Improving the private rented sector

New guidance is available to help councils improve the health and wellbeing of tenants in the private sector.

The private rented sector has grown considerably over the past two decades, housing 19 per cent of households compared with 11 per cent in 2001.

Some segments of the private rented sector work effectively, such as build-to-rent. However, poor housing conditions are generally concentrated at the lower end of the market, which provides accommodation to vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities or long-term illness. 

Approximately 40 per cent of the sector comprises households in the bottom third of incomes.

The LGA commissioned Housing Quality Network (HQN) to produce a good practice guide on the role of councils in raising the quality of the private rented sector, with the aim of improving the health and wellbeing of tenants. 

The guide includes a report, a set of case studies and a toolkit. These are based on the findings of a policy and research review, interviews with national stakeholders and local case studies. 

The report sets out national policy and the strategic role of councils, looks at consumer regulation, enforcement and emerging issues, and makes a series of recommendations to councils.

Although the focus of the project is on local authority policies and actions, a recurring theme is the inadequacy of national policies. Based on case study interviews, key issues include the need to simplify the multiplicity of legislation and regulations covering the sector, and the challenges posed by the welfare system – in particular inappropriate local housing allowance rates, although these have been addressed in the Coronavirus Act 2020, on a temporary basis.

The case studies highlight the diversity and complexity of the sector. The proportion of properties in the private rented sector in local authority areas ranges from just over 15 per cent to more than 40 per cent. 

The array of issues councils face include: short-term lets (for example, via Airbnb); demand for student accommodation; migrant workers living in appalling conditions that are sometimes associated with modern slavery; vulnerable households living in poor-quality properties that are inadequately managed; and failing neighbourhoods where in excess of 50 per cent of the stock is privately rented and more than 20 per cent is empty or abandoned. 

Councils are addressing these issues through landlord accreditation schemes and forums; property management services including social lettings agencies; financial support, such as bonds and rent deposit and guarantee schemes; and supporting tenants’ groups and tenancy advice services.

The good practice guide’s recommendations to councils include ensuring there is leadership and corporate commitment to addressing the local challenges of the private rented sector, Councils need to develop a strategic framework setting out their role and function in addressing local issues, ensure there is a high-quality evidence base to understand the changing nature of the local private rented sector, and work in partnership with other stakeholders and neighbouring authorities.

Future-proofing policies and procedures is vital, the guidance says. The changing nature of the private rented sector is leading to new challenges such as the conversion of offices into poor quality private rented accommodation without the need for planning permission, while the impact of COVID-19 and the ‘new normal’ is a major issue that councils are beginning to address.

The diversity of the private rented sector means a localist approach is essential, and councils and their partners understand their individual unique challenges and opportunities, concludes the report.

 ‘Improving the private rented sector: a guide for councils’ can be downloaded for free at  www.local.gov.uk/publications

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