Rethinking regulation: How to improve standards for private renters

Launch of new UK-wide research which identifies how local authority enforcement and regulation in the UK private rented sector could be improved. This is part of a wider programme of work funded by TDS Charitable Foundation and Safe Deposits Scotland Charitable Trust.

Poor property conditions in the private rented sector is one of the most important housing issues facing the UK today. Despite an apparent increase in the regulation of the sector, 1.2 million households in England alone are living in substandard housing. Our research, carried out in 13 local authority areas across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, highlights a need for a better understanding of both the nature of the problem and effective regulation. These issues have important consequences for policy development because a narrow or inaccurate understanding of how to affect behaviour could lead to ineffective regulatory responses. Here we highlight four key specific issues:

Defining success

The sector often confuses the outputs of local authority activity with its outcome or impact. Statistics on prosecutions are frequently interpreted as demonstrating the lack of effectiveness of selective licensing schemes or other regulation. However, this is not an appropriate measure of success since the goal of regulation is not to secure prosecutions, but to improve standards by achieving compliance. Our focus must be on the factors which shape landlord compliance with the law. This is explored in-depth in the full report.

The limits of formal enforcement

Most discussion in the sector has been focused on formal enforcement activity and how to deter criminal behaviour. However, our report shows that compliance is shaped by much broader range of factors including whether the regulation is seen to be acceptable and if landlords have the knowledge or the capacity to comply. Our case studies show that an exclusive focus on formal enforcement overlooks some of the most important aspects of the work of local authorities. As explored in the accompanying practice briefing, our ability to increase compliance and therefore raise standards would be improved by also more fully acknowledging, and maximising the effectiveness of, compliance-focused activities.

The role of prevention

Most case studies in our research adopted a traditional and relatively reactive approach to regulation. The development of new compliance-focused approaches – such as the private landlord support officer project adopted by some Scottish councils; the introduction of a landlord helpline in Northern Ireland; or the adoption of “Call before you serve” Service in England – suggests a growing concern for prevention. These initiatives could potentially reduce the level of unintentional non-compliance and so prevent more costly enforcement action. Less interventionist measures must however operate within the shadow of the law, where formal enforcement is understood by landlords to be a credible option.

Adopting a tenant-focused approach

There is (rightly) much discussion about the ways in which local authorities can engage with landlords and letting agents. There is less discussion about ways of engaging with tenants. A growing number of vulnerable tenants now live in the sector.  Housing problems often occur alongside other issues relating, for example, to benefits, debt or relationship breakdown. Our report includes examples of local authorities that are adopting creative approaches to addressing poor standards by situating the needs of renters at the heart of wider area-based strategies. These approaches demonstrate the benefits of adopting a more holistic approach to regulating the sector which involves building strong strategic partnerships where needed.

UK and devolved governments have a key role to play improving regulation and enforcement in the sector. An accompanying policy briefing outlines the changes which are needed at a national level. These include:

  • Improving the data available to local authorities on the private rented sector. In England, a national registration scheme should be introduced.
  • Providing adequate funding to local authorities to allow them to develop appropriate and effective responses to the changing nature and context of the private rented sector.
  • Codification of the diverse legislative provisions which currently exist.
  • Providing sentencing guidelines to the criminal courts and tribunals to ensure that punishment is proportionate to the nature of the offence.

Dr Jennifer Harris is a Senior Research Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. Prof Alex Marsh is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and leads the ‘governance’ theme.

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Date: August 5, 2020 9:00 am

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