Legislation needs to hold landlords to account

Cameron, Osborne and around 39% of Tory MPs share an interesting private vocation: not golf, as it turns out, but landlordship. Indeed, 194 MPs from across the Commons are landlords – one of whom, Newbury MP Richard Benyon, tried to turf out an entire estate of tenants in the New Era scandal last year.

Is it all that surprising, then, that Labour’s proposed amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill, which would have ensured homes are made fit for human habitation by landlords, was rejected in the Commons by a majority of 93 votes? Many MPs will surely be rubbing their hands with glee at these relaxed regulations, while tenants find themselves without any channel of reprieve, should they find damp walls, structural flaws or rat infestations. In fact, the vested interest of politicians in the housing market doesn’t end there, with 18 MPs also involved in at least one property company; combined with the fact that a negligible number of MPs actually rent their homes, it is clear that the legislation is entirely out of touch with our growing nation of renters.
For young people in particular, there is a very real danger that the housing market will go from being a rent trap to an actual death trap. Let’s be honest: for most students, renting a house for the first time is something of a wild stab in the dark. You’ve only just learnt how to wash your clothes to an acceptable standard, and now a landlord is giving you a lease to sign, a deposit and a set of keys to a place which looked measurably cleaner in the pictures. Without the clause that would give you the legal right to hold landlords to account over inhabitable conditions, many will be left vulnerable to exploitation.

Even the savviest of students can be caught out by cowboy landlords. A friend at Bournemouth University has told me of a damp patch consuming his bedroom wall, which has given him a persistent cough and an increased risk of developing asthma. He also had cause for concern when an electrician arrived at his house to fix a disconnected earth wire, which could have given any of the tenants a severe electric shock. His landlord emailed him last semester confirming that repairs would be made, but so far, these have not been forthcoming, and it has fallen to the university accommodation office to move him to a safer residence.

Elsewhere, I have heard of faulty boilers, sunken bedframes and leaks in the ceiling, which landlords have only repaired when it suits them. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that we have Homerun, an organisation which educates and supports students to ensure they avoid the pitfalls of renting – this is not necessarily the case at other universities – yet personally I feel there is even more Homerun could do to hold landlords to account. Wider publication of a blacklist of bad landlords, for example, could help students to avoid these pitfalls, and the encouragement of frequent meetings between landlords and tenants could assist in troubleshooting any problems that arise.

Nonetheless, Homerun may be the answer to the human habitation problem in microcosm. As well as a law that would have enshrined landlord culpability for acceptable living conditions, MPs have, in the past, also rejected a regulatory body which would help tenants to steer clear of the cowboys and keep the rest in check. The Shadow Housing and Planning Secretary, Teresa Pearce, who tabled the amendment, made the comparison with buying food in a supermarket, where the consumer has a great deal more power to ensure they’re getting products of an acceptable standard. However, the Tories seem not to care for consumer rights where their interests in market investment are at stake. Can we accept a system where the laws are made for the personal profit of those who make them?

The rejection of this amendment marks a victory for a neoliberal housing agenda that empowers the landlord at the expense of the tenant, and cares little for the gaping disparity between supply and demand in housing. You can never tell when and where a rat infestation will appear. It seems the House of Commons itself has one, but fortunately for the rats, they have the majority.


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December 2021
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