Why councils need to stand up and be counted on tenancy law

Sun in a dark sky.jpg

By Daniel Russell

This week MPs voted to push forward proposed legislation that will see tenants have far greater influence over the way landlords are expected to deal with issues that are covered in tenancy agreements.

 The measures, contained in a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Labour backbencher Karen Buck, will enable people in privately rented housing to bypass the red tape and bureaucracy of local authority enforcement policies and has now been passed up to the House of Lords – the next stage of its journey into legislation.

So, why is this significant? Well, the bill comes in the same week that an investigation by The Guardian newspaper and news broadcaster ITN revealed so-called rogue landlords who have already been prosecuted for housing offences or have failed the Government’s ‘fit and proper’ test, are still being allowed to act as landlords and collect rents. In many cases, these relate to tenancies funded by housing benefit, and so funded by taxpayers.

The investigation also found that no local authority has made an entry in the Government’s rogue landlord database, introduced six months ago, and that only one in seven authorities in England and Wales have prosecuted landlords who are in breach of their duty of care.

The new legislation will enable tenants to force landlords to remedy problems and will also expedite the process by which they can seek compensation for lack of action by a landlord.

Crucially, it will also give tenants a new route of redress where the local authority is their landlord, since councils would not bring criminal or civil cases against themselves.

The measures are expected to be passed into law early next year and will apply to all new tenancy agreements from that point forward.

What isn’t yet clear is how quickly tenants might be able to force landlords into action or how easy it will be for individuals to navigate the process which will ultimately be in place. After all, the tenancy agreements already exist to establish a contract between landlord and tenant – aimed at protecting both parties – yet the process of enforcing those agreements without legal representation is already difficult.

Threading a lonely path through the minutiae of a tenancy agreement with a landlord (or tenant) whose behaviour is evidence of an entrenched disinclination to play fair would seem a daunting prospect to someone unfamiliar with the subtleties of prevailing law.

It seems distinctly unlikely that the success of this bill will see the minefield become less complex, though the process to get through it may well be. Even so, a landlord with the wherewithal to access good legal representation would appear to have the chips stacked more to their advantage.

So where does this leave the tenant? That, of course, remains to be seen. But at the very least, any new legislation must put councils on notice that they must use the powers at their disposal to support tenants who have a legitimate claim against a landlord who has failed to stick to their agreement.

Without specific requirements for councils to act swiftly where there is an enforcement case to answer – or for there to be alternative provision for tenant support – tenants who are most vulnerable to the actions (or lack of them) of disreputable landlords will continue to be isolated by a legal process that is likely to prove too difficult and too expensive to access.