The Localism Act 2011 enables local authorities to end the main homelessness duty by arranging an offer of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector, without requiring the applicant’s agreement. The government’s consultation period ends tomorrow and more details about the consultation can be found here: http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/homelessnessorderconsult
Here is our response, drafted by our Chair, Dr Stephen Battersby.
The Pro-Housing Alliance is a loose alliance of organizations and individuals who believe that a coherent housing policy should be based on the fundamental contribution of housing to public health, including mental health. Housing is a key social determinant of health and as such homelessness is a symptom of inadequate housing policies over decades. More recently, the housing market has been further distorted by irresponsible lending, and housing costs and prices adversely affect the economy.
The Alliance launched in September 2011 works to encourage others to join it in efforts to bring about a greater recognition of the role of housing in society as a determinant of health and well-being and as a vital element of infrastructure to service the growth of the national and local economies; it will seek to develop the components of a credible and just national housing policy including increasing the rate of new housing provision and a more realistic definition of affordability that relates to incomes. See http://www.prohousingalliance.com/
The Alliance does question whether the private rented sector is the appropriate vehicle to help meet the homelessness duties of local housing authorities. It seems the changes being instituted are less to do with needs of homeless people and more to do with reducing demands on hard-pressed local housing authorities. The growth in the PRS has largely been at the higher end of the market, and provides accommodation for those who previously would have been first time buyers. It is also true that the lack of finance to purchase housing now means that more responsible landlords in the PRS can and are letting to those who are in employment. This will leave homeless people to the worst aspects of the PRS unless local housing authorities are required to exercise greater control over these landlords.
Response to Consultation Questions
The five areas listed might look reasonable at a superficial level, however the list obviously shows some confused thinking. Health and Safety matters must be fundamental, but that has to go beyond mere gas, electrical and fire safety. The physical condition is less of an issue if a more comprehensive approach is taken to ensuring that the property is free of significant risks to health and safety.
Licensing of a house in multiple occupation (HMO) is in itself no guarantee that the property is safe or even well managed if it has not been inspected (and there is no requirement to do so before granting a licence), but the quality of management is important, and there is some confused thinking in the consultation. However as was indicated in the report on HMO research undertaken for the Department of the Environment in 19851 it was unreasonable to expect private landlords to provide the intensity of support and management that some occupiers of HMOs need. That may seem to be distant, but the level of management under consideration then still was beyond routine property management what now might meet licensing requirements. Many homeless people by definition are vulnerable and in need of a level of support not found commonly in the private rented sector.
The key elements as to the quality of any rented property is the condition (as assessed against risks to health and safety of deficiencies) and the quality of management. Licensing is only one way of trying to ensure that the landlord is “fit and proper” and management arrangements are satisfactory, so that should be the fundamental requirement. However this could be achieved equally via accreditation and the document does not refer to where a local authority has adopted “selective licensing” which goes beyond just HMOs?
Given the points above it is argued that a full HHSRS inspection should be required of any accommodation to assess whether or not it is suitable. This becomes even more important given that reference to a private landlord does not require the agreement of the homeless applicant. It cannot be right that a local authority could refer a homeless person to a property with a Category 1 hazard, where Parliament has determined that in other circumstances the local authority would have a duty to take one of the courses of action in Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004. The argument that a full rating inspection is costly is not accepted – it takes no more time to inspect under the HHSRS than under the fitness standard prior to 2006. If it is expected that a person visiting the property on behalf of the local authority will take account of the “general condition”, then this should be a proper inspection to identify risks to health and safety using the HHSRS. There is no other way of ensuring that the accommodation is free of Category 1 hazards. We would strongly oppose this work being done by “letting agents”.
Furthermore if it is felt that if there is concern that local authority’s may not have the resources to undertake such inspections, there is no reason why landlords should not be able to obtain and pay for inspection reports from suitably qualified environmental health practitioners. If this is a sector of the market in which they are providing accommodation and from which they will be deriving income they should be willing to pay for such assessments. There is an increasing number of environmental health practitioners working in private practice who could undertake such work. The important issue is that whoever undertakes the inspection can demonstrate their competence in HHSRS assessments. This would also address the “out of district” issue.
