United Kingdom

Can councils enforce rental rules properly?

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Cash-strapped councils are failing to take action against rogue landlords, according to reports, raising concerns about whether they can enforce tough new regulations.

A Freedom of Information request by news website openDemocracy found that just 16 landlords have been banned from renting out properties across the whole of England. Almost half, seven, of those banning orders were handed out by Camden Council, and in total only nine local authorities have issued any at all – out of 333 across England.

The lack of enforcement isn’t due to a shortage of rogue landlords: London’s Rogue Landlord and Agent Checker contains more than 250 entries, but outside Camden, no borough has issued a single banning order.

Why isn’t legislation enforced?

Enforcement officers quoted by openDemocracy say it comes down to a lack of resources. While they claimed to see regular illegal activity by landlords, they couldn’t properly investigate or prosecute. Rogue landlords will often set up new companies to evade the law, and even some who are subject to banning orders are still renting out homes. And housing lawyer Giles Peaker adds that prosecuting landlords can be “time-consuming and costly”, which puts councils off.

Councils also have other options besides banning orders, like civil penalties. Banning a landlord requires an application to the First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber) and providing extensive evidence, which the landlord can dispute. Civil penalties can also be disputed by the landlord at the First-tier Tribunal and require the same standard of proof as a prosecution, but allow the council to fine the landlord up to £30,000. Haringey Council, which has not issued any banning orders, revealed earlier last month that it has issued civil penalties totalling £217,000 over the past four years.

But even here, many councils are not using their enforcement powers. In the first three years of civil penalties being available to councils, just 7% of local authorities issued 71% of the total. At the time, the National Residential Landlords Association slammed councils for “failing to apply appropriate sanctions”.

Beefing up enforcement

Councils could soon have a lot more enforcement responsibilities under the Renters (Reform) Bill. For example, when landlords evict tenants on the grounds of selling or moving into the property, it will become a criminal offence to relet it within three months. If the government follows through on plans to extend the Decent Homes Standard to privately rented homes, enforcement of this will also fall on local authorities. If councils are already struggling with their existing enforcement workload, it is difficult to see how they will effectively police these new standards too – meaning that law-abiding landlords and agents will face bigger compliance burdens while rogues operate with a free hand.

In its report on the Renters (Reform) Bill, the House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee recommended an overhaul of the civil penalty system, including making non-payment of a civil penalty a criminal offence, and allowing councils to register unpaid civil penalties as a legal charge against the property. They also recommended that councils should be freer to impose (and charge for) selective licensing schemes, and that offenders should pay costs that reflect the council’s cost of enforcement.

If these recommendations are followed, councils could find it easier to enforce the law – but given that banning orders and existing civil penalty powers appear to be underused, it remains to be seen how effective it would be.

Other regulation headlines

Blame game breaks out over delays to reforms of England rental market – Financial Times

BBC scrutiny dents mayor’s bid to paint bleak renting picture – LandlordZONE

Government goes back to the drawing board on housebuilding after Lords defeat – PoliticsHome

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