[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair] — Private Rented Sector

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:15 am on 24th June 2008.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government 10:15 am, 24th June 2008

The hon. Lady speaks from personal and tragic experience in her constituency and makes a very sensible point. Her strategic suggestion is that regulation is required to reduce the risk of death and injury resulting from fires in HMOs. I am sympathetic to such an idea.

Why are the Government willing to preside over such a differential in relative risk between single-occupancy houses and those under state regulation, and the private rented HMO sector? Are the Government really not willing to legislate? In the Minister's defence, Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis. We need to be more imaginative in finding solutions to that problem, and that means increasing housing density and making the most of brownfield development and the maximum use of the UK's 850,000 empty homes. However, we must recognise that the Government are under pressure, because although the Minister is unlikely to admit it, if they were to regulate HMOs and deal with overcrowding, it would add to the housing crisis. If accommodation density were reduced to improve its quality, the people displaced from such overcrowding would necessarily have to join the homeless list. I am sympathetic to the unspoken argument that the Government have to address, but we must recognise that they have a choice: either they can tacitly accept that the absence of regulation is, in some ways, necessary if the housing crisis is not to be exacerbated; or, more courageously, they can admit that because the private rented sector plays such a vital role by providing homes for more than 2 million families, it is difficult to see how one can square the circle.

My second question is therefore whether the Minister is willing to be candid and to acknowledge that one consideration, limitation and resisting factor to such regulations is the Government's private acceptance that to introduce them would make the homelessness problem even worse. There is no shame in admitting that. If the Minister were to say so, I do not see how it could be harmful, because after all, successive Governments have done exactly the same. If the Government do, and the Minister can, admit it, however, we can start talking about what we can realistically do to use the private rented sector—regulated, as it could be—as part of the solution, while handling the difficulty of causing more displaced individuals and homeless people. If we can improve the image of the rented sector by encouraging best practice and making the most of new legislation, the benefits for Britain's housing market could be significant. The benefits for the residents would be unquestionable, but more than anything, we could seriously start to close the differential between houses and homes under state regulation and those in the private rented sector, which as right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, remain largely unregulated.

I want to think about some specifics and to ask the Minister three further questions. The tenancy deposit scheme that was introduced in the Housing Act 2004 offers real opportunities for landlords and tenants—the issue has been touched on indirectly already—because it will protect both the reputations of good landlords and those tenants who might have had bad experiences. It will also encourage landlords and tenants into the sector. The scheme should be not an encumbrance but a promoter of good practice and a safeguard for tenants and landlords if problems arise. As far as I can see, however, it has not had a very wide take-up. Does the Minister have a view on that? If so, does he agree that we should more assertively drive that very useful element of the 2004 Act, which the Government introduced, in order to improve the relationship between landlords and tenants and to give landlords more confidence to rent out their property, even if they have previously had bad experiences? That could release accommodation and improve the situation.

The Minister may know that with one quarter of the energy that we use in this country being consumed in our homes, the Liberal Democrats believe that energy efficiency in the home is fundamental to tackling climate change. As part of the drive to create homes that are more energy-efficient, we would introduce a scheme to reassure householders that standardised packages will improve energy efficiency. We propose an energy mortgage: a long-term loan, secured on the property and repaid through the household's energy bill. Such a "warm home" package would normally ensure that the householder's energy bill falls by at least as much from the reduced energy use as it rises to pay for the energy saving package. Does the Minister have a view on that? It would take away the large up-front cost when the money was invested and ensure that it was paid back in a sensible and measured long-term way. It sounds like common sense to me, and I cannot see how the Government can achieve their environmental targets unless they take on a similar scheme. I hope that the Minister will say whether he has any sympathy with that Liberal Democrat proposal.

The Government have done good work in improving standards in social housing, but they have almost entirely disregarded the private sector. Once again, we return to the difficulty of a two-tier scheme. The difficulty could have been resolved during proceedings on the Housing and Regeneration Bill, but it was not. The issue is writ large in the energy efficiency situation, because private tenants are now least likely to have double glazing, central heating, insulation or draught-proofing. It is also difficult for private landlords to invest in improving their properties in that way, because although most landlords would prefer to provide a decent home to their tenants, the necessary repairs can be uneconomic.

In order to help the private sector to deal with that situation, will the Government consider cutting the VAT that is paid on repairs to homes, potentially making the improvements needed affordable for landlords? We would also encourage elderly or disabled tenants to invest their winter fuel payments in energy efficiency products. Will the Government do anything to support the same kind of thing?

The wider social repercussions of encouraging good landlording can be significant. In dealing with antisocial behaviour, for instance, the Government have tended to focus on monitoring the behaviour of the tenant. I have argued that the promotion of good standards of housing would also lead to a reduction in antisocial behaviour by helping to create a climate of responsibility that encouraged responsible tenants and owners. My final question to the Minister therefore is whether he would be willing to enter a serious dialogue about the opportunities for creating sustainable communities.

I am very sceptical about whether antisocial behaviour orders are doing much good. Indeed, they are a badge of honour in many places. Considerate construction—bearing in mind the human need for association—and natural flow lines have created successful local communities and done much more to reduce antisocial behaviour than any investment in policing and in suppressing the opportunity to be a bad tenant or neighbour. Is the Minister willing to enter a sensible and, I hope, cross-party dialogue to see whether we can establish what, in terms of the built environment, differentiates successful from unsuccessful communities? That would be very important for the private sector, because, assuming we hit upon some general guidelines, we could require such good practice to be built into it. We do need to build more social housing, of course, but we do not have to depend on the majority of it being built in the public sector. Similarly, we do not have to run away from the benefits of the HMO sector simply because, currently, it is difficult for some people to achieve the standards that they wish.

I am glad that we are having the debate and very pleased to have had the opportunity to ask the Minister those half-dozen or so questions. I hope that he will engage in dialogue rather than sidestep them or say that we cannot reopen the issue and that he is fundamentally opposed to regulating the private rented sector. If he must take that line, he will need to explain why. Conversely, if he sees some merit in ensuring that the same standards apply to the private rented sector as they do to the public rented sector, notwithstanding the fact that we have missed the opportunity with the Housing and Regeneration Bill, I hope that we can find another way to ensure that those standards are improved. No one can doubt that multiple occupancy will continue and that we will continue to depend on the private rented sector for a significant proportion of housing, but no one can doubt either that unless there is some regulation, there will still be the lamentable differential between the private and public sectors in terms of the risk of fire and in terms of quality of life. I do not believe that a Labour Government can, with any conscience, allow such a differential to persist.


Diane Quinton-Adams
Posted on 25 Jun 2008 9:00 pm (Report this annotation)

"In order to help the private sector to deal with that situation, will the Government consider cutting the VAT that is paid on repairs to homes, potentially making the improvements needed affordable for landlords? We would also encourage elderly or disabled tenants to invest their winter fuel payments in energy efficiency products. Will the Government do anything to support the same kind of thing?"