The original initiative for Decent Homes Standard required all social housing to comply with prescribed standards of decency by 2010 and was largely considered successful at the time, but a lot has changed since then.

But with the all-party Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons delivering a damning report condemning councils and the government for a lack of enforcement of regulations already in place, will the revised Decent Homes Standard make a difference or is it already too late to save what some consider to be a broken Private Rental Sector?

Background

The government of Tony Blair introduced the original Decent Homes Standard with the aim of ensuring that all social housing would comply with prescribed standards of decency by 2010. Although not every local council met this deadline, the initiative was largely successful.

As part of the Boris Johnson government’s much heralded Levelling Up Plan, a similar initiative is to be introduced for the private rental sector. 

This is the first time that legislative oversight on this scale will have been applied to the sector, and landlords both individual and institutional who have read the white paper are now waiting with some anxiety for the finalised regulations.

What Are the Key Elements of the Decent Homes Standard?

The definition of ‘decent’ is a home that is without serious category one hazards. These are features that are in such poor condition that they risk causing death, loss of a limb, serious fractures, permanent paralysis or permanent loss of consciousness.

It must also be in ‘a reasonable state of repair’, which covers all the main components such as roofs, windows, doors, walls, chimneys, boilers, gas fires, plumbing and electrics. If two or more of these need urgent repair or replacement, the property will fail the test.

There is a further requirement for ‘reasonably modern facilities and services’. 

For example, adequately sized kitchens no older than 20 years and bathrooms no older than 30, where a bathroom and WC are appropriately located and sufficiently sound proofed against external noise. Failure on these three counts would disqualify the property.

The final condition is ‘a reasonable degree of thermal comfort’, achieved through a combination of efficient heating and insulation.

Industry Concerns

On the face of it, the proposals seem to be perfectly reasonable. If these standards are considered acceptable for public sector housing surely it is only right for them to apply also to the private sector, where governments have previously been reluctant to intervene?

On closer inspection, the picture is rather more complicated and many within the industry, including the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA), have raised some legitimate concerns.

Critics of the white paper and the expected results of the review point out that substantial protections already exist under the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 which came into force in March 2019. 

The key objectives of that legislation were to ensure that privately rented accommodation should be safe, healthy and free from anything capable of causing serious harm to its occupants. 

The 2018 Act has the widest possible scope as it applies not only to private tenants but also to those who rent from councils or housing associations. It incorporates an exhaustive list of hazards, failings and faults from damp and mould, to over-crowding and noise.

Leaving aside the provision that is already in place, many stress that the updated Decent Homes Standard makes no distinction between private and public rental homes in some significant areas. 

These include the age differences between properties and the style of construction, with many privately rented buildings being significantly older than social housing, and therefore requiring different maintenance regimes and often more expensive work to bring certain conditions up to standard.

The NRLA has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the government on the implementation of standards that are proportional to the problems and the nature of private rental. 

However they are concerned that the review may not be alive to the nuances of the sector, and will impose a blanket solution that could have unintended consequences that will affect the availability of affordable rental accommodation. 

With the private rental sector growing every year this could be storing up trouble for the future. Whatever the objections, it seems likely that landlords will not be entirely happy with the final provisions.

From the point of view of landlords and agents it could represent a challenging amplification of the measures already enacted. For tenants the costs incurred by landlords will almost certainly push up rents even further. 

The problem with any legislation of this kind is in the precision of its definitions. Two people may look at a given situation and interpret its danger levels quite differently. The temptation for landlords will be to take the safest option and pass the costs on.

Assessment and Enforcement

Timothy Douglas head of Policy and Campaigns for Propertymark has raised the important issue of who exactly is going to police these standards?

He states: “What’s key for ‘levelling up’ the private rented sector is ensuring that local authorities have the staff and resources needed to actively go out, inspect properties and prosecute”.

Kristjan Byfield of The Depositary points out in the same article for Letting Agent Today that:

“Any further regulation of any shape or form is merely hyperbole unless the government ring-fences substantial funds for pro-active enforcement’.

Ben Beadle Chief Executive of NRLA recently evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on regulation of the private rented sector where he pointed out that the proportion of private rented households with at least one of the most serious category 1 hazards under the Housing, Health and Safety Rating System has been falling in recent years, from 28% in 2009 to 13% in 2019.

In his evidence to the committee he pointed out that the vast majority of landlords are compliant and provide valuable homes to let. He has called for a more strategic, joined up approach, focussing on the better enforcement of existing rules and regulations impacting on the sector, rather than the creation of more legislation

Will a revised, revamped Decent Homes Standard make a difference?

A report by the Good Home Inquiry found that over 4.3 million homes in England do not meet basic standards of decency, most commonly because of the presence of a serious hazard to their occupants’ health or safety.

According to Shelter1 in 3 adults in Britain are affected by the housing emergency. That’s 17.5 million without a safe, secure and stable home – in the fifth wealthiest country in the world.

With the numbers of people moving into the private rented sector set to increase over the next few years and as affordability and energy pricing issues pushes more and more people into renting, the strain on the housing sector is set to increase meaning standards may start to deteriorate without oversight and stringent guidelines.

The Decent Homes Standard may be the difference between a home or a death trap.

Solutions and Benefits 

Once the Decent Homes Standard comes into force, tenant complaints will need to be investigated, and because in these situations there will always be a question of interpretation and judgement, assessments will not be straightforward. 

Bias will be a major factor alongside the type and quality of evidence collected and therefore relied upon to make balanced decisions.

One possible solution to this would be the official recognition of a role for inventory professionals as assessors for the Decent Homes Standard. 

The key benefit is that clerks already operate all over the country providing highly professional inventory services to the private sector.

Because of their role, they are potentially the key service provider with the right experience, qualifications, independence and resources to make thorough and reasonable assessments of any disputed condition of a property.

With additional Government and Inventory Base Academy training, the resources would be accessible UK wide with Workstreams and could provide much needed support and outsourcing options to local authorities to manage the 4.4 million households that are privately rented in England (2021).

It is hoped that when the new standard is in place the government will recognise the importance of impartial evaluation, as this would be a valuable check on the zeal of authorities to generate revenue and the unnecessary haste of landlords who could feel further marginalised. 

It is a hot issue that will require cool heads.

Next Steps 

The Decent Homes Standard review has been broken down into two stages. 

Part 1 ran from Spring to Autumn 2021 and sought to understand the case for change to criteria within the Decent Homes Standard.

The second stage of the review (Part 2) has been commissioned to run from Autumn 2021 to Summer 2022 and will consider how decency should actually be defined with the expected outcome of a refreshed Decent Homes Standard that the industry, councils, landlords and tenants can then use to raise the standard of rental properties.