This week I welcomed news that the Labour government has listened to councils and councillors and has amended the law so that planning permission will soon be required to turn a house into an HMO. This is something that required action at a national level. As a ward councillor I have picked up many complaints from residents over the years about family homes being turned into HMOs and neighbourhoods changing out of all recognition in some parts of Town.
My starting point for all my campaigns has been my ward (Redlands) which has a high number of student lets and Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) but really the more I have investigated the issues the more I have learned that the private rented sector (PRS) is a significant of Reading's entire housing sector - not just in East Reading but parts of South and West Reading too.
With a massive shortage of affordable housing in Reading and a long housing waiting list the private rented sector is performing a vital role: providing cheap housing for many individuals and families - and thereby relieving pressure on the limited amount of housing association and Council-owned housing stock.
However, what concerns me is that the majority of so-called 'non-decent' housing in Reading is in this sector and when things go wrong it can be difficult for tenants and residents to get action taken.
So why I have spent so much of my time campaigning for a better quality private rented sector in Reading? Some facts about the sector (source: RBC):
- 27% of Reading's population lives in the PRS (compared to around 11% nationally)
- There is a higher proportion of older terraces (pre-1910) and flats in Reading than the rest of the UK
- 6.9% of properties Reading are HMOs compared to the national average of around 2%
- 22% of houses in the PRS do not meet the national 'Decent Homes' standards (due to poor thermal efficiency)
- 18% of the PRS are on Housing Benefit and occupy a disproportionate amount of non-decent properties
- Non-decent properties are associated with heads of households that are under 24 or over 60, especially those above 85
- The majority of empty homes are located within the private rented sector
Who lives in Reading's private rented sector? Answer = a whole range of different people - including a number of vulnerable groups:
- Young professionals
- People claiming Housing Benefit
- So-called 'slum rentals'
- Tied housing
- High-income renters
- Asylum seekers
- People living in temporary accommodation
Where is the majority of Reading's private rented housing? :(Data by ward - source RBC, October 2008):
- Abbey: 3263
- Katesgrove: 1849
- Battle: 1714
- Redlands: 1677
- Park: 1515
- Minster: 1415
- Caversham: 1052
- Norcot: 960
- Church: 965
- Whitley: 662
- Kentwood: 654
One of the big issues in many parts of Reading is the growth of Houses of Multiple Occupation - HMOs. This has brought with it a range of problems including waste management, parking and hazards for tenants. The number of HMOs has grown in recent years and the Labour government has been slow to respond (see above).
Legislation was brought in a few years ago to enable councils to licence some HMOs (but not all of them) but councils have until now had very limited powers to restrict the number of HMOs and this has been a cause of frustration for residents living in some parts of Reading where people feel the balance between HMOs and other types of housing is wrong.
The majority of HMOs in Reading are currently in Park (356), Redlands (291), Abbey ward (253), followed by Katesgrove (231) and Battle (212) (data: RBC, 2008).
My campaigning for better standards in the private rented sector has been very successful so far:
- The joint scrutiny review into the private rented sector I led last year with Lib Dem Cllr Ricky Duveen, Chair of the Environment Scrutiny Panel was the first in depth look at the sector for many years
- As part of the review we held a highly-successful 'Have Your Say' event and my innovative use of Facebook to get as many students, tenants and landlords involved as possible
- It resulted in a range of policy improvements and additional investment by the Labour administration to be focussed on improving standards
- Our scrutiny review which attracted cross-Party support recommended that the landlord accreditation should be revived to give greater security to students and tenants. I'm pleased to say as a result of our campaigning a review of the scheme is now underway
- The cross-cutting nature of our scrutiny review has made joined-up enforcement action connected to dealing with issues in the PRS across Council departments (such as Planning and Streetcare) more effective
- The way I used social media to engage people led to me being nominated for a Lib Dem Voice award and being featured in The Times.
But my campaign to raise the profile of issues in this 'Cinderella' sector did not stop there. When I presented the findings of our review at a meeting of the Council's Cabinet in Reading last year I was adamant that it should not be left on a shelf to gather dust. The review had to be a first step on the path to triggering further action:
- Our scrutiny review has already had a major impact on the Council's Housing Strategy 2009 -2014 which was adopted last October. Labour-run RBC has at last acknowledged that the private rented sector plays an absolutely central role in Reading's housing market but it must be actively supported and improved if this sector is going to be brought up to 'Decent Homes' standard.
- Recently I have campaigned to highlight the plight of thousands of tenants in Reading who face eviction when buy-to-let landlords ran into difficulty during the recent recession.
- And we are due to receive a report to HHCC Scrutiny Panel and the Environment Panel next month reviewing the impact of the review and the impact of the recent additional investment.
With thousands of people living in rented housing or next to it in Reading it's essential that politicians continue to engage with the issues connected with PRS not just now but in the years ahead. I will keep on campaigning to make sure this happens.