Comment: It’s time for the government to take renters seriously

Tenants are still not legally protected against serious hazards including fire risks

Tenants are still not legally protected against serious hazards including fire risks - Credit: Getty Images

The prosecution of Camden councillor Johnny Bucknell for landlord failings highlights tenants’ need for legal protection

Has this week been the most dismal on record for tenants? What with the government voting to bulldoze their way through the last vestiges of often well laid out, if ill maintained, post War council housing; new figures showing that average rents in many London boroughs cost three quarters of average local incomes; and the failure of a Bill, originally proposed by Westminster North MP Karen Buck, requiring that all rental properties be fit for human habitation, things are looking rocky for renters.

The final point was thrown into sharp relief in Camden when it turned out that Camden council prosecuted one of its own councillors – the former Conservative housing spokesman no less – for landlord failings on a rental property in Primrose Hill.

In one respect this case could be seen to reinforce one major objection to the Bill, put forward by communities minister Marcus Jones, that councils already have perfectly adequate powers to deal with rogue landlords.

But, while Camden may have a relatively good track record of dealing with dodgy landlords, many other local authorities do not. A survey of 120 councils found that of 51,916 serious complaints received in 2013 only 14,043 were even investigated. And rather than take a formal legal course, councils often responded informally with a phonecall or letter, prosecuting fewer than one landlord per year each on average. Hardly a robust safeguard against hazardous living conditions.

The other main argument is that no decent landlord – which, of course, represents the majority – would let out a substandard property. No doubt the landlord politicians who voted against the amendment are decent landlords but if so, why take such exception to a law that surely won’t affect them? They tend not to be murderers either, but are pretty keen to keep murdering illegal.

And politicians or not, there are plenty of landlords letting out unsafe properties whose tenants currently have no recourse against them beyond reporting them to often indifferent councils. These are not issues to do with repairs either but serious, structural hazards including faulty wiring, rat infestations and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Private renting is the second biggest tenure in the UK and is growing at the fastest rate of all housing types, especially in London. It’s time the concerns of this huge section of the electorate were taken seriously.