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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; 4.6 million households rented their home from a private landlord in 2021/22, 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 accommodation.

The PRS has the worst housing conditions

The expansion of the PRS has focused attention on the need to improve conditions. The English Housing Survey (EHS) estimated that in 2021, 23% of PRS homes did not meet the Decent Home Standard – around 1 million homes. This compares with 13% of owner-occupied and 10% of social-rented homes.

PRS homes were also more likely to have at least one Category 1 hazard under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). An inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee in 2022 concluded “the sector is failing far too often to provide safe and secure homes for renters…”

The Government’s white paper, A fairer private rented sector, was published on 16 June 2022. It set out a 12-point action plan to deliver “a fairer, more secure, higher quality private rented sector” and included commitments to:

  • halve the number of non-decent rented homes by 2030 and require privately rented homes to meet the Decent Homes Standard for the first time.
  • introduce a new single Ombudsman that all private landlords must join.
  • introduce a new digital Property Portal to make sure that tenants, landlords and local authorities have the information they need.
  • strengthen local authorities’ enforcement powers.
  • abolish section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 and end ‘no-fault’ evictions.

The private rented sector reforms require legislation. The Queens Speech 2022 said a Renters Reform Bill would be introduced in the 2022-23 parliamentary session. Government Ministers have subsequently said the Bill will be introduced “in this Parliament”.

Section 1 of the paper provides an introduction to housing conditions in the PRS, together with an overview of policy developments since 2010.

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: limited local authority capacity; lack of knowledge of the private rented stock; and a lack of political or corporate commitment 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 their obligations and tenants uncertain about who is responsible for resolving problems.
  • Insufficient data on the challenges facing tenants, landlords and local authorities and to evaluate the impact of legislative changes.

The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry on Reforming the Private Rented Sector.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

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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