I have just been appointed as co-chair of the Lib Dem housing policy group. We have been tasked with looking at the whole of our policy and reporting back with a paper and a resolution to our autumn conference this year.
We have already made the most important decision – that our paper will be about people, neighbourhoods and communities. We believe that those who just chase ‘hard’ policies – typically how many can we build – are responsible for many of our current housing and social problems.
For 60 years governments chased each by boasting about how many properties they could build and how quickly. This government is no exception. But anyone who has been involved in housing for a long period, I first became involved in 1975, knows that much of the work we have done has been correcting the mistakes of the post WWII period and not dealing with pre 1919 houses or the inter war estates.
People forgot that housing is not just a building but a home. Homes work better in communities where young and old, rich and poor, black and white can live together. Places where grandparents can look after their grandchildren and where there is social capacity to assist those in need instead of putting all those in need in selected locations where they cannot help each other.
The key new area that I want the Party to tackle is the whole area of private landlords. Some have complained that this will drive a wedge between us and the free market, no holds barred section of the coalition. If that is the case bring it on!
I have no objection to private landlords per se. There are many good ones whom I would recommend to prospective tenants. Plus dane, the housing association that I chair develops some properties for market rent or near market rent on which we make a profit. That profit has enabled us to continue to build homes for people who cannot afford market rents. We have a 10 year lease on almost a third of the flats in the prestigious L1 shopping development in central Liverpool. This is at the request of Grosvenor, the owners of the properties, who are themselves first class landlords. They had two objectives in involving us:
- To stop the development from becoming a zombie land of uncontrolled buy to let tenancies; and
- To ensure that properties are available on site for people who work in the stores beneath them.
We make a profit, Grosvenor make a profit and the properties are let below market value to people who want city centre living who could not otherwise afford it.
But not every landlord is a good one. Our PCT realised this when they did an analysis of who uses the health service. They found, unsurprisingly, that tenants of private landlords took up a proportionately higher level of health care use than those from any other tenure. So they did something about it.
They created a fund which would enable every private tenant to be visited with a health and housing questionnaire. They enlisted the help of:
- The fire service who have to deal with proportionately more fires in private landlord properties.
- Housing Associations whose own stock is often damaged by poorly maintained adjoining properties.
- The Council who did not have the resources to use the environmental health powers available to them but could come behind information provided to them.
In all some 9 organisations have come together and they are having quite an impact. More than £3,000,000 of repairs has been carried out by landlords. More than 300 people have now registered with a GP. More than a thousand now have a dentist. More than 2,000 have been given benefits advice which has helped them improve their living standards. In all more than 3,000 tenancies have received major improvements to correct damp, draught, electric or gas problems. GPs in some areas are reporting less people presenting with chest and other problems and thousands of people have fuel poverty problems alleviated if not removed.
Housing is a basic human need and a basic human right. We regulate water, utilities, communications in fact we ‘Off…” all sorts of things so why not housing?
I believe that no-one should be allowed to let a property unless that property has been inspected and that inspection is regularly updated. I believe that to be a landlord individuals or companies must either be registered or have to let solely through registered lettings agencies.
Some will say that this is a restriction on fair trade. I believe that it is a restriction of unfair trade. Out of desperation hundreds of thousands of people are living in squalid conditions which are funded by the tax payer through housing benefit. Some of the key supporters of such registration are good landlords who have to compete on price with modern day Rachmans and who get tarred with the brush of ‘racketeer’.
Over a period of time landlord registration will drive up quality; reduce housing benefit costs; reduce health service costs and provide more stable communities. I hope that is an argument that my Party will buy!
If you have any opinions on this or anything else which you think we should be looking at please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in Inside Housing on 12th January 2012