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Martin Tett: Simplified laws would let councils safeguard tenants

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While most private tenants are happy with their accommodation, complaints about landlords are regularly received by councils. We are determined to act against the minority who flout legislation, forcing vulnerable tenants to live in inadequate or unsafe housing.

It is therefore good that the government announced nearly £2.4m in funding this week to help councils tackle rogue landlords and improve standards for renters.

The private rented sector has more than doubled in size since 2002 and, despite limited resources and competing funding pressures, councils are working hard to ensure that rogue landlords are dealt with robustly and effectively.

But they are currently hamstrung by an outdated system, based on a complex, confusing set of regulations. It can take more than a year to prosecute a rogue operator and in many cases paltry fines are handed out to criminal landlords.

There needs to be a simplification of the laws built over time that govern the sector to make it easy for landlords and tenants to understand their responsibilities and free council from bureaucratic processes to focus on frontline work.

It is thus encouraging that the Commons’ housing, communities and local government committee recommended that councils be granted more flexibility to implement landlord licensing schemes, which can significantly benefit landlords and tenants. In a licensed property the landlord must meet standards for property management, such as providing a tenancy agreement, and prove to the council that they are a “fit and proper person” to hold a licence.

The committee believes the current process by which councils must apply for permission to implement licensing schemes – requiring councils to seek secretary of state approval for licensing schemes that cover more than 20% of the area, or of privately rented homes – is unfit and that decisions to implement such schemes should be made locally. The Local Government Association supports this.

The process of introducing a licensing scheme is also cumbersome and expensive, leading to high upfront costs for councils. It needs to be streamlined.

Additionally, councils must be empowered to levy more substantial fines for the worst landlords which will serve as an effective deterrent and which government could support by introducing clear sentencing guidelines for magistrates.

Currently, court fines are often considerably lower than the £30,000 maximum councils can levy through a civil penalty and the award of costs to councils is lower than their actual spending. This means there is often a financial disincentive for councils to pursue formal enforcement action against poor housing.

While we are disappointed the government did not accept the committee’s call to give councils the power to levy more substantial fines for the worst rogue landlords, we are pleased it has acted on some of the committee’s recommendations by reviewing selective licensing.

All of this comes at a time when our housing crisis is making it easier for bad landlords to exploit tenants who can’t afford to buy, which is why councils must be given a lead role in building new affordable rented homes.

With homelessness and temporary accommodation facing a funding gap of £110m in 2019-20, we want to work with the government to ensure the spending review delivers for councils. This and the measures above will help improve standards in the private rented sector.

Martin Tett (Con), leader, Buckinghamshire CC, and housing spokesman, Local Government Association

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