The devils will be in the delivery, which is why the policy detail must be spot on.
Earlier today, Labour’s shadow housing minister Jack Dromey announced that a future Labour Government would implement the decent homes standard to the private rented sector. Which sounds great but is far easier said than done. Housing policy by its very nature has a massive time lag between announcing something and delivering the results. Hence if there is one policy area that you want minimal reshuffling, it’s housing.
Earlier this year, Dromey and fellow shadow ministers came to Cambridge to visit Puffles & friends. Here’s how they got on – and as that blogpost shows, the announcement follows from what Dromey said about focusing on the private rented sector. Thus a policy commitment of some sort on private rented housing should not be of huge surprise – but welcome nonetheless.
What is a ‘decent home’?
Shelter’s guidance on this is straight forward. Yet too much housing has remained below this standard. In the past, tackling the private sector has been in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile – not least because of the ‘let the markets get on with it’ mindset. But the relationship between landlord and tenant is not an equal one – especially in the overheated south east. Despite the now mandatory energy performance certificates tenants are required to be given by landlords, how many know this is the case, let alone feel empowered to demand one of these & understand the information on it?
Public engagement, and resourcing enforcement actions will be key to success
As with the national minimum wage, Labour need to ensure that people feel empowered to report cases where their rights are not being upheld. They also need to put in place decent safeguards for both where people genuinely fear for either their jobs or homes if they report employers and/or landlords to the relevant authorities.
The private rented sector is particularly difficult to keep tabs on too, with high tenant turnovers (in the case of students and migrant workers) and absentee landlords. How will a future administration ensure that local councils have the resources to deliver on this priority? What sanctions should be put in place where landlords are uncooperative? Will there ultimately be a power of compulsory purchasing of properties that landlords refuse to bring up to scratch? What will the legal process look like and how will policy makers ensure that it cannot be a long and drawn out process?
Incentives to improve housing stock
Will this be through existing proposals for a green investment bank? Will this be working with the financial sector and banks to provide products aimed at landlords to improve their properties?
Working with other public sector organisations, educational establishments and employment agencies – especially those employing migrant workers
There are three different scenarios here. The first involves the interface with healthcare – in particular GPs. Where a health problem is being made worse by poor housing, can a GP get in touch with a local council (who presumably will be the enforcement authority) and demand an inspection by a housing inspector? (You’ve then got the issue of training and accrediting housing inspectors – are there enough of the existing ones to do the job?).
On educational establishments, personally I would like to see a duty of care placed upon educational establishments to ensure that none of their students is housed in substandard housing. I know what it’s like to live in such a property and the impact it has on your studying. My place in my second year at university was condemned by the local council as unfit for human habitation. You wonder why I am passionate about housing policy and why I have a complete loathing for my first university? That’s why. It’s not just universities – it’s language schools too. That amongst other things would deal with the problem of landlords allowing some parts of some cities to become student slums – something that was an issue with previous Labour housing ministers.
With migrant workers – people who perhaps are the least confident at demanding their rights are upheld, should regulation expand to cover agencies that employ them too? If so, what form should that regulation take? Should it range from a provision of information at a light touch end, or one where employers and agencies have a duty to ensure workers are in suitable accommodation at the other end of the spectrum?
Does the decent homes standard need refreshing?
Thinking in particular about improvements in technology – in particular communications technology. Should it incorporate access to broadband? Should it incorporate other parts of things like the energy performance assessment regime, to elements of the Code for Sustainable Homes?
What should Labour shadow housing ministers do now?
In political-party-public-policy-wonk speak, they need to ask their supporters in local government what the resource challenges are to enforcement. They also need to ask their supporters that live in such housing what are the things that are inhibiting them from reporting their landlords. The responses they get from those questions will shine a big light on how to procede with further and more detailed policy development. Because as far as the party is concerned, the line in the sand on principles between Labour and their political opponents has been drawn. Labour are in favour of greater intervention in the private rented sector, while their Conservative opponents say powers to deal with such problems already exist, and that it is up to local councils to use those powers.
Policy-wise my preference is towards doing *something* rather than leaving cash-strapped local councils to deal with things. However, a significant amount of thought – and research – needs to go into what their *something* policy is. Otherwise their efforts run the risk of getting stuck in the bureaucratic mud. That will help no one.