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John Healey: Greater council powers to give housing help for private tenants

Published 1 April 2010

Housing Minister John Healey has today given councils stronger local powers to tackle unprofessional private landlords who offer substandard accommodation, by introducing licensing schemes in local problem areas.

The Minister also announced his intention to make it easier for councils to introduce licensing in areas where problem tenants cause higher levels of crime and anti-social behaviour - ensuring they can effectively tackle the problem, and end this misery for suffering residents.

From today councils will have greater powers to compel private landlords in certain areas to apply for licences, to ensure they offer safe, quality and well managed accommodation before granting licences. Over time tenants will see improved standards and councils will be better able to deal with the worst landlords that drag down the neighbourhood.

Until now, a council wishing to introduce licensing in their area would need to apply to central Government for permission to do so - now, councils can independently follow the necessary criteria to act immediately and introduce licensing where it is needed.

The Government is also funding a dedicated team from the Local Authority Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) to support councils as they look to meet the requirements for establishing licensing schemes in a local area.

The Minister also said that by this Summer, England's three million private tenants will have guaranteed access to free, impartial advice through a new helpline. This will be staffed by experts offering tenants free practical advice if they face problems with their accommodation or landlord. He invited housing charities and others to become official partners with Government on this new £2million independent service.

The private rented sector offers housing for a growing number of people across the country - between 2007 and 2008, the number of people in private rented accommodation rose by nearly a fifth.

However, while three quarters of private tenants are satisfied with their home and landlord, recent research by Shelter and the Money Advice Trust showed that a quarter of low-income private tenants do not know where to go to get advice. This new hotline will bridge that gap offering expert advice on the full range of housing issues including handling disagreements with landlords, tenancy terms and retrieving deposits.

Those looking to move home and particularly those looking to rent privately for the first time, will also be able to check out prospective landlords by checking the feedback from their current tenants on a new 'Trip Adviser'-style website.

This is combined with a commitment for new rights to a written tenancy agreement, a new national register of landlords and regulation of letting and managing agents.

A new 'National Tenants Forum' will also represent the rights and interests of private tenants directly to Government and be advocates more widely to other interested organisations.

John Healey said:

"It is only right that tenants renting privately should expect good quality accommodation and professional landlords. But too often they can find themselves in difficult circumstances with little help on hand.

"That's why I'm giving councils more local powers to tackle the worst landlords. From today authorities will be able to make sure that private tenants in their area are getting a fairer deal, with better managed homes.

"Today I can also confirm that by this Summer, tenants will have guaranteed access to free, impartial advice so they can know their rights and seek help if they face problems. I'm looking to voluntary organisations to come forward and help us set this up over the next few weeks.

 "This, alongside the range of measures we're working to put in place - from the tenants' forum and compulsory written tenancy agreements to a national register for landlords - will help strengthen the hand of private tenants and clamp down on the worst landlords who drag down the reputation of the rest."

These steps are part of a comprehensive package of measures to support private sector tenants announced by Mr Healey in the last few months including:

  • setting minimum energy efficiency standards for rented property and ensuring standards are met before they are rented out
  • a National Register for Landlords to help tenants make basic checks on their prospective landlords
  • better regulation of letting and managing agents, which will help tackle the rogue agents who can drag the reputation of the Private Rented Sector down
  • boosting the number of tenants protected under the most commonly used type of tenancy agreement
  • a 'tripadvisor' style word-of-mouth website comparing landlords
  • a requirement for written tenancy agreements in all tenancies that will strengthen the hand of tenants should they face a dispute

Housing Charities provide practical help to hundreds of tenants on a daily basis. The issues they receive most questions on include:

  • Which agents can I trust? Look for an agent that is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the National Approved Lettings Scheme or the Property Ombudsman - by belonging to one of these professional bodies or schemes, agents have to sign up to certain standards of practice and you will have access to an independent complaints procedure. For the future, the Government intends to legislate to require all agents to meet these standards
  • Who can I go to for local knowledge? Your local authority can advise on renting in the private sector. Some councils run accreditation schemes for landlords and can arrange lettings for those in need. The Government is working with local authorities to ensure that these services are widely available across the country
  • Tenancy terms: Make sure you ask for a written tenancy agreement, and make sure that you understand it. the agreement should make it clear who is paying what utility bills, arrangements for rent reviews, how long the tenancy is for and arrangements for paying the rent. The Government has committed to legislate at the earliest opportunity to make written tenancies a legal requirement. If you're not sure what you are signing you can obtain free advice in the first instance from your local Citizens' Advice Bureau or you might like to get your own legal advice
  • Retrieving deposits: Make sure that your deposit has been protected. Landlords are required to protect your deposit with one of three Government-sponsored schemes, established in 2007
  • Safety: Check that your landlord has an up to date Gas Safety Check on the property and ask to see the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). Both are legal requirements for landlords
  • Handling disagreements: If something goes wrong don't stop paying the rent as this could put you at risk of eviction. Talk to your landlord as soon as possible - the majority of landlords are responsible and professional
  • Who can help? Anyone struggling to resolve a problem with their landlord can also get independent advice from their council, or through the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) - in local authorities, the environmental health department will be helpful if there are problems with the quality or safety of the property you are renting and local authority housing departments will also be able to help if you are at risk of homelessness

Notes to editors

1. The tenants' helpline is part of a wide range of measures announced by Government on 3 February in order to support the private rented sector. Details can be found at: www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1455410.

2. More details on the distribution of privately rented housing across England can be found at: www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/xls/table-109.xls (Excel, 43kb)

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