Why proper enforcement in the private rented sector is essential

by Joshua Davies, programme manager for transforming the private rented sector

Imagine you’re a renter living in a private rented home. Maybe you’ve noticed damp or mould in your bedroom or bathroom, and it seems to be getting worse. You’re concerned that it’s starting to affect your health and well-being, and you’ve raised the issue with your landlord, but they’re yet to do anything about it.

Situations like these aren’t purely hypothetical; renters across the country are forced to deal with these sorts of issues every day. Just this week, it was reported that mould in a privately rented home led to the tragic death of a man in Oldham, even though his parents had been complaining to their landlord for years.

In this case, as in so many others, the renters also sought support from their local council when they couldn’t get their landlord to carry out the necessary repairs. Why, then, was nothing done to fix the problem?

What is enforcement, and why does it matter?

Real-life problems of the sort just described aren’t the result of a gap in the regulations designed to protect renters; existing regulations should, on paper, already be enough. They’re instead caused by a lack of enforcement.

Enforcement is about ensuring that according to the laws already in place, people or organisations are doing what they should be. In the private rented sector, this means making sure landlords fulfil their legal obligations to renters. Currently, enforcement is the responsibility of local councils. Private renters can contact their council if they think their landlord isn’t doing what’s required of them, and councils should then investigate the problem.

If a council finds that a landlord is breaking the law, it might start by taking ‘informal’ actions, such as speaking to the landlord and trying to negotiate a solution. If this fails, councils can use formal enforcement powers; for example, they can issue improvement notices that order landlords to undertake particular actions (such as carrying out repairs) and fine landlords who fail to comply. If the problem persists or is particularly serious, councils can take emergency actions, including completing repairs themselves and billing the landlord – or prosecuting the landlord.

Effective enforcement can help prevent shocking cases like the one above and is necessary if laws and regulations are to have their intended effect. There’d be little point in implementing rules designed to guide or change behaviour without any way to ensure that they were being adhered to.

Enforcement in the private rented sector isn’t working

Currently, enforcement in the private rented sector is often inconsistent, ineffective and hard for tenants to have executed on their behalf. A 2022 study found that 56% of local councils were unable to confirm how many complaints they received from private renters. And even when inspections take place, councils rarely take formal action against landlords, with only one in four properties in serious disrepair receiving an improvement notice. Very few local councils make proactive use of their enforcement powers, with most merely responding to complaints and only using formal enforcement action as a last resort. Indeed, findings from 2021 show that just three local councils were responsible for over a third of all the reported criminal prosecutions.

The reactive and inconsistent way enforcement takes place puts the burden on tenants to chase their council to complete repairs. But nearly half of tenants do not know they can get support from their council. And even when they do, many renters living in poor-quality private rented accommodation won’t seek help for fear of retributory action from their landlord.

Why do we accept a much lower level of enforcement in the private rented sector than elsewhere? What would happen if we discovered that norms and regulations were being breached on a wide scale in hospitals or schools, for example, and no one was doing anything about it? We know that enforcement in the private rented sector isn’t any less important than in schools or hospitals: as the contexts in which we spend much of our time, our homes play a crucial role in shaping the quality and character of our lives. Ensuring those responsible for upholding standards are doing what they should be is just as essential here as anywhere else.

How to make enforcement better

Fundamentally, a lack of enforcement in the private rented sector is caused by a lack of resources for local councils. That’s why we need to get ringfenced resources to local authorities to allow them to properly enforce regulations. As local government leaders have argued, without sufficient funding, procedural and regulatory changes are irrelevant.

The government has also recently proposed a new national private rented sector ombudsman (as part of the Renters’ Reform Bill), which would also offer a route to better enforcement. But again, while this measure represents progress in affording renters and landlords access to justice, the resources question rears its head. If the new ombudsman isn’t adequately resourced, it won’t be able to fulfil its function.

Funding also isn’t all that matters. For example, a funded project of ours that works with Greater Manchester’s ten councils, Fair Housing Futures, found that not all councils enforced regulations to the same degree, despite operating in similar environments. This shows that councils also need help developing the right expertise and committing to proper enforcement, which is why Fair Housing Futures are calling for a standardised approach to enforcement, councils to publish enforcement actions and a single point of contact for tenants to reach out to.

Identifying landlords would also help councils proactively enforce. Currently, there isn’t a straightforward way for councils to know which landlords operate in their borough. Councils can choose to introduce selective licensing of landlords in particular areas, which can help them identify and contact landlords – and councils are twice as likely to undertake enforcement activities in areas where selective licensing has been introduced. This is clear evidence that a national register of landlords would only improve enforcement, which is why we’re pleased that the Renters’ Reform Bill commits to bringing one in.

Debates about the private rented sector often portray landlords and tenants as adversaries. But when it comes to enforcement, landlords and tenants generally agree that more and better enforcement is needed. Landlords who flout their legal duties give those who don’t a bad reputation, which is why landlord groups such as the NRLA have called for local authority enforcement to improve – much like many of our grant-holders who work closely with renters.

Enforcement and the Renters’ Reform Bill

Currently making its way through parliament, the Renters Reform Bill would bring about essential reforms for private renters, which, if done right, could provide greater security, better living conditions and more stability for tenants – so the government must get on and give the Bill its second reading as soon as possible.

But of course, the new regulations will only have the positive impact renters need if they’re adequately enforced. Our funded research into similar reforms in Scotland found that while changes in the law are crucial, their impact is minimal without proper enforcement. This is why we’re calling for more ring-fenced resources and better support for local councils so that they have what they need to ensure that renters enjoy safe, secure homes.

Learn more about making the private rented sector a better place to live, or join the campaign calling for the government to give the Renters’ Reform Bill its second reading.