It was supposed to be all change at the start of the new parliamentary session, as Prime Minister, Theresa May promised a major Cabinet reshuffle. Instead, we saw almost the entire Cabinet stay put, albeit with a little juggling of responsibilities.
In Communities and Local Government, housing was added to the title, and Department changed to Ministry, with Sajid Javid remaining in post. We did see yet another new housing minister – with Dominic Raab MP replacing Alok Sharma. Sharma’s 7 months in post was short-lived even for a housing minister. Work and Pensions saw major changes in personnel, with a new Secretary of State, Esther McVey and a new Minister of State, too.
The Government used the break between Christmas and New Year to confirm they will press ahead with the extension of mandatory licensing, to include almost all properties with 5 or more sharers – removing the current 3 storey restriction. Whole converted buildings will require a licence, as will purpose built blocks of two, or fewer flat,s if one has 5 or more sharers. However, large purpose built blocks will be exempt. These will be predominantly student blocks and properties in the government’s favourite part of the private rented sector – build to rent.
It also confirmed that all licensed HMO properties will be subject to a minimum room size of 6.51 sqm. Rooms smaller than this will not be able to be used as bedrooms, and landlords with such rooms will be given 18 months from the issue of the licence to resolve the situation by either increasing the size of the rooms, or removing the tenants.
At the same time, the Government published its responses to the consultation on banning order offences, and this was scrutinised by committee on Tuesday. Both the extension of HMO licensing and banning orders are expected to be introduced in April – heralding another year of major change and regulation for private landlords.
The Communities and Local Government Select Committee met during Monday’s reshuffle, kickstarting two new inquiries: the draft tenant fees bill; and a broader inquiry into the PRS. They heard evidence from Shelter, Dr Julie Rugg (University of York) and Professor Ian Loveland (University of London).
The PRS inquiry heard concerns that legislation is complex, badly drafted and piecemeal, and local authorities lack resources to enforce effectively as the sector has grown. Dr Rugg cast doubt on the effectiveness of property licensing, saying there was scant evidence it improved standards. The Local Housing Allowance freeze also came under attack, preventing tenants from accessing the PRS.
With regard to the fees ban, legal expert Professor Loveland felt the way penalties could be imposed by local authorities left it open to human rights challenges. Dr Rugg felt that, rather than increasing rents if agents passed on fees, landlords would respond by cutting back on repair and maintenance, lowering property standards. There was an acknowledgement, amongst all witnesses, that the Government is really flying blind regarding the impact of the bill, as there is little understanding of how fees are set or agents operate.
There was better news on the Universal Credit front where, after a great deal of pressure from the RLA and our welfare consultant, Bill Irvine, the DWP has conceded that, where a landlord can prove arrears, tenant consent should no longer be required to process a claim for rent to be paid direct to the landlord.
Tuesday saw a further debate on UC, initiated by Stephen Lloyd MP, who pressed the Government to adopt direct payment of housing costs to private landlords, to ensure private rented housing remains available to benefit claimants. RLA research, showing landlords increasingly reluctant to let to claimants, was widely quoted by many MPs taking part in the debate.
Prime Minister’s Questions, on Wednesday saw Theresa May attack Labour’s plans for the private rented sector as Easington MP Grahame Morris invited her to his constituency to see the ‘massive problems’ created by absentee private landlords.
Finally, on Friday Karen Buck MPs’ bill on Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards was published, ahead of its second reading next week and can be found here