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In recent years the extent and role of the private rented sector (PRS) has seen significant changes. The sector has grown; 4.4 million households rented their home from a private landlord in 2019/20, representing 19% of all households in England. A more diverse range of households, including families with children, are now living in the sector. For many it is providing long-term rather than short-term accommodation.

The PRS has the worst housing conditions

The expansion of the PRS has focused attention on the need to improve conditions in the sector. The English Housing Survey (EHS) estimates that in 2019 23% of PRS homes did not meet the Decent Home Standard – around 1.1 million homes. This compares with 18% of owner-occupied homes and 12% of social-rented homes. PRS homes were more likely to have at least one Category 1 hazard under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS).

Section 1 of this paper gives an overview of housing conditions in the PRS, together with background on policy developments.

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 strengthened local authority powers to take enforcement action against ‘rogue’ landlords who knowingly rent out substandard accommodation.

The Queen’s Speech 2021 committed the Government to:

  • publish its consultation response on abolishing Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions; and
  • bring forward reforms to drive improvements in standards in the PRS, including by ensuring all tenants have a right to redress, and ensuring well targeted, effective enforcement.

A PRS White Paper is expected in autumn 2021, with legislation to follow in due course.

The legal framework governing housing standards

Section 2 provides an overview of the legal framework for housing standards in the PRS. There are statutory provisions governing private landlords’ repairing and maintenance obligations in addition to other specific requirements, for example, in relation to gas and electrical safety. Enforcement of standards in private rented housing is primarily through the HHSRS, a risk-assessment based regulatory model used by local authority environmental health officers.

The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 requires private sector landlords in England to ensure their properties are fit for human habitation at the beginning of the tenancy and throughout. The Act provides tenants with the means to take legal action against their landlord.

Issues with the legal framework

Section 3 provides an overview of some of the issues identified with the legal framework governing housing standards in the PRS:

  • Calls to reform the HHSRS which is criticised for being overly complex, difficult for landlords and tenants to understand and out of date. A review of the HHSRS is underway.
  • Inconsistent and low levels of enforcement of housing standards by local authorities, which is thought to be a result of: insufficient local authority resources; the complexity of the legislation; and a lack of political will to address low standards in the sector.
  • The power imbalance between tenants and landlords, which puts tenants at risk of retaliatory eviction or rent rises when they seek repairs and maintenance of their homes. Tenants may fail to seek redress because of the cost, time and complexities involved.
  • Some commentators have called for a fundamental reform of the PRS regulatory framework. The complex and piecemeal nature of the framework is said to be leaving landlords confused about what their obligations are and tenants uncertain about who is responsible for resolving problems.

Housing is a devolved policy area, different approaches to regulating housing standards in the PRS have emerged in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These approaches are outlined in section 4 of the briefing paper.


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