Swindon Housing Action Campaign has written to Swindon Borough Council calling on the Council to devote modest additional resources towards enforcing decent living conditions in the private rented sector (PRS).
SHAC has called for two additional Environmental Health Officers to be employed in order to bolster the team responsible for enforcing the law in what is a rapidly expanding sector. Private sector housing is only one area of responsibility for EHOs. Their job has a much wider scope (see letter to Council, attached).
In 2001 there were less than 6,000 PRS properties in the town. By the next Census in 2011 it had increased to more than 14,000. The number of people living in the sector rose from 11,359 to 32,811 over this time-scale. Today it is estimated that there are well over 16,000 PRS properties.
According to the English Housing Survey around a third of the PRS fails to meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Statistics forwarded from SBC to the government for 2014-15 estimated 11,250 Category one hazards in the private sector. These are defined as constituting a serious risk to the health and safety of occupants.
It might be dodgy wiring, inadequate heating, damp/ mould; there are 29 hazards listed. The Council has a legal duty to rectify a Category 1 hazard. Whilst some of these may be reported to the Council, the lack of security of tenure makes tenants sometimes reluctant to complain for fear of eviction. The likelihood is, therefore, that there are thousands of hazards of which Swindon’s staff are unaware.
A report in the Swindon media on the possibility of the government making all Houses in Multiple Occupation require a license, underlines the scale of the work the Council faces in the PRS. It was reported that there could be 700 more HMOs in existence than the 660 that the Council is aware of. If the scope of licensing increases then this in itself will be a big job which the current workforce would struggle to manage.
Lead member Emma Faramarzi was quoted as saying that she had visited some of these places and that “the state they are in is shocking. It is dreadful that some people have to live in these conditions”.
Regarding the HMO sector a Council Officer said: “Tenants of larger houses of multiple occupation like this are particularly vulnerable because they may be less able to seek an alternative accommodation and therefore endure squalid conditions. Our enforcement work focuses on this area, as such properties can be riddled with hazards, ranging from rat infestations or inadequate fire exits and faulty electrical installations,”
Martin Wicks of SHAC said: “Council officers have too few resources to tackle problems in a rapidly increasing PRS. Rectifying poor living conditions should be a key priority for the Council. The shortage of decent and genuinely affordable homes for rent has led to the emergence of tenants renting garages to live in. Exploitative landlords are taking advantage of the shortage by driving up rents and failing to provide decent accommodation.
“SHAC is calling on the Council to provide a modest sum, around £81,000 a year, from the more than £1 million extra income that will come in from increased Council Tax, to employ two more Environmental Health Officers.
“Emma Faramarzi is certainly right to say that it’s dreadful that people have to live in what she described as shocking conditions. However, it is surely the responsibility of the Council to put an end to such conditions. Without additional resources Officers will be fighting a losing battle in the face of the big increase in the number of properties in the PRS. Providing these extra staff would at least show that the Council recognised that decent living conditions were a priority which they took seriously.”
(SHAC is a new campaign. It’s launch meeting is on 18 February, 7pm at the Broadgreen Centre in Salisbury St. SHAC can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07786 394593)
Read the letter to David Renard and Emma Faramarzi here