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An expanded role for the private rented sector? - realities, remedies & tackling irresponsible landlords
Glasgow and West of Scotland
Forum of Housing Associations
The Scottish Government's consultation Firm Foundations: The Future of Housing in Scotland, launched last October, raises the spectre of an expanded role for the private rented sector (PRS).
A private rented sector that would target vulnerable low income and homeless households. From my experience of the PRS in Scotland, this gives considerable cause for concern.
In Glasgow the private rented sector is a tale of two cities. We have the upmarket private sector which is beyond the price range of the typical citizen and way beyond what housing benefit would cover.
We then have the private rented sector where no repairs are ever done, and tenants live in conditions which are often not tenantable and habitable, lacking basic amenities such as hot water and a safe system of heating. Rat, mice and insect infestations are not uncommon in many private lets. While dampness and exposure to increased population of the house dust mite and its potent allergenic pellet is common place.
Prolonged exposure to high levels of HDM can result in children developing asthma and Scotland has one of the highest levels of child asthma in Europe; quite literally many private sector lets can make people ill. And it is the slum private rented sector that the low paid and poor are subjected to - those who have the means to vote with their feet do so, while those who are vulnerable find their vulnerability exploited for profit.
Govan Law Centre has been operating a Prevention of Homelessness project in the South West of the City in partnership with the social work department and Money Matters advice centre. That project has prevented almost 1,000 families from being made homeless on a sustainable basis over the last two years or so.
Significantly, we have uncovered major problems in the private rented sector in the South West of Glasgow. The most pressing problem is the fact it's standard practice for many private landlords to ignore due process of law and engage in unlawful eviction and harassment. We are compiling a research report on this problem at present - but the problem is widespread - and from my understanding it's not just Glasgow.
When we intervene as solicitors and report threatened or actual unlawful evictions and the harassment of tenants to the police we are generally met with a response of: 'it's a civil matter' or 'we're not prepared to charge anyone as there's no evidence' or 'the landlord did a notice to quit so what are you complaining about'.
Of course such behaviour has been a criminal offence in Scotland and the UK since the Protection of Eviction Act 1964 - and the law is now contained in the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984. The fact that some 44 years later the law is not being applied properly by statutory agencies is quite shocking.
The message the police are giving out by refusing to charge private landlords for criminal behaviour is that it's ok to ignore the law and harass and bully your tenants.
I would concede that the new Private Rented Housing Committee for disrepair is - in principle - a very good development. Reforms under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 will enable tenants to access a straight-forward form of dispute resolution with tough sanctions such a rent relief orders where a private landlord fails to implement repair orders. However, the reality is if private sector tenants can be harassed and intimidated with impunity then any system of repair enforcement may be rendered meaningless in practice. And I don't see anyone sorting out the big problem of private sector landlords ignoring the legal rights of tenants and committing statutory offences on a regular basis.
The Antisocial Behaviour (Scotland) Act 2004 introduced the Registration Scheme for Private Landlords. With the official line from Edinburgh that this scheme should be operated with a light touch, I remain unconvinced about it's impact to date. That is not to say it could not have a powerful impact - for example the 2004 Act enables local authorities to serve rent penalty notices on those landlords who fail to register. However, again, even if such a strategy were used it could only work if there were advice agencies on the ground challenging those landlords who simply came round and demanded monies with menances. And of course, that too would require the backing of the police and the procurator fiscal.
Then we have a whole range of other potential statutory remedies at the disposal of local authorities. For example:
But again the reality is how many CPOs have Scottish councils used against dilapidated private flats? Not many. The enforcement of major repairs on a significant scale requires a lot of work, a lot of effort, and a lot of capital.
In hotspot areas like Govanhill where the level of substandard private sector accommodation is very high indeed there needs to be a serious commitment from the Scottish Government that big problems cannot be tackled without extra capital funding to Glasgow City Council. Without proper investment stock will ultimately have to be demolished - so it's a false economy not to spend the money now.
Then we have another practical problem - if we are to tackle poor living conditions to bring private rented stock up to minimum standards - where will tenants go while this happens?
Moreover, if we are to tackle the severe overcrowding in many private sector flats, particularly in communities such as Govanhill, East Pollokshields and Govan, where will people go? Who will house them?
The Glasgow Housing Association thinks there is no big demand for social housing. Of course there is, and in particular there is a huge demand for good quality affordable social housing.
The GHA has dithered and is now being openly obstructive on Second Stage Transfer to genuine community based Glasgow RSLs. It doesn't want to break itself up and we will need political leadership to do so. I find it incredible when the GHA starts placing high values on its stock - as a device to scupper Second Stage Transfer - when it got council houses for £300 each thanks to taxpayers. Or for free if you factor in the unbelievable public subsidy it has enjoyed - getting on for three quarters of a billion pounds.
The reality is we need to break up the GHA's stock and pass this to community based housing associations to meet the pressing housing need in our communities.
We also need to build more houses for affordable social rent and phase out the Right to Buy completely. In Govanhill - which I believe represents the most pressing social and housing need in the country - we need Scottish Government funding to enable the worst of the worst private stock to be taken into social ownership.
Ultimately, an expanded Private Rented Sector can offer few if any solutions to vulnerable households in Scotland. How could it?
The reality is private rented accommodation represents a key source of human misery in Scotland at the moment. But just when you think it can't get any worse you come to Glasgow and discover the GHA Ltd.
When I was giving evidence to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee's Inquiry into Poverty in Scotland I reckoned that the top sources of human misery in the country were (1) the banks with their morally bankrupt bank charges and scams, (2) closely followed by the GHA. I thought certain private factoring companies came a close third place along with many private sector slum landlords.
The future of meeting housing need in Scotland lies in the social rented sector.