Could a change in legislation banish the concept of ‘them’ and ‘us’ when it comes to private and social landlords? RLA policy manager John Stewart on how the Government could make life easier for everyone.
When I meet with our members, whether at training events, forums or exhibitions and conferences, one question crops up in almost every conversation: Why doesn’t this piece of legislation, or that law, apply to social housing?
Whether it’s the right to rent checks or local licensing, the paper trail generated by such bureaucracy is lengthy and the penalties for private landlords getting it wrong, potentially substantial. No wonder members ask the question. And that’s without even mentioning tax!
The basic answer is that social housing is regulated differently, through the then Homes and Communities Agency, generally offers different tenancies, without recourse to s21 for regaining possession, and it has to meet the decent homes standard.
However, the lines between social and private rented housing are becoming more and more blurred.
Part of this is because social housing supply has shrunk, now providing fewer homes than the PRS.
More and more tenants reliant on benefits are being housed in private renting – a job the PRS was never intended to do.
And as we step into that breach, it opens the door to a whole new set of criticisms and attacks – the benefits bill is subsidising private landlords by paying them billions of pounds of public money – despite the fact social housing receives almost twice as much of housing benefit bill than the PRS.
Another reason is that campaign organisations like Shelter and Citizens Advice constantly compare private and social renting.
For example, whenever a new campaign is launched, the number of private rented homes that fail to meet the decent homes standard is trotted out – despite the fact the standard applies to social housing only.
The actions of landlords themselves is also blurring the lines.
Social housing providers are increasingly looking to supplement their income, or replace the loss of building grant, through a market rental offer.
More and more new-build by housing associations is for market rental, and some are exploring partnerships with institutional investors in the build-to-rent sector.
Meanwhile, a few private landlords and lettings agencies, keen to avoid the ever-expanding set of regulations surrounding private renting, have set themselves up as for-profit providers of social housing or as housing charities.
And while it can be frustrating for landlords, it can be downright confusing for tenants who are unsure of their, or their landlords, rights and responsibilities.
Private landlords have often suspected that double standards operate when it comes to enforcement and prosecution of landlords, with councils and other enforcement agencies reluctant to act against social housing providers, and local authorities unable to prosecute themselves.
There have been a few indications that such suspicions are not mere paranoia on the part of private landlords with a grudge against their local council.
Grenfell Tower was a social housing block, managed on behalf of the local authority by a tenant management company.
Look beyond the question of cladding, and a string of other fire safety breaches were discovered.
Following the tragedy, when Camden chose to carry out an emergency evacuation of some of high rise blocks on the Chalcots Estate, again, it was a result of other fire safety failures such as damaged dry risers, gaps under fire doors and open wiring.
It’s not just councils who appear to have double standards.
Last year, Luminus Homes – a social landlord based in Huntingdon – escaped prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive, despite having failed to carry out gas safety inspections or provide certificates for over a thousand of its 7,000 properties.
Subsequently, 43 properties were found to have appliances at risk or immediately dangerous.
Yet the web is littered with prosecutions of private landlords for a single breach of the same legislation.
Time for a review?
Perhaps it’s time for a review of legislation, not only to consolidate an already-complicated and confusing array of laws, but to remove the increasingly false distinction between private and social renting.
Rather than one law for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’, maybe it’s time for tenure-neutral legislation, with laws – and enforcement – applying across the board, according to the type of tenancy, rather than who the landlord is.
That could mean social landlords being allowed to issue more assured shorthold tenancies and having access to the s21 eviction process.
It would mean that tenants cold be sure of their rights, irrespective of their landlord.
And it may mean we have allies from the social housing sector, when the government announces yet another set of new regulations for our industry.