13:37, October 25 67 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-25 13:37:08
Rogue landlords  Bleak state of Britain’s private rented sector

We really appreciate the Guardian’s exposure of the conditions that so many private tenants endure, and the weaknesses in legislation that allow the worst landlords to continue to rent, despite repeated prosecutions (Banned but still in business. How law fails to stop rogue landlords, 24 October).

Most tenants feel powerless to act against their landlord because tenancies in England and Wales do not provide security of tenure, so tenants risk losing their home if they dare complain. The court system is also a deterrent. It can be daunting, time-consuming and expensive, with the added risk that if the landlord employs a top barrister and wins on a technicality, the tenant could be ordered to pay the landlord’s costs as well as his or her own. The whole court system needs an overhaul.

In the meantime, the property tribunal service offers opportunities for tenants to apply for rent repayment orders, in circumstances where the landlord has committed harassment or illegal eviction of the tenant, if it is a licensable property which is not licensed, or where the local authority has served an enforcement notice which is not complied with. The tribunal can order the landlord to repay up to 12 months’ rent to the tenant, which, with today’s exorbitant rents, can be a tidy sum.

Jacky Peacock

Director, Advice4Renters

The question is not merely how housing law fails, but why. The loss of legal aid has been generally devastating, but especially so is its impact on housing. In the 15 years or so up to 2002, tenants could obtain legal aid of two kinds:

1) For criminal proceedings to force landlords to meet explicit standards of repair and renewal, and to remove health hazards such as asbestos or poor heating.

2) To take civil action for damages against landlords for loss due to bad housing conditions (eg carpets ruined by damp) and for damage to health (eg the impact of asthma resulting from damp).

Fifteen years ago, there was a widespread and active body of well-informed solicitors pursuing bad property owners. A dedicated membership organisation served specialist housing solicitors with publications and conferences about housing law. Both criminal and civil proceedings against landlords were commonplace. Since legal aid was withdrawn, a whole body of effective housing law that emerged from the Law Centre movement has been effectively dismantled and a generation of specialist housing legal aid solicitors has disappeared.

Citizens Advice give advice, but do not act. Had Grenfell tenants been able to use access to housing law and specialist housing legal aid lawyers, their complaints could not have been ignored. The fire need not have happened and, I believe, almost certainly would not have happened.

Mary Geffen

Malvern, Worcestershire

In Liverpool we operate the largest landlord licensing scheme in the country. The private rented sector has mushroomed in recent years, bringing various problems in terms of quality and reliability. The number of private rented sector households more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, yet regulation has simply not kept pace. The government has shifted the goalposts, making it harder for local authorities to apply for borough-wide landlord licensing schemes in order to end the worst abuses you brought to light and help us repair a broken market. Ultimately, ministers will need to decide if they are on the side of tenants or rogue landlords.

Joe Anderson

Mayor of Liverpool, and housing lead, Core Cities UK cabinet

We work in higher education in Liverpool and are faced, every year, with increasing numbers of students who are living in dreadful conditions and being harassed and bullied by landlords. Young people are locked into joint tenancy agreements which make them responsible for any non-payment by anyone in their houseshare. Last year one group of our students (who had always paid their rent on time) were taken to court for £8,000 because two people left university, went home and stopped paying their rent. The landlord cut off their heat and their wifi.

Landlords also abuse contracts to charge extortionate sums for “repairs” – four of our students were billed £700 for two lost keys. There is a growing mental health crisis among students. Our feeling is that housing costs and conditions, and the way students are often bullied and harassed by landlords, are contributing to this.

Professor Michael Lavalette

Dr Laura Penketh

Liverpool Hope University

It is clear that severe funding cutbacks affecting the justice system and local authorities coupled with a blatant lack of concern on the part of the ministry for housing, communities and local government must to some extent be responsible for rogue landlords being able to thumb their noses at legislation intended to protect vulnerable tenants.

More is the ever-increasing wealth disparity within society and the concomitant erosion of social justice since the 1980s – the great neoliberal experiment. Despite the western democracies’ lip-service to moral standards and the rule of law, the fact is that money now rules, and rogue landlords can consider any fines as mere business expenses and carry on preying on the poor and the desperate. Fines are clearly not enough. The gross exploitation of fellow human beings is rightly recognised as a serious crime in some areas of our legislation, for example human trafficking. Bernard McGowan’s exploitative behaviour should also be considered seriously criminal. We need urgent legislation to make sure that such predators do not escape lengthy prison sentences.

Michael Green

Clun, Shropshire

May I suggest a three strikes policy. If, after two prosecutions, the landlords have still not made sufficient attempts to improve the conditions for their tenants, a third successful prosecution should give the council power to confiscate the property concerned. And, after bringing it up to standard, add it to their housing stock. And if the property is under mortgage, then tough. Let the landlord and the lender sort it out among themselves.

Patrick Billingham

Brighton

Your excellent investigation shows that nothing much has changed in England since I rented in Westminster in the 1990s. The lowest point was my landlord telling me that it was “lucky I didn’t smoke” after I reported a life-threatening gas leak. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is right to say that “a significant number of Tories are landlords themselves” (Who will protect tenants from rogue landlords? Certainly not the Tories, theguardian.com, 24 October). I once called at the fine home of my landlord to pay my rent and couldn’t help noticing a framed portrait of Margaret Thatcher in his living room.

Joe McCarthy

Dublin, Ireland

When in October 2015 a private member’s bill was proposed by Labour MP Karen Buck, which would have required landlords to make their properties “fit for human habitation”, this was “talked out” by a group of mainly conservative MPs, of whom 72 were landlords themselves. In January 2016, an amendment to the housing and planning bill proposed by Teresa Pearce, shadow housing minister, reflecting the above private member’s bill, was voted down by the Conservative government. It is fairly obvious that this government is not interested in alleviating the terrible conditions some tenants are forced to live in and is only paying lip service to the idea of reforming housing legislation in any meaningful way.

Janice Jowett

Ormskirk, West Lancashire

Could the Guardian publish a list of all MPs (and their political affiliations) who voted against legislation forcing landlords to provide safe accommodation? It would also be interesting to know which of these MPs are landlords themselves.

Sue Boulding

Stanwardine, Shropshire

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