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How can local authorities improve compliance in the private rented sector? A Northern Ireland Perspective

On 4 November, CaCHE hosted a UK-wide online event to share and discuss findings from three research projects, including our own recent work on improving compliance with legislation in the private rented sector. In this blog, Dr Joe Frey offers a perspective from Northern Ireland and reflects on the breakout discussion group with Northern Ireland stakeholders. 

Approximately one fifth of all households in Northern Ireland live in the private rented sector (PRS), a figure that is not dissimilar to the proportions currently prevailing in England, Scotland and Wales. The underlying supply and demand factors that saw a rapid growth of the PRS in the UK from the mid-2000s are also much the same across all four jurisdictions. However, although there is undoubtedly a common cross-jurisdictional policy commitment to improving standards in the PRS, local housing market dynamics and diverging political and policy perspectives have resulted in significantly different approaches to the governance of the sector. These inter-jurisdictional differences provided the backdrop to CaCHE’s recent on-line event on improving compliance in the PRS.

In Northern Ireland the relevance of this event was brought into sharper focus by the recent Ministerial statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The reaction of the press and the housing fraternity in Northern Ireland focussed on the Minister’s proposals for the future of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the public sector organisation that continues to dominate Northern Ireland’s social housing landscape. These proposals would enable the Housing Executive to access the private funding that would enable it to once again build new social dwellings as well as make serious inroads into the estimated £7 billion required to maintain and upgrade its stock over the next three decades. However, the Minister also signalled her intention to both address issues relating to the insecurity of tenure experienced by private tenants and to introduce an Intermediate Rental product that would provide a longer term affordable home in the PRS and/or a stepping stone to affordable home ownership. From a Northern Ireland point of view the CaCHE event was therefore fortuitously timely.

The introductory comments by Dr Julie Rugg clearly highlighted two key points: the importance of understanding that place plays an important role in implementing any proposals and that changing the law pertaining to regulation of the PRS may be less important than how effectively local authorities implement the legislation. Each of the three main speakers focussed on different but related issues based on their essentially qualitative studies that drew on the experiences of tenants and professionals.

Roz Spencer (Safer Renting) provided a rather dark perspective on private renting where ‘criminal landlords’ were a pervasive force rather than just a ‘few rotten apples’ and where there was a lack of redress for illegally evicted tenants operating in the context of a regulatory framework that was not fit for purpose – problems exacerbated by the lack of data, resources and expertise on the part of local authorities.

The research undertaken by Dr Tim Brown (Housing Quality Network) provided useful guidance for local authorities on improving standards in the PRS. This research was based on 13 case studies and demonstrated the importance of a geography (place) characterised by sectoral heterogeneity – which was in turn reflected in the range of challenges facing local authorities (e.g. the specific problems to be addressed in student areas; the ‘appalling conditions’ in which migrant workers were forced to live in some rural areas; the particular challenges of the PRS in coastal towns). Once again, resources as well as the need to prioritise effectively were highlighted as key underlying challenge. However, the guidance also recognised the importance of a nuanced approach to enforcement, where knowing the specific attitudes and modus operandi of individual landlords was vital to effective enforcement.

The research findings presented by the third speaker, Dr Jennifer Harris (CaCHE), emphasised the importance of understanding what shapes compliance and highlighted the limitations of both ‘light touch’ (emphasis on persuasion and support) and ‘hard-line’ (emphasis on formal activities, including prosecutions) strategies. Instead the research would indicate the benefits of more creative, holistic approaches (such as the landlord helpline operating in Northern Ireland) and suggested that in this way more effective compliance strategies should operate ‘in the shadow of the law’.

Participants in the subsequent Northern Ireland focussed discussion group came from a range of backgrounds in the public and voluntary sectors and engaged in a lively discussion based on some of key messages emerging from the presentations. The session was chaired by Janet Hunter, Director of Housing Rights, one of the leading voluntary housing organisations in Northern Ireland that have particular expertise in providing advice and support to private tenants. Janet’s initial reflections on the key findings highlighted the additional challenges faced in the context of Northern Ireland where the overall task of raising standards in the PRS is made more difficult compared to other jurisdictions by both the greater degree of legislative complexity and the added complication of the number of organisations (in addition to the local authorities) involved. There is little doubt that as in GB organised crime plays a role in Northern Ireland, as does illegal harassment and eviction of tenants, but there is a big knowledge gap in terms of scale. Northern Ireland could be classified currently as having a ‘light touch’ regime – with mandatory landlord registration, but with ineffective enforcement resulting in a significant proportion of landlords remaining unregistered.

A number of useful contributions to the discussion emerged from the ‘floor’ and reinforced these introductory comments:

  • The importance of good data. The valuable role played by the Northern Ireland House Condition Survey undertaken every 5 years by the Housing Executive. Previous surveys had shown not only the key role played by new build in improving physical standards in the PRS, but also highlighted a small but significant proportion of the PRS stock that continues to be below modern standards.
  • Landlords often do not have the necessary capital to bring their rental properties up to the required standard; grant aid is a more effective way of addressing this as the appetite for significant improvements facilitated by Government loan funding support appears limited.
  • Unlike in GB where the key powers are all vested in local authorities, in NI there is a need to overcome the challenges posed by the division of responsibilities between different organisations – a problem that is exacerbated by the lack of additional resources for local authorities to enforce the legislative powers on fitness and HMOs that was transferred in recent years.
  • The GB experience would suggest that councillors have an important role to play in enforcement as well as additional services which provide support to tenants and landlords.

Overall the event proved to be a useful and enjoyable experience highlighting the challenges that seem to dominate so many of the housing research-policy interfaces: better data, adequate resourcing and more effective governance that in this case takes a more nuanced approach to addressing problems. As always further food for thought for policy makers and practitioners.

 
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Date: November 19, 2020 9:13 am

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