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Daily politics update: Fire and electrical safety, homelessness, benefits and housebuilding

Sally Walmsley
Written by Sally Walmsley

A new fire safety debate, support for the homeless and the latest benefits and housebuilding statistics are on the agenda in today’s daily politics update.

Housing minister ‘will hold landlords to account’ on fire safety

Matt Rodda MP (Labour, Reading East) yesterday initiated a Westminster Hall debate on fire risks in flats and shared housing. Of note:

Kate Green MP (Labour, Stretford and Urmston) raised concerns about leaseholders in blocks of flats who face “very high costs” to remediate dangerous cladding and who “cannot always access the block insurance that the developer has taken out in their name, or in the name of their managing agent.”

Matt Rodda MP expressed concerns about the “stress and concern” faced by many private tenants and leaseholds in respect of fire safety. 

Speaking of there having been an “explosion in the number of houses of multiple occupation in the United Kingdom in the last 20 to 30 years”, some of which, he said, are old and do not have fire safety doors or other measures fitted, he argued that this “is potentially a massive problem that is linked to the issues with lower-rise buildings.” 

Call for regulation

He called on the Government to “look at the regulation of that part of the housing sector.” Mr Rodda outlined is preference for landlord licensing schemes, urging the Minister to find the resources “for local authorities across the country to run registration schemes, because of the fire safety risks and other related health and amenity risks.”

The Chair of the HCLG Select Committee, Clive Betts MP (Labour, Sheffield South East) expressed concerns that some materials for cladding  which have been banned from use on new buildings under the Government’s regulations are nevertheless still allowed on existing buildings.

He went on to conclude that there are simply too many buildings with ACM cladding still on them. In respect of non-tower blocks he continued:

“The focus has been on buildings that are more than six or 10 storeys, but buildings do not necessarily have to be high in order to be at potential major risk. Such buildings include student accommodation, residential accommodation for the elderly, hotels, hospitals or nursing homes. 

“The risk posed to each is different, and there must be specific regulations to deal with it. Any material of limited combustibility on those buildings, irrespective of their height, creates a greater risk. That is something else that the Government now have to address.”

Addressing the point made by Matt Rodda about landlord licensing, Mr Betts said: “It is not the licence itself that matters but managing the licence and ensuring that proper inspections are done. 

“Local authority resources are key, but local authorities often do not have the resources to do it properly. 

“I am disappointed that the government did not accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that it should be down to the local authority to decide which areas should have licensing schemes. 

“Why do the government have to second-guess this? We said this should be a local authority decision. In the age of devolution and local democracy, let local authorities do it. 

“As long as people can appeal to the Secretary of State if local authorities do not follow the proper process, the decision should be for the local authority and local community, and not something for Ministers to second-guess.” 

Housing Minister, Esther McVey MP, responded to the debate. She began by outlining Government action to date following the Grenfell fire. In respect of sprinklers she noted that that the Secretary of State is “minded to lower the height threshold from 18 metres to 11 metres” and that the government will set out detailed proposals on that and the plans for other aspects in the full technical review of the fire guidance in February. 

She added: “We have commissioned leading experts in the field to develop, as quickly as possible, a sophisticated matrix of risks that will replace the historical system and underpin our approach to future regulatory regimes.”

In relation to the private rented sector, the Minister said: “By law, privately rented properties must already be free from the most serious health and safety hazards, which include fire. 

“Landlords must put up smoke detectors on every floor, and they must have gas boilers and installations checked every year. 

“Earlier this month, we laid before the House regulations requiring landlords to carry out safety inspections at least every five years, and to prove that the electrics in their property meet the legal standard. If they do not, the landlord must get the work done to make them safe.”

She went on to conclude that the government “will hold landlords to account to ensure enforcement. At the end of the day, we must ensure that homes are safe and people can sleep safely at night, knowing that we are mindful of those points.”

Peer questions government on electrical safety

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour) has received a response to her written question asking what progress the government is making on plans to introduce mandatory electrical safety checks in the private rented sector.

