Over two-thirds of councils across England and Wales did not undertake any prosecutions against private landlords last year, according to freedom of information data gathered by the Residential Landlords Association.
And of those with selective licensing schemes in operation, which some argue raise standards, 42% had not made any prosecutions.
It is often said that such low levels of enforcement against criminal landlords are a result of councils not having enough powers to deal with them. Yet our analysis showed there are over 150 acts of Parliament containing well over 400 regulations which affect the sector, making this argument becomes hard to sustain.
In 2017-18, 89% of councils also said they had not used new powers to issue civil penalties of up to £30,000 on landlords, despite them being able to use such funds to finance further enforcement. To make matters worse, 53% of councils said they had no enforcement policy in place – a requirement to use such powers.
The true problem faced by councils is a lack of resources allowing them to use the powers available. The association has analysed the government’s local authority revenue expenditure and financing figures for England which show that since 2009-10, spending by councils on housing standard activities fell by around a quarter, from £44.5m to £33.5m in 2017-18.
For many councils the way to plug the gap has been to introduce costly selective licensing schemes, which the association opposes.
They give a false impression to tenants that because a landlord is licensed it means all their properties are up to scratch. The criminal landlords never willingly identify themselves. And we end up in a bizarre situation of good landlords, paying for licences, subsidising action against the crooks.
Whilst the government has recently made £2m available for councils to support efforts to tackle problem landlords as part of its rogue landlords enforcement grant, one-off pots of money do not give councils the certainty to let them plan long-term enforcement.
That’s why the government should use the spending review later this year to bring forward a multi-year funding package to support councils in using the wide range of powers already at their disposal to root out criminal landlords.
Such funding should go hand in hand with the development of new ways to identify crooks. For example, rather than licensing councils could use the powers they already have to ask residents on their council tax returns what tenure their property is and, where rented, who their landlord is. This would be more comprehensive than licensing, and make it more difficult for crooks to evade scrutiny.
Good landlords and councils have a shared interest in kicking out those who bring misery for tenants and undermine the sector. What councils need are the resources to do so, and policies that seek to work with the majority of decent landlords in a positive way.
John Stewart, policy manager, Residential Landlords Association