Housing standards as a political issue

The tragic events at Grenfell Tower have pushed the issue of housing standards to the top of the agenda. It is an emotive issue, but it’s also becoming a political one. As arguments continue about who is going to foot the bill for essential works to other tower blocks which have used the same cladding system, it’s perhaps worth noting that just four months ago, many would have viewed Grenfell’s construction as perfectly fit for human habitation.

We raise the idea of whether a property meets the ‘fit for human habitation’ criteria for good reasons. The Labour Party is trying to get a bill through Parliament which will require landlords to present and maintain a property in a state fit for human habitation. Tenants will have the right to sue their landlords if the property doesn’t come up to scratch. The bill is due for a second reading in the new year.

Existing legislation

If you’re thinking that landlords already have to meet this, hard to define, fit for human habitation condition, you’d be right. Councils have the powers to force landlords to make repairs under the Housing Act of 2004. Furthermore, landlords in both the public and private sector must abide by the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). So, what’s the point of the proposed legislation?

Well, it would give more rights directly to tenants. Arguably it would address some of the problems resulting from stretched council resources. If councils are unable to enforce the existing legislation, the new bill would give tenants the alternative of taking legal action themselves.

Playing politics

In January 2016, the bill was rejected by the House of Commons with 312 MPs voting against it. Much has been made of this since the disaster at Grenfell, with claims trending on Twitter that over three hundred Conservative MPs voted against forcing rented homes to be made fit for human habitation.[i]

As is often the case with such claims, the truth is more nuanced. The Conservative MPs voted against the bill based on fears that it:

“will result in unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords, which will deter further investment and push up rents for tenants.”

The Government went on to say that:

“Of course, we believe that all homes should be of a decent standard, and that all tenants should have a safe place in which to live regardless of tenure, but local authorities already have strong and effective powers to deal with poor quality and unsafe accommodation, and we expect them to use them.”

Of course, the shadow of Grenfell has changed the opinions of many of those in Parliament, and this alone may be enough to see the bill pass into law in 2018. Who, in the current climate of blame and recrimination, would be prepared to say they won’t support a bill that backs decent housing?

Will it deliver?

If the bill makes it onto the statute books will it actually have a significant impact on tenants? There are relatively few landlords who flout the existing regulations, and few of them are likely to be fazed by an extra layer of tenant protection. And are those tenants most in need of help – those living in the squalid conditions the bill seeks to outlaw – really going to sue their own already dodgy landlords? They want decent housing, not more aggravation. Council’s might be stretched, but they still have more clout than an individual tenant, legislation or no.

Having said that, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of any new legislation to change the definition of what constitutes safe and fit housing, a move that could affect every landlord.

[i] https://fullfact.org/economy/did-mps-vote-against-homes-having-be-made-fit-live-in/

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