HOUSING Secretary Sajid Javid’s declared backing for Karen Buck’s private member’s Bill to empower tenants to sue landlords for failing to keep homes fit for human habitation could be an important step forward.
It would mark a major U-turn by the Tories who previously scuppered two attempts by the Labour backbencher to achieve this reform.
Buck’s first bid to amend the 1985 Landlord and Tenant Act to require residential rented accommodation to be “provided and maintained in a state of fitness for human habitation” was talked out by Tory MPs in 2015.
There was a second bite at the cherry when Labour’s shadow housing minister Teresa Pearce took up Buck’s initiative, moving an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16, and a vote took place at least.
While 209 Labour MPs voted for it, along with six Liberal Democrats, two Plaid Cymru and two Democratic Unionists, 309 Tories crushed it, with the superfluous but noteworthy support of two Ulster Unionists and the lone Ukip MP Mark Reckless, since restored to Tory party membership, having been elected to the Welsh Assembly under the Ukip banner.
Former prime minister David Cameron’s government showed its true colours by explaining its opposition on the grounds that it would “result in unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords.”
Then local government minister Marcus Jones insisted that local authorities already have strong and effective powers to deal with poor quality and unsafe accommodation.
While action by local authorities is always welcome to deal with rogue landlords determined to profit from the housing crisis by offering substandard accommodation to people too poor to find anything else, tenants themselves must not be denied the right to redress.
Not every council takes tenants’ complaints seriously, following the “don’t be beastly to landlords” mantra of the Cameron Tory government.
How many councils can be relied on to use powers to slap £30,000 fines on rogue landlords or, even less likely, to ban them from operating in their area?
Either Javid takes a different stance or he and his colleagues realise, especially in the wake of Grenfell, that the political mood is changing and exploited tenants can no longer be ignored.
The treatment of Grenfell Tower residents by Kensington & Chelsea council, the country’s richest local authority that was able to refund rich people’s council tax, has shone light on penny-pinching over essential safety considerations and other issues and raised demands for change.
Of course, as ever, the devil will be in the detail and the fellowship of landlords, well represented in Parliament, will do everything possible to water down government proposals and efforts by Labour to beef them up.
Javid will need to be watched like a hawk while Labour publicises how it would deal with the twin scourges of homelessness and exploitation of tenants.
Defend Council Housing chairwoman Eileen Short is correct to express caution over the government’s commitment to Buck’s proposal, which would be a step forward but must be seen as a necessary first step.
Short’s insistence on action to control private-sector rents and create secure tenancies, with a right to repairs, together with prioritising a council housebuilding drive of at least 100,000 homes a year, would encourage people to believe that the situation can be changed.
Landowners, construction companies and property speculators are the only ones to benefit from the current housing market where shortage of supply, both for sale and to rent, drives up house prices and rents.
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