing circumstances. On behalf of the Committee, I particularly thank Christine Whitehead, who was the Committee’s special adviser for the inquiry, and Kevin Maddison, the lead specialist from the Committee staff working on the inquiry.

We chose the subject of the private rented sector not because of any particular initiative that the Government were proposing at the time but because of the sector’s increasing importance to our constituents. According to the latest figures for 2012-13, 18% of households now live in the private rented sector. That growth did not suddenly happen following the banking crisis of 2008; it had been taking place before that over a period of time. Indeed, it has been the only growing housing sector since 2002, when owner-occupation started to fall as a percentage of households. That is an interesting fact.

The Committee saw the growth of the private rented sector not as a short-term issue but as something that is likely to continue in the longer term. We also observed that it is changing in that it is home to a wider range of households, particularly families with children who might, in other times, have chosen to be in a different sector but are now looking for a different housing experience, and particularly for more security. When people with children change their home, that often means changing schools, and that creates substantial disruption to family life.

When we went to Germany, we saw a very different situation that we are probably not likely to get to any time soon. People literally have tenancies for life; many of us could not quite get our heads around that. Someone with a tenancy in Germany has it for life and can pass it on so that their family members can succeed to it. We learned that there were good standards in the private rented sector that we ought to seek to emulate in this country. Tenants and landlords had an awareness and understanding of rights and responsibilities that is perhaps not always shared in this country. There was an equilibrium between demand and supply to which we aspire but recognise realistically that it will take some to achieve. Those factors create a very different market indeed.

We identified five main areas to concentrate on in our report: awareness of rights and responsibilities; the standards of properties and of how they are managed; effective regulation of letting agents, which we received an awful lot of evidence about; new tenancy models looking for longer-term agreements and greater security; and, in passing—because we had already done a report on this the previous year—increasing the housing supply.

When it came to taking evidence, the then housing MinisterMr Prisk, who is in his place—was, as usual, very open to ideas and he welcomed, both in his initial statement in the House and in the Government’s response, many of our recommendations, as indeed did the then shadow housing Minister, my hon. Friend Jack Dromey. May I place on record the Committee’s thanks to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford for the courteous, assiduous and highly knowledgeable way in which he always approached us and our deliberations?

There was a great deal of consensus right from the beginning. The Government have subsequently produced their “Review of property conditions in the private rented sector”, which includes many of the Committee’s ideas. Indeed, having initially dismissed our recommendations for mandatory carbon monoxide and smoke alarms in private rented homes and for five-yearly checks of the electrical installations, the Government are now consulting on them. Of course, consulting does not necessarily mean agreeing, but at least it is a step in the right direction, which we should recognise and welcome.

There are two areas on which we have not reached agreement and to which we need to pay more attention. The first is the flexibility of local authority powers to raise standards and to deal with rogue landlords in particular—I will say more about that in due course—and the second is the regulation of letting agents, on which the Government have not gone as far as the Committee wanted them to. I will explore that as well.

On raising awareness, in Germany it struck me and, I think, other Committee members that tenants and landlords seemed to understand the rules and their responsibilities. That is not always the case in this country. Our report notes that there is a bewildering array of legislation and regulation relating to the private rented sector. Different Acts of Parliament are cross-referenced in new Acts and it is very difficult for any professional, let alone any lay person, to get their head around the situation. A professional landlord might understand some of it, but small landlords and tenants probably do not.

We therefore called for a review on the potential consolidation of legislation, but the Government rejected that, which is disappointing because I think it would have helped to simplify things. We were not asking for more regulation; we were asking for simpler regulation. There is a difference. The Government could have scrapped some regulations if they had gone about it in a different way and that may have earned some brownie points for Ministers past and present.