Friday, 5 November 2010

Coalition Council tackles issues in rented housing

Well done Reading Borough Council. This week a rogue landlord was fined £60,000 for placing her tenants at risk in a rundown property in central Reading. This is believed to be the biggest ever fine resulting from intervention by environmental health officers in the UK. The landlord in this case was charged with 11 counts of failing to comply with housing management regulations. It says something about the demand for housing in our area that this landlord thought she could get away with charging tenants £700 for the pleasure of renting a substandard property.
Under my watch landlords the Council will continue to focus on rooting out poor quality housing and holding those responsible to account.
Locally my Lib Dem colleagues and I have led this agenda for the past four years, campaigning to improve the private rented sector - one of the biggest in the UK and home to 25 % of people living in Reading. Two years ago this month I led the most detailed scrutiny review ever into the sector.I did this because the worst housing standards at that time were in the private sector and also because I knew of issues in areas like Redlands with student housing that needed fixing.
I succeeded in engaging the public using public meetings and Facebook - the first time in the Council's history.
After the review we published detailed recommendations to the then Labour administration in May 2009 about how locally Council policies could be improved to deliver improvements in the sector. These touched on student housing, waste collection and enforcement action - all long-overlooked areas.
At that time Labour councillors had no choice, politically, but to implement these recommendations, after years of neglecting rented housing, as well as areas of the Town with a high concentration of HMOs and student housing. In the end 90 % were introduced and we succeeded in getting the Council's housing strategy re-written to include a greater focus on issues in the private sector.
Review of landlord accreditation
One of the key recommendations of the scrutiny review called for a review of the Council's landlord accreditation scheme which had been suspended by Labour a few years earlier. This is something that students had been calling for some time and I championed it.
When the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives took over the Council in May this year we inherited the review. The review found that 'while LAS is a useful tool to stakeholders, the re-launch of Reading’s current LAS would not deliver outcomes in the most cost-effective way.'
The review also found:
'The (previous)scheme did not drive up house conditions significantly because landlords attracted to LAS are generally those with property in good order already. The soft outcomes of running the scheme are outweighed by the fact that the scheme had contact with only 2.3% of Reading’s rental market despite vigorous promotion and a cost of circa £34k per annum.'
So, in line with our local Coalition Agreement with the Conservatives to deliver better, value for money services to our residents we agreed not to revive the scheme in it's current form but instead sign up to a National Landlord Accreditation Scheme. The scheme is run by the National Landlord Association and offers landlords and tenants a range of benefits, whilst enabling the Council to focus more effectively on it's core duties of ensuring that the most poorly-maintained and hazardous properties in the sector are identified and appropriate action is taken against landlords.
Locally, Labour's response to all this has been interesting. For one thing they appear to be a lot more interested in housing and the private rented sector in opposition than they ever were when they ran the Council. This would be welcome were it not that they appear to driven by a desire to score political points, rather than campaign for better housing.
For example, when I announced our plans to join a national accreditation scheme they didn't support it, arguing we were abandoning tenants - when it was Labour who suspended the Landlord Accreditation Scheme (LAS) in the first place!
At full Council last month, Cllr Paul Gittings attacked me for failing to implement 'a proper landlord accreditation scheme' whatever that means, suggesting that things like fire safety would be put at risk by our decision not to resurrect an in-house landlord accreditation scheme.
This is utter hogwash. All the housing regulations that exist to protect tenants will continue to exist. The decision to adopt an LAS is entirely up to individual councils i.e. it is non-statutory.
Let's be clear: all the Council's statutory functions to ensure housing standards are maintained will continue. All that we have done is ensure that taxpayer's money will not be wasted on something that does not work. And once again Labour councillors find themselves arguing for the continuation of schemes that are ineffective and are not value for money. So much for constructive opposition.
The last Labour government proposed setting up a national landlord register and a number of other regulations. These plans were reviewed by independent experts and the Coalition Government and were found to be ineffective, burdensome and expensive so were not carried forward. And yet at a recent Council meeting I was challenged by a Labour activists to support these regulations. Bizarre.
Back to the news about the rogue landlord who was fined this week. It is worth pointing out to any reader who is concerned that the Council will be profiting financially from the prosecution I can reassure them that the fine (if collected) will go to the Crown. The Council has been awarded costs only. It is also worth mentioning that the reason why this fine was so large was because the landlord failed to heed warnings from environmental health officers over a period of two years. If problems are found in properties the Council will work with landlords to help them put things right. Going to court is clearly only something officers will do as a last resort.
If you or anyone you know are concerned about the condition of rented property please contact the Council on 0118 937 3737 or visit our website at

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