Tenant’s voice: Opportunity knocks

Tenant’s voice: Opportunity knocks

Tenant’s voice: Opportunity knocks

First Published 19 October 2016

A new act is about to be implemented that provides a real chance to put private renting centre stage

One of Brent Private Tenants’ Rights Group’s members recently told us about the Sustainable Communities Act 2014, under which the government is about to implement proposals for communities to change the world (or at least their local area).

Our members think it’s an opportunity not to be missed to bring private tenants in from the cold. We believe it could demonstrate how a well run private rented sector could make a positive contribution to the local area -instead of simply being where homeless families are persuaded to live if there isn’t enough social housing, or places turned into bedsits for students which should be closed down.

Here’s a summary of how the act is meant to work:

The act moves from local consultation to local action, or ‘double-devolution’, a now familiar phrase which some of us have yet to get to grips with.

The scope for action covers economic, social and environmental issues and starts from the principle that local people know best what needs to be done in their area, but sometimes need central government to act to make it happen.

The process is straightforward. The government invites proposals from local authorities, but they can’t put suggestions forward without involving local people. They do this by setting up panels of local representatives which must include people from under-represented groups.

Local residents then urge their panel to support their ideas, and the panel discusses these with their council. Note that the council has to reach agreement with the panel on what proposals to
put forward -they can’t just listen and walk away.

All the proposals agreed are sent to the Local Government Association (LGA) which draw up a shortlist and sends it to the government. The government has the final say in what proposals get implemented, but they must consult the LGA and try to reach agreement with them. There doesn’t seem to be a cap on the number of proposals that can get through to this final stage.

I probably don’t need to add that there’s no new money to implement all the brilliant ideas flowing from communities, but don’t despair at this point.

A crucial part of the process is that the government must publish ‘local spending reports’ which break down all the money being spent by local and national bodies in each area.

So if communities have proposals that cost money, they can argue that, for example, money to install free smoke alarms in every home in the area should be paid for by reducing the number of traffic wardens, and moving the money saved from the local authority to the fire brigade.

So let’s get back to private tenants and where they come in. It’s early days, and in our local corner we’re still thinking about it, and would urge others to do the same. But here are some ideas to get the ball rolling.

The council should require all private landlords to send them their energy performance certificates. If energy efficiency is very low, landlords could choose to increase the efficiency (they get a tax allowance for this) or allow the tenants to do so (with a warm front grant where appropriate) in exchange for a reduced rent and a five-year fixed-term tenancy.

Private tenants could tell the Health & Safety Executive to increase enforcement against landlords who ignore the requirement to get gas appliances serviced and give tenants a record. Out of (I would guess) a minimum of 50,000 breaches of these requirements in the past five years, only 10 landlords have been prosecuted.

Voter participation by shorthold tenants might be increased by requiring local councils and the Department for Work and Pensions to combine electoral registration forms with application forms for housing benefit.

More suggestions on a postcard please.

Paul Ograe is director of Brent Private Tenants’ Rights Group.