Bromley Council has rejected the idea that the council should licence more private rented sector accommodation at the meeting of the Public Protection Committee on 14 November 2023 . This decision is contrary to the Government’s white paper on reforming the private rented sector. The committee report is flawed.
Larger houses in multiple occupation are subject to automatic licensing by local authorities. Local councils have discretionary powers to licence other houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Additional licensing of these properties is subject to the requirement that these properties must be problematic to either their residents or to the local public or are not being managed effectively.
Councils can licence all or part of the private rented sector if at least one or more of certain condition are met:
- In an area of low demand.
- Significant anti-social behaviour problem.
- Has a significant number of private rented properties in a poor condition.
- There is an influx of migration.
- High levels of deprivation.
- High levels of crime.
The report claims to be comprehensive. It is not. Firstly, no evidence is presented in the report about the condition of the private rented sector. The Council’s Housing Strategy 2019-29 refers to the last house condition survey being undertaken by the council in 2005. The report does not mention the 2005 survey or why it has not been updated. It is entirely possible that evidence may exist to show that there are significant number of private rented homes in poor condition in Bromley; if this was the case this would be a sufficient reason by itself to agree licensing for all of part of the private rented sector.
No mention is made in the report of the Secretary of State’s letter to all local council leaders and Chief Executives dated 19/11/2022. An extract from the letter is shown below:
“As you will be aware, local housing authorities have a duty under the Housing Act 2004 (“the Act”) to keep housing conditions in their area under review with a view to identifying any action that may need to be taken by them under the Act (section 3(1)).
Treating damp and mould seriously
Having considered it necessary and urgent to ensure that, as we go into a challenging winter, damp and mould issues are being addressed, I now direct, under section 3(3) of the Act, that all local housing authorities in carrying out their duty to review housing conditions in their area must:
- have regard to high scoring (bands D and E) category 2 damp and mould hazards, as outlined in the guidance ‘Housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS) enforcement guidance: housing conditions’
- supply the department with an assessment of damp and mould issues affecting privately rented properties in your area, including the prevalence of category 1 and 2 damp and mould hazards; and
- supply the department with an assessment of action you have identified that may need to be taken in relation to damp and mould issues affecting privately rented properties in your area.”
It appears that despite the Government directing all local councils to review the housing conditions in their area that Bromley councillors have not been told the results of such a review.
The council does not to fully appreciated the implication of the Government’s White Paper on the private rented sector. Government has decided that the decent homes standard will apply throughout the private rented sector as they consider that current standards are unacceptable. Bromley Council was unable to provide any evidence about property standards in the private rented sector. This is a significant error.
The report does not adequately describe the extent to which private tenants are being made homeless. No data is presented as to whether private tenants are repeatedly being rehoused from certain private rented properties. This will also apply to homeless applicants as the legal definition of homelessness includes living in unreasonable accommodation. Members should be told that a private landlord cannot serve a section 21 notice prior to evicting a private tenant if they live in an unlicensed HMO.
The significance of rent repayment orders for private tenants, landlords and the council should be explained. If a private tenant lives in an unlicenced HMO that should be licensed they or the local authority can apply to the property tribunal to be reimbursed by the landlord the rent paid for a period of up to 12 months. Such orders can be made under other circumstances.
The council asserts that as there are only 111 complaints from HMO residents in a 12-month period that most HMOs are effectively managed. However private tenants will be reluctant to complain to their local council if their landlord is able to evict them on a section 21 notice without any fault by the tenant.
The council should have carried out a survey of private tenants living in HMOs to find out if they are being effectively managed. Neither does the council describe whether they have resolved all the complaints made by these tenants. Members should have been told how licensing would have impacted on such complaints.
The council describes at paragraph 3.13 the obligations private landlords have towards their tenants. However, this list is defective as no evidence is supplied or there is no mention of:
- whether private landlords locally are meeting their obligations.
- The requirements of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 on private landlords to put and keep a tenant’s home in a state fit for human habitation
- fire safety issues in the private rented sector.
- The requirements on landlords under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 and data on whether private tenants are being unlawfully evicted in Bromley.
- The work done by Bromley Trading standards officers on the local impact of the Tenant Fees Act.
There is no discussion in paragraph 4.0 as to whether there should be a limited licensing schemes for HMOs in the two wards of Saint Marys Cray and Saint Pauls Cray. Given that there are 80 such properties in these two wards alone out of a Borough total of 277 this should have merited consideration. The House of Commons library refers to high rates of fuel poverty in these two wards. The library also allows searching on small geographic areas to display different housing tenures. The report should have referred to the Government’s guidance on selective licensing.
The report should have considered whether Bromley council knows precisely how many HMOs there are in the borough. Bexley and Lewisham Council reported large increases in such properties after the introduction of additional licensing. Local councils have the power under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to ask for data from the deposit protection service for a list of local addresses where deposits are lodged with their office. There is no indication that Bromley Council has asked for this information which would help the council to identify unlicensed HMOs.
In considering the extent of deprivation amongst private tenants, no mention is made of the extent of hardship caused by the fact that there is a gap between the contractual rent and the amount that housing benefit will pay. Nor is the work done by Bromley Council on addressing fuel poverty under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 mentioned. Relevant government research is omitted. These are relevant factors and should not have been ignored.
Bromley Council’s Chief Executive should be asked to explain how much public money has been spent on such an error strewn investigation which claims to be comprehensive. Crucially has the council complied with the instruction from of the Secretary of State for Housing to disclose the extent of poor housing in this sector and the council’s plan to tackle it; if not why not? Have elected councillor been misled by officers in not disclosing this correspondence? Given that there are now 23,660 private tenants now living in the borough, why were all councillors not consulted on this report?
The report is inconsistent with the Government’s stated policy to improve standards in the private rented sector and the proposals in the Renter’s Reform Bill to impose greater duties on local authorities to meet this objective. The comment from the Legal Department on the report states that the correct test for licensing purposes has been identified but does not state whether this test has been applied correctly by the report author.
The council is at fault for failing to provide all relevant data relating to conditions in the private rented sector and the level of hardship endured by tenants especially those living in communal accommodations to enable a proper and informed debate as to whether selective and additional licensing in the borough should take place. The council should agree to look again at this decision in the light of the need for better investigation and analysis.
The table below was included in the committee report. It shows the breakdown by ward of the number of private tenants in all wards in Bromley Borough. Bromley Town, Beckenham Town, and Crystal Palace wards have over 30% of residents renting privately. 23,660 Bromley residents now rent privately. There are 10,964 privately rented properties in the new parliamentary constituency of Beckenham and Penge.