Housing and Planning Bill

Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab): May I say from the outset that I am grateful to Shelter for providing the information that enables me to take part in this debate? Few housing sector organisations have as much experience as Shelter in the matters addressed by the Bill, so it is well worth paying a good deal of attention to what it has to say. I act vicariously without speaking with its authorisation. It is fair to say that Shelter is concerned that, as currently drafted, the Housing and Planning Bill will unintentionally reduce the supply of affordable housing, although I think it is being very generous in its assessment by using the word “unintentional”.

First, I want to address the circumstances of families who face housing difficulties. Families who are unable to buy or access social housing may have no option but to live in the private rented sector, which is in need of urgent reform because it is not fully fit for purpose. The private rented sector is no longer the preserve of students and mobile professionals. There are now 11 million private renters in England, and one in four families in England is renting privately. Rising demand and a lack of supply are driving up the cost of renting. Sadly, a minority of landlords are exploiting the situation and renting out properties that are not in a decent condition.

Secondly, private renters are paying too much and are living in increasingly worse conditions. England’s private renters are spending a staggering 47% of their income on rent. The comparable figure for those with a mortgage is 23%, while for social tenants it is 32%. Nearly 30% of private rented properties in England would fail the Government’s own decent homes standard, compared with only 20% of owner-occupied properties. Some landlords know that either they will find tenants desperate enough to accept poor conditions, or they will rely on the fact that if tenants complain, local authorities do not always have the power or resource to take action.

The Bill contains proposals to crack down on some rogue landlords, but more can be done. The proposals could be strengthened to give a strong and clear signal to rogue landlords that renting out properties that are in a poor condition will not be tolerated. The message is simple: stop exploiting people’s vulnerability.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend also accept that a small number of private landlords—this is certainly the case in my constituency and, I suspect, in his—use the private rented sector to launder the proceeds of crime?

Peter Dowd: All sorts of things start to come out of the woodwork when we look at the issues. The Government have to look carefully at the issue raised by my right hon. Friend.

Banning poor landlords from renting out properties is one thing, but breaching a banning order is another and it should be made a criminal offence.

Thirdly, as well as cracking down on rogue landlords, we have an opportunity to take a common sense approach to reform in order to protect renters and improve conditions. As a former chair of Merseyside fire and rescue service for many years, I am acutely aware of the impact of fire deaths and injuries on victims and their families. In 2013-14, there were 49 deaths as a result of electrical fires in homes—an increase on the previous year. The Government have an opportunity to bring that dreadful statistic down by introducing mandatory electrical safety checks. A simple change in the law would require private landlords to carry out electrical safety checks every five years. As has been mentioned earlier, the law already requires carbon monoxide checks. Behind every statistic is a person, a family, a life.

Shelter heard from a private renter who encountered dangerous problems in her flat as soon as she moved in a couple of years ago. She found the property was so dangerous she was at risk of electrocution. She said:

“During my first week living in the flat, I put my foot through the rotten kitchen floorboards. My landlord’s response was to put a bit of plywood over it. In addition to the hole in the rotten kitchen floorboards, I had water coming in through the electric extractor fan in the bathroom ceiling every time it rained. The ceiling around the electric extractor fan was perishing, there were leaks under the kitchen sink, under the bathroom washbasin and from a neighbouring property.”

She was told by the council that it was unambiguously dangerous.

That brings me to my fourth point. With almost half of renters—in my constituency, that amounts to about 3,000 renters—saying they have had problems with poor conditions or disrepair in the last year, we need to empower them to take action against landlords renting out unfit properties. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has a private Member’s Bill seeking to reform the fitness for human habitation requirement. If her Bill does not succeed, or is talked out like the Hospital Parking Charges (Exemption for Carers) Bill, the Housing and Planning Bill will be another great opportunity to bring in this crucial reform. It would require a landlord to ensure that properties are fit for human habitation at the start of each tenancy and throughout the tenancy. The current systems—the housing health and safety rating system and the statutory repairing obligation—set out what condition a property should be in and what the responsibility of the landlord is, but they rely on overstretched local authorities first investigating the tenant’s complaint and secondly taking the appropriate action.

There are three practical measures the Government could and should introduce: first, change the law so that landlords are required to carry out five-yearly electrical safety checks—to be fair, many landlords already do this as a matter of course; secondly, reform existing law so that all private properties are required to be fit for human habitation—a dreadful demand to have to make in the 21st century; and, thirdly, enhance the rent repayment orders process by removing barriers to renters exercising their right by making landlords bear tenants’ fees.

Finally, I have heard comments tonight about brownfield sites. I could draw a circle around my constituency, and that would be a brownfield site. The idea of having a slab of concrete and putting a house on it would horrify most people in my constituency. It is not just about the industrial heritage. Many houses were built in a gerrymandered fashion, and the stuff used for the foundations was the cause of the contamination. We cannot just solve problems with a slab of concrete.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I have to reduce the time limit to five minutes, and I might have to reduce it further if we have more interventions.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have a shareholding in a small communications company that I set up before I was elected to this place and which gives advice to, and sometimes opposes, developers, including in respect of public consultation.

I thank the Minister for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), for having visited my constituency in the last year. The Housing and Planning Minister met constituents of mine who were having difficulty with their development—something I will talk about in a moment.

I am also chairman of both the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment and the APPG for the private rented sector. The built environment APPG is undertaking an inquiry into the quality of design, while the private rented APPG is holding one into energy efficiency. I would like to point out that I am one of the few Conservative Members who represents a totally urban, inner-city constituency.

I very much welcome the Government’s target to build 200,000 new starter homes over the next five years, but to deliver it we need not only enough brickies, plumbers and electricians in the industry, but a speedier planning system. This means better public consultation and forcing developers to build the new homes fairly quickly once they have been granted planning permission. As I have said, I think that if the development is not brought forward within six months of a brownfield site being granted planning permission, business rates should have to be paid on the site.

Working commercially, I worked on a number projects that failed to get planning permission, partly because the client did not take any notice of what I was saying and also because they did not gain local community support. We need more master planning of developments. Taking local communities with us will, I firmly believe, quicken the granting of planning permission.

I am also a champion of what we are doing on the APPG for the built environment. We are going to have an inquiry into the quality of design, because I have had a number of constituents who have had problems with their new-build homes in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency.

Buying a first home is probably the largest investment someone will make in their life. It is the first rung on the housing ladder and being part of the property-owning democracy. People expect the new home to be in tip-top condition and, being new, one would expect the various authorities to have checked it to ensure there will be no problems for a significant amount of time. People do not necessarily think that they need to have it surveyed before handing over the cash, as they expect the local council to have done its job.

Imagine, therefore, discovering a few months or a couple of years later that there are some difficulties. One would certainly not expect to have to produce a list of problems, as one of my constituents did—and it went on for three pages. While I very much welcome the Government’s investment into new-build at Devonport, I have been appalled at the brown stains that are already appearing on the outside walls of these new homes. Earlier today, I met the Royal Institute of British Architects, which wants to have equality of space, so that people can live in developments that have a suitable amount of space. While I was doing a project in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, I was made very aware of the importance of children having space to do homework rather than having to share a kitchen-diner with their siblings.

Let me deal with the private rented sector. It is important to ensure that this sector delivers good quality housing to rent. If people are renting from housing benefit landlords who are not delivering housing of the appropriate quality, those landlords should be struck off the list immediately. In my opinion, this Bill is very much about making sure that we have suitable quality homes for today that will not become the slums of the future.

 

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