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In recent years the extent and role of the private rented sector (PRS) in the housing market has seen significant changes. The sector has grown considerably; 4.6 million households rented their home from a private landlord in 2018/19, representing 19% of all households in England. A more diverse range of households, including families with children, are now accommodated in the sector and for many it is providing long-term rather than short-term accommodation.

The expansion of the PRS has focused attention on the need to improve housing conditions in the sector. The English Housing Survey estimates that in 2018 25% of homes in the PRS were in a condition that would fail the Decent Home Standard – around 1.2 million homes. This was the highest proportion of all tenure groups. Privately-rented homes were also the most likely to have at least one Category 1 hazard under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS).

Section 1 of the briefing paper provides information on housing fitness and levels of disrepair 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 2017 Conservative Government proposed further interventions to help improve standards in the PRS, including: legislation to require all private landlords to sign up to a redress scheme; and the regulation of all letting and managing agents.

Section 2 of the briefing paper provides an overview of the current legal framework for housing fitness 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 safety. On 13 January 2020, the Government laid before Parliament new regulations that will require private landlords to make sure the electrical installations in their properties are safe. 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, which came into force for new tenancies created on or after 20 March 2019, requires private sector landlords in England to ensure that 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 without having to rely on their local authority.

Section 3 of the briefing paper provides a brief overview of some of the key issues identified with the legal framework governing housing standards in the PRS:

  • Calls to reform the HHSRS which has been criticised for being overly complex, difficult for landlords and tenants to understand and out of date. The 2017 Government responded by initiating a review of the system.
  • 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 rental properties. Tenants may also 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 and consequently 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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