Welcoming long overdue legislation

Finally seeing the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill become law, receiving Royal Assent the week before Christmas, was a sweet pleasure.

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And no one could say it was a rush job, either!

It isn’t only that my own first attempt came via the 2015 Private Members’ Ballot (I was a lot lower down the list), or that this second shot has taken 18 months from introduction to conclusion, or that we tried to introduce it as an amendment to the 2016 Housing and Planning Act.

It is that the Fitness Act finally implements a Law Commission recommendation from as far back as 1996.

The fact is, giving tenants, in both social and private sectors, the ability to act against landlords letting unfit properties is long overdue.

Private tenants do have rights if the property is in disrepair, but disrepair is only one way in which a home can be unfit – so, if the boiler is broken, a tenant has rights.

But if a house or flat is freezing cold or riddled with damp or mould because the heating is completely inadequate, or because of a design or structural problem, they don’t.

Importantly, the Bill was strengthened as it went through Parliament by extending the remit to the common parts of, for example, a block of flats – so ‘fitness’ also covers things like the windows, roof and outside walls.

Private tenants can turn to their local council to enforce on their behalf and some councils do a fine job, but capacity and willingness to act are hugely variable.

We know from the English Housing Survey some three-quarters of a million private sector properties are seriously sub-standard, yet enforcement action rates are far, far below this level.

Tenants in council homes – a quarter of a million of which are unfit – don’t even have this protection, since councils cannot enforce against themselves.

There is always more to do. Legal Aid will be available on the same basis as disrepair currently – but we know there is a wider issue with access to Legal Aid and Legal Aid lawyers.

Concerns about retaliatory eviction are real, and I am strongly of the view that we need to move next to improve tenant security by removing Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions.

The Act does not replace the role for local authority enforcement – it complements it – but local councils are under financial pressure as never before, and it will always be the most vulnerable who suffer most.

Despite that, this is a good and important measure for tenants, and it will make a difference.

I am hugely grateful for the expert housing lawyers, Giles Peaker and Justin Bates, who drafted the legislation.

The government got behind it a year ago, and the MHCLG have been hugely constructive.

And there has been backing across the sector from housing campaign groups like Shelter and Generation Rent to the main landlord associations, which recognise good landlords have nothing to fear and can support measures to tackle the rogues.

No one should have to live in an unfit home. This Act will help make that aspiration a reality.

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