The HCLG Minister in the Lords, Viscount Younger of Leckie, responded by noting that on the January 13 the government laid before Parliament the new regulations that will require private landlords to make sure the electrical installations in their properties are safe. He explained that the regulations require that:

  • Electrical installations must be inspected and tested by a qualified and competent person at least every five years;
  • Electrical safety standards must be met;
  • Reports (known as ‘Electrical Installation Condition Reports or ‘EICRs’) must be provided to tenants, and to local authorities on request.
  • The Regulations also set out enforcement powers for local authorities who will be able to tackle those rogue landlords who breach their new duties under the Regulations.
  • He noted that subject to approval by parliament, these requirements will come into force for all new tenancies from 1st July 2020 and for all existing tenancies from 1st April 2021.

Debate on LHA rated for the young homeless

There will be a 30-minute debate on local housing allowance (LHA) rates for homeless young people in Westminster Hall at 4pm on February 4, led by Caroline Lucas MP (Green, Brighton Pavilion).

The House of Commons Library has noted that following the announcement of the decision to increase the LHA in line with inflation, “Crisis and Shelter published responses to the decision, as did the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Residential Landlords Association and the Local Government Association.” 

It includes a link to the RLA’s response, which can be accessed here. The RLA believed the changes proposed by the government don’t go far enough to help tenants pay their rent.

LGA raises homelessness concerns

Rising levels of homelessness and the increasing cost of using expensive bed and breakfast accommodation to place families have led to more than two-thirds of all council homelessness services in England ending up in the red, according to new analysis by the Local Government Association.

Figures compiled by the LGA show that nearly seven in 10 council homelessness services have to spend more than they planned to on homelessness support.

The latest figures show that council spending in England on placing families in bed and breakfasts rose by more than a fifth in the last year, from £93.3 million in 2017/18 to £114.9 million in 2018/19. There are 7,110 homeless households currently in bed and breakfast accommodation – a 15-year high.

The LGA is calling on the Government to use the forthcoming Budget to give councils the tools and powers they need to resume become major builders of “good, quality affordable homes for social rent, and to invest in homelessness prevention to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.”

This comes as LGA analysis shows that 69.3% (226) of councils responsible for housing in England (326) overspent their homelessness budgets. Councils planned to spend a total of £502.7 million in 2018/19. Yet they ended up overspending by a combined total of £140 million – almost a third more than they had budgeted for.

Average time for new benefit claim is lowest to date

The DWP has published the latest Housing Benefit statistics on speed of processing 2019 to 2020. Of note:

  • In Quarter 2 of the financial year 2019/20, 95% of Housing Benefit claims processed were change of circumstances on existing claims and the remaining 5% were new Housing Benefit claims.
  • The average time taken to process a new Housing Benefit claim during Quarter 2 was 17 calendar days and is the lowest it has been to date. This is five days lower than in the same quarter of 2018/19 which was 22 days.
  • The average time taken to process a change of circumstance on an existing Housing Benefit claim during quarter 2 of the financial year 2019/20 was 6 calendar days. This is two days lower than in quarter 2 of 2018/19.

New data shows slight increase in home building

MHCLG has published the latest data on new build dwellings for the September Quarter of 2019. It shows that:

On a quarterly basis, new build dwelling starts in England were estimated at 39,510 (seasonally adjusted) in the latest quarter, a 2% increase compared to the previous three months and an 11% decrease on a year earlier. 

Completions were estimated at 46,000 (seasonally adjusted), a 2% increase from the previous quarter and 11% higher than a year ago.

Annual new build dwelling starts totalled 157,550 in the year to September 2019, a 7% decrease compared with the year to September 2018. During the same period, completions totalled 177,980 an increase of 9% compared with last year.

Private enterprise new build dwelling starts (seasonally adjusted) in the September quarter 2019 are up by 3% from the previous quarter, and completions are up by 5%. Starts by housing associations are 4% lower compared to the last quarter, but completions are down by 14%.

All starts between July and September 2019 are now 130% above the trough in the March quarter 2009 and 19% below the March quarter 2007 peak. All completions between July and September 2019 are 82% above the trough in the March quarter 2013 and 5% below the March quarter 2007 peak.

The full data is available here.

About the author

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley is the Magazine and Digital Editor for the NRLA. With 20 years’ experience writing for regional and national newspapers and magazines she is responsible for editing our members' magazine 'Property', producing our articles for our news site, the weekly and monthly bulletins and editorial content for our media partners.

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