How can local authorities improve compliance in the private rented sector? A Wales 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 Bob Smith offers a perspective from Wales and reflects on the breakout discussion group with Wales stakeholders.
The private rented sector in Wales, as in other parts of the UK, has grown significantly over the last two decades, now accounting for 14% of the Welsh housing stock. As it has come to play a more important role in meeting housing needs and demand, policy makers have become concerned with issues such as the affordability of private sector rents and regulating standards in the sector. Landlords and agents managing private rented housing in Wales are now required by law to be registered and their individual properties licenced under the Welsh Government’s Rent Smart Wales (RSW) scheme, with the enforcement of compliance a shared responsibility between RSW and Welsh local authorities.
The broad approach in Wales has been about improving the quality and management of private rented housing in Wales, getting clarity on rights and responsibilities and, more recently, improving the security of tenure of private sector tenants. The Welsh Government has used primary legislative powers to underpin these objectives – the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 introduced landlord registration and licensing through Rent Smart Wales and the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 reformed underpinning housing law and provided important protections, such as protection against retaliatory eviction and the fitness for human habitation obligation. A current Senedd Bill proposes increasing security of tenure by introducing six-month notice for a ‘no fault’ eviction, with guaranteed minimum occupation of one year.
Whilst legislative developments and the establishment of RSW have been important in Wales, as the research findings from CaCHE, the Housing Quality Network (HQN) and Safer Renting projects all noted, how individual local authorities build positive relationships in different ways with private landlords and other stakeholders to ensure a supply of good quality, well-managed privately rented homes is also critical. Devolution has provided opportunities to do things differently in Wales, but there is always a danger of being too inward looking and webinar participants from Wales welcomed the opportunity to learn about and discuss recent research from across the UK and reflect upon its relevance to Wales.
Collaborative working has been vital (particularly in a challenging funding environment) and sharing knowledge and expertise between local authorities and other stakeholders has been at the heart of the approach in Wales. Webinar participants welcomed positive findings from the CaCHE research about the strategic approach to enforcement that’s being adopted through Rent Smart Wales (RSW) – though comments were noted in the main plenary about RSW’s communications with landlords and tenants not always being as effective as they might be. Recent recommendations from the Senedd Committee considering the Rented Homes (Wales) Amendment Bill have argued the need to improve the quality of data on the private rented sector in Wales to ensure all landlords are registered and complying with legislative requirements, as well as improving communication with private sector tenants. These have been accepted by the Welsh Minister for Housing and Local Government.
The importance of political will in prioritising the issues was recognised (identified in the CaCHE research) but the question was raised as to whether in Wales more needs to be done to encourage local politicians (particularly leaders and committee chairs) to be more proactive? The question was asked as to whether there Is sufficient political drive at the grassroots level to implement effective local strategies and to take appropriate enforcement action?
Whilst recognising the resource constraints on local councils and often competing priorities, work done in Wales by Shelter Cymru on illegal evictions has highlighted that some local authorities are not giving sufficient priority to their enforcement role. There is an issue that some homelessness officers in dealing with illegal evictions are not always referring these in the right way. Injunctions can be used quite quickly to get people back in their homes and it was suggested there is greater potential for RSW to revoke licences of private landlords who persistently harass or illegally evict tenants (but that this needs greater throughput of information from local authorities). However, as the research has noted, addressing the problems of landlords operating on the edge or beyond legality often requires considerable effort and resources.
The opportunity to discuss recent UK research also highlighted some of the remaining gaps in knowledge about the private rented sector in Wales. As well as limitations on some of the data on the sector questions were also raised about the potential for much greater cross disciplinary working across departments at a local authority level, for example involving health services, GPs, education, and schools etc. Participants suggested it would be helpful if there were examples of positive practice from across Wales, where local authorities and private landlords, operating in different local circumstances, are working together in such ways.
Date: November 19, 2020 9:14 am
Author(s): Bob Smith