Clause 23 - Meaning of “residential landlord”

Part of Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 28 November 2023.

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Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:25, 28 November 2023

Part 2 of the Bill concerns landlord redress schemes and the private rented sector database. We welcome part 2 and the Government’s intention to use its clauses to bring the private rented sector within the purview of an ombudsman and to establish a new property portal, including a database of residential landlords and privately rented properties in England. As the Committee will know, two letting agent redress schemes already exist, but the case for bringing all private landlords within the scope of one, irrespective of whether they use an agent to provide management services on their behalf, is compelling and has existed for some time.

The Government first announced their intention to explore options for improving redress in the housing market in late 2017, and in 2019 committed themselves to extending mandatory membership of a redress scheme to all private landlords through primary legislation. Much like the abolition of section 21, a statutory single private rental ombudsman has been a long time in the making. There are myriad issues with the ombudsman that lie outside the scope of the Bill, not least how the Government will address its role within what is already a complicated landscape of redress and dispute resolution; there are already multiple redress schemes and tenants already have recourse to local authorities, the first-tier tribunal, a deposit protection scheme and ultimately to the courts.

However, we support the principle of bringing the private rented sector within the scope of a single ombudsman. If the ombudsman covering the private rented sector, whoever it ultimately is, makes full use of the powers available to it and is well-resourced, and if the potential for confusion and perverse incentives that might result from multiple schemes is addressed, that should ensure that tenants’ complaints can be properly investigated and disputes can be resolved in a timely, more informal manner. That would help to ease the pressure on local authorities and the courts.

In contrast to the proposal for an ombudsman covering the private rented sector, the commitment to introduce a new digital property portal was made only last year in the White Paper. Nevertheless, we strongly support it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say—I have done so on previous occasions—that we believe a well-designed, resourced and properly enforced portal has the potential to utterly transform the private rented sector and the experience of tenants within it.

We want the Bill to deliver a property portal that makes it easier for landlords to understand and demonstrate compliance with their existing obligations and evolving regulations; which empowers tenants by rendering transparent the rental history of landlords; and which enables landlords to be held to account by those they are renting to. We also want the property portal to help local authorities with enforcement against non-compliant landlords and to monitor and crack down on the minority of rogues in the sector.

We are concerned that chapter 2 of part 2 of the Bill, which deals with landlord redress schemes, is arguably too prescriptive, and that chapter 3 of part 2, which deals with the private rented sector database, are not nearly prescriptive enough. Fundamental to the operation of both measures is the question of which tenancies fall within their scope. As a means to probe the Minister on this issue, we tabled amendment 173, which would extend the definition of residential landlord to include park home operators, private providers of purpose-built student accommodation and property guardian companies. Each of those was explicitly referenced in the White Paper with regard to the schemes. I will make some brief comments on each to explore how the Government might define the scope of the private rented sector database and landlord redress scheme provisions via regulations in due course.

When it comes to residential park home operators, the Government’s October 2018 review of the legislation in this area found that some site operators

“continue to take unfair advantage of residents, most of whom are elderly and on low incomes.”

Furthermore, the Government said in their 2019 report, “Strengthening Consumer Redress in the Housing Market”:

“Currently, if a site operator fails to meet their contractual obligations a resident has little recourse except via the First-tier Tribunal, and those who rent directly from the site operator also lack access to redress. We are satisfied that there is a gap in redress services for park home residents and are committed to extending mandatory membership of a redress scheme to all residential park home site operators.”

When it comes to purpose-built student accommodation, the 2019 report also stated:

“Responses highlighted a gap in redress provision amongst students living in purpose-built student accommodation run by private companies.”

While the majority of such private companies have signed up to a code of practice administered by Unipol, the Government nevertheless made clear that private providers of purpose-built student accommodation, as opposed to educational establishments that provide student accommodation, should come within the scope of a redress scheme. When it comes to property guardians, recent reports in the press have highlighted rising instances of misconduct on the part of some property guardian companies that operate through licences to occupy rather than tenancies, which provide significantly fewer protections.

Research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by the Department and published last year, found that most property guardians

“reported very poor conditions, with properties frequently described as deteriorating and susceptible to adverse weather conditions. Local authorities also reported poor conditions in properties they had inspected. Persistent issues with damp and mould were very commonly reported, including damp from flooding, faulty plumbing and leaking roofs.”

That research also found that local authority enforcement teams are not routinely reviewing, inspecting or enforcing standards in guardian properties. There would therefore appear prima facie to be a strong case for including property guardians as well as park home sites and purpose-built student accommodation within the scope of the ombudsman and property portal as a means of increasing enforcement action and driving up standards.

It may well be the case that the Government fully intend to include each of those within the scope of the ombudsman and the private rented sector database in chapters 2 and 3 of part 2 when they introduce the relevant regulations and to provide access to redress for residents living in each type of accommodation, but we would appreciate a degree of clarity from the Government so that we can understand how extensive the operation of both schemes should be. I look forward to the Minister’s response.