As the presence of valid gas and electric certificates are matters that can be taken into account under the HHSRS as well as being an indication of the quality of management these would be considered in any proper inspection. Fire safety is an HHSRS hazard (applicable to all accommodation) and many of the properties could be outside the scope of HMO licensing, and so the HHSRS will be the only way of assessing whether adequate fire safety protection is in place. Carbon monoxide and products of combustion is another HHSRS hazard and the presence or absence of a CO detector is a matter to be taken into account, so again would be covered by an HHSRS assessment. In short the easiest way to ensure that health and safety risks are absent or dealt with is by way of an HHSRS assessment.
As another important issue, crowding and space is an HHSRS hazard, and it would be wholly wrong for accommodation to be used that would lead to a Category 1 hazard for crowding and space – this is a more realistic approach than relying on statutory overcrowding provision and another argument for a proper HHSRS inspection.
Nor should it be forgotten that some Category 2 hazards (such as fall into Bands D and E) can still pose a significantly increased risk to health and safety.
So as a matter of equity, it should be a requirement of the order that to be suitable the property has to have been inspected and assessed under the HHSRS by a competent practitioner.
On management, local authorities are now used to assessing whether or not an applicant for an HMO licence is fit and proper and so there is no reason why the order should not reflect the same matters as in Parts 2 and 3 of the Housing Act 2004. If the requirements are appropriate for licensing generally then they must be appropriate for landlords who could be accommodating vulnerable people.
The presence or absence of appropriate certificates, including an EPC, a written tenancy agreement (the terms of which are not unfair) and how deposits have been dealt with previously (the landlord’s record on tenancy deposits rather than for the current homelessness applicant) are an indication of the quality of management. Landlords who cannot show that they meet ‘good practice’ on these matters should not be providing accommodation for homeless people. The Order should be explicit in this as such omissions reflect that the person is not fit and proper in this context.
It would be far better for the Order to require that the landlord demonstrates that they are competent managers, and this could be by holding and complying with any relevant licences (HMO or selective licence) and/or by be being accredited via a scheme acceptable to the local housing authority.
Provisions on location should be strengthened not least to take account of children’s education as well as employment. Where there is evidence that the accommodation would incur additional social and economic costs (e.g. change of school or additional travel to work costs), then that accommodation should be deemed ‘unsuitable’. The one matter that appears to have been omitted is “informal support” as opposed to “key services” including support from friends and family.
The presumption must be that the accommodation should be within the district, particularly where children are involved so that there is no disruption to schooling and to the social peer group networks that are important to children’s learning experiences.
The matters to be taken into account should again be specified in the Regulations.
The performance of local housing authorities on homelessness varies considerably and it is important that as much as possible is set out in the Regulations on “suitability”. Thus the factors listed are the ones that should be taken into account. However, they may be “taken into account’ and then ignored. Education is another fundamental when addressing health inequity so the Regulations should also set out specific “deal breakers”. So it should be an absolute that any accommodation that would lead to disruption of schooling or education (whether of offspring or the applicant or member of their household) is unsuitable.
The use of the PRS to meet homelessness duties by local authorities is fraught with difficulty when the applicant has no say in the matter. It is therefore crucial that with the number of neglectful, inadequate and irresponsible landlords in the PRS, this does not become a charter for easy money, much of which could come from the public purse given rent levels. After all nearly 900,000 dwellings in the PRS have a Category 1 hazard – that represents 25% of all households in living in the PRS. Tight controls are therefore required over what is “suitable accommodation”. It could also provide another means of encouraging landlords to act more responsibly and professionally.
Should any clarification be required of these points please do not hesitate to contact the PHA.
Dr Stephen Battersby, Chair of the PHA