Housing Standards in the Private Rented Sector: A Local Authority Perspective

During the late 1800s up to World War 1, the industrial growth in the north of England led to mass building of homes for workers. The house construction types in many of these areas is small stone terraces, often back to back, faced in stone or brick.

The private rented tenure is proportionally higher in these houses as they are our cheapest. Rents are fairly low and therefore the people who rent the properties tend to have low incomes. Fuel poverty is also proportionally higher in these properties, 25% in Calderdale.

The private rented sector is of increasing importance in Calderdale and others as it has grown substantially in recent years to become the 2nd tenure at around 18% of the stock.

Some areas have solid wall construction, however, there are hundreds of thousands of these properties with uneven cavities (stone outer leaf and stone or brick inner leaf). Because of the small size of the properties, many use the attic as additional habitable space for 1 or 2 bedrooms.

Concerns have been expressed to central government over the years about the lack of visibility of the sector. There is a large amount of legislation around the rental market, but if the Local Authority do not know where they are, it relies on secondary data to find them or for tenants to complain. The accessibility of the data for tenancy deposit schemes is welcomed as it is another source of information for finding properties.

The most vulnerable clients are less likely to complain about the standards of their living accommodation due to a fear of how their landlords might react. This is sometimes founded as there are many ways in which a landlord can make life difficult for a tenant without breaking laws.

Amongst tenants, affordable warmth is not one of the main factors in choosing a property. Often there is little choice on the market at the time that they need housing, location, size and rental price are the main factors followed by the condition of the property. Insulation and the efficiency of the heating system are not easy for a prospective tenant to understand the implications on the fuel bill. The idea of producing a joint monthly cost of the home is a good one and should include rent, services, fuel costs (from the EPC), water and Council Tax. This would give very practical advice to prospective tenants at the time they need it.

There are works which can be carried out to all properties to bring them up to an acceptable thermal standard, a good standard of gas central heating with controls, draught proofing, energy efficient lighting, double glazing will bring most properties up to the EPC rating E. 

Interventions such as insulation at the roof line will improve the rating and the comfort of those in attic bedrooms (often children), cavity wall insulation methods are more expensive, and however they are far less intrusive and costly in comparison to internal or external cladding.

There is a general flouting of the rules in relation to EPCs in the private rented market. This is partly because the enforcement power rests with trading standards who tend to not prioritise the enforcing of EPCs. Almost all other housing standard enforcement powers and duties rest  with the Housing Authority.

A recent comparison of Local Housing Allowance claimant addresses with EPC data indicated that there is a large variation in the match of these two data sets between wards from 58% at best and 18% at worst. We would not expect 100% match as not all properties will have had new tenancies in that time, however we would expect around 80% to match.

In Calderdale, we asked to share the duty to enforce EPC enforcement between trading standards and housing. This has led to a development of a project to attempt to improve take-up of EPCs within the private rented market using a carrot and stick approach.

Although there is a lack of resource in Local Authorities currently, this work is seen as vital in order to prepare for the minimum standard rating of E for renting from April 2018.  

Floods and housing standards

In Calderdale it is the same house type which have been most affected by the floods as are most likely to be in the private rented sector and worst thermal efficiency, SAP ratings average drops from a Borough average of 55 to 49. 

I would like to propose that consideration is given to the inclusion of flood risk in the HHSRS. In Calderdale there were over 2100 properties which flooded on Boxing Day 2015 and we are finding it hard to motivate some landlords to take up grants to make the properties more flood resilient (e.g. moving electrical installations and meters out of cellars, flood doors/barriers etc.). 

The likelihood is relatively easy to measure in many areas due to data from the Environment Agency. The risk to the occupants from flooding can be estimated (and it will range from risk of death from electrocution or drowning to ill health from contact with contaminated water). Risks can be minimised in many cases and where it can’t be, tenants should have clear warning and instructions about what to do in the event of a flood and how to store their precious perishable items above likely flood levels.

Following the publication of Warmer & Greener: A guide to the future of domestic energy efficiency policythe WSBF have organised a series of roundtable events exploring specific issues examined within the report. Helen Rhodes contributed to the most recent one of these events entitled 'Decent Homes in the Private Rented Sector'. This event was sponsored by British Gas.