News

The Tories Just Gave Dodgy Landlords a Massive Helping Hand

Liverpool had the country's most comprehensive system for dealing with bad landlords, so of course the Tories shut it down.
14 February 2020, 9:15am
slum landlord
Graffiti calling out a slum landlord. Photo: D. Callcut / Alamy Stock Photo

Between 2012 and 2018, there was a 460 per cent rise in the prosecutions of landlords. But dodgy landlords could still avoid the clutches of the law by taking the one simple precautionary step: avoid Liverpool. That’s because Liverpool alone was responsible for 389 per cent of the national rise – 85 percent of the total.

That’s because the city has the most comprehensive scheme to enforce basic housing standards and bring crappy landlords to book.

According to Liverpool City Council, since its pioneering, city-wide landlord licensing scheme began, there have been 37,000 compliance actions (housing inspections by housing officers), over 2,500 legal and fixed penalty notices and 250 landlords prosecuted. Meanwhile, 70 percent of inspected properties were found to be in breach of their license conditions. The scheme also gave the council greater powers and resources in order to hold rented accommodation to a liveable standard with the license fee funding the scheme.

In bad news for renters, last month the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, rejected an application to renew Liverpool City Council’s landlord licensing scheme. The scheme is now set to finish in April. The scheme was the largest of its kind in the country, requiring all landlords to be licensed and background checked with properties kept to a basic standard. It has been a resounding success since its introduction in 2015.

The decision has come as a shock in Liverpool with national and local politicians, housing charities and tenants condemning the decision. Merseyside Police and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service – which helps ensure properties are safe – condemned the decision, saying it puts lives at risk.

The gory details of inadequate housing uncovered by the scheme are there for all to see. As well as run-of-the-mill cases of mould or leaking boilers dealt after pressure by inspectors from the Landlord Licensing Team, severe fines ranging from £2,500 to £11,000 have also been dished out in court for horror stories including holes in the kitchen ceiling leaving rainwater pouring through the roof, mice infestations and no gas safety certificate (ever) and a combination of a blocked fire exit, faulty smoke alarm and a fire escape leading to a locked door.

In another notable case, a landlord who tried to evict an 80-year-old tenant with a campaign of harassment was jailed for three months in 2018. The case came to light after officers from the landlord licensing team served an improvement notice on the property after finding dangerous electrical hazards and damp issues.

When asked for comment on the decision, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Following careful and detailed consideration, it was decided that Liverpool City Council’s application for selective licensing did not demonstrate robust evidence to support the existence of low housing demand across the whole city.”

“Liverpool City Council was one of more than 130 local councils to recently receive a share of £4.3 million funding from government to tackle rogue landlords.”

“We will continue to support Liverpool City Council and other local authorities in taking effective enforcement action as part of our commitment to securing a better deal for tenants across the country.”

It’s a strange response to take from a Conservative government that has cut 64 per cent of Liverpool City Council’s overall budget (£444 million).

James Roberts, Labour Councillor for Liverpool’s Greenbank Ward, points to “low housing demand” as an odd justification. “It just seems bizarre to me that that’s a criteria for a landlord licensing scheme. Surely the whole point of the licensing scheme is that the houses are fit for habitation.”

“To make sure that we’ve got a decent quality housing stock that people can actually live in without black mould and with working fire alarms. Really basic stuff… The way the landlord associations are making out, it’s like we’ve got the most draconian rules ever invented.”

The RLA (Residential Landlord Association) declared themselves tickled pink by the decision. They titled a press release on their website with “Success!” The RLA’s own reasons for opposing the renewal included: “most breaches have been for administrative errors”, “evidence shows city-wide licensing is not required in Liverpool” and the “financial burden for landlords”.

According to RLA policy manager John Stewart, “Liverpool’s application for a second new city-wide application was doomed to failure.”

Following the decision to stop the scheme, the Liverpool branch of tenants union Acorn held a public meeting. Attendees including local MPs, renters and councillors gathered to discuss a campaign urging central government to reconsider their decision. Attendees raised concerns regarding the effects on minority communities, housing safety post-Grenfell and the already poor quality of privately-run refugee and asylum seeker accommodation in the city deteriorating further.

Acorn branches across the country were also concerned by the decision. Acorn Bristol organiser Aidan Cassidy likens the decision to scrapping other licenses: “I don’t think anyone would disagree that having a driving license is a good idea. You’re in charge of a chunk of metal that can kill someone. If you’re a landlord, you’ve got massive power over other people’s lives as well. You can basically decide whether they can put a roof over their head. You’ve got the power to take a third of their income every month. The idea that we don’t have licenses already is ridiculous.”

Nationally, there’s concern that the Liverpool decision will discourage councils from pursuing similar schemes. “Scrapping Liverpool’s city-wide licensing scheme sets a terrible precedent for local councils who want to use schemes like this to tackle poor conditions and bad practice,” says Greg Beales, campaign director at Shelter.

“Through our services we hear terrible stories of what happens when decent property standards aren’t enforced and dangerous conditions go unchecked. Licensing schemes can help councils identify bad behaviour but they’re of little use if they don’t have the resources to crackdown or proactively enforce standards because of devastating budget cuts. If they are going to be a key line of defence against rogue landlords and poor conditions, the government needs to support councils in their efforts to keep people safe.”

@_daveybrett