selective licensing

Selective Licensing – Protecting Older Private Renters

With the number of older private renters in London set to double over the next two decades, action must be taken to ensure the private rented sector is as Age-friendly as possible. Age UK London’s Campaigns Officer John McGeachy explains how selective licensing schemes could help to achieve this.

Whatever your age, housing has a huge impact on both physical and mental health. However for people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and older, living conditions can be an even more significant determinant of quality of life.

A worrying picture

When exploring an issue to launch a campaign on, listening and learning from those most affected is usually the best place to start. With this in mind, the first report I read when thinking about a possible campaign to protect older private renters was our ‘Living in Fear’ report, which paints a deeply concerning picture of life as a private renter for some older Londoners.

Whilst media narratives can portray renting as an issue affecting younger people, the 2017 report was one the first to explore what renting is like for the thousands of older private renters in London.

Most landlords are decent, honest, hardworking people who want the best for their tenants. We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are older private renters who have a positive experience of renting. Sadly that’s not the case for many of London’s older private renters. Overall, there are few signs that things have improved in the two years since ‘Living in Fear’ was published. It is our job to work alongside older private renters and take action for the thousands of older Londoners living in poor conditions.

Increasing numbers of older Londoners are renting

In London, 29% of the population live in private rented homes – a huge percentage compared with the rest of the country which measures as 17.4%. In addition, of the ten English councils with the highest proportion of privately rented homes, seven are in London.

There are currently around 146,000 households in London’s private rented sector with at least one person over the age of 50 and the next two decades will see the number of renters over 65 double (some forecasts suggest that the numbers will treble!). In Westminster, which has a large private rented sector, one in four older people will be a private renter by 2039.

‘Non-decent’ homes and the private rented sector

Poor living conditions are a huge problem for renters in London and across the country as a whole. Earlier this year, members of the House of Lords published a report which forecasts that, in terms of quality of private rented accommodation, the number of older households (those containing at least one tenant over the age of 65) that are unfit and unsuitable could leap from about 56,000 to 236,500 in 30 years’ time.

The proportionally higher numbers of private renters in London along with the increase in the number of older private renters and London’s ageing housing stock will mean that a significant proportion of England’s ‘non-decent’ private rented homes will be in the capital.

The most recent English Housing Survey showed that 13% of dwellings in the social rented sector and 19% of owner occupied homes failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard. Meanwhile the figure was even higher for private rented homes, reaching as much as 25% (2017 figures).

property licensing
“Poor living conditions are a huge problem for renters in London and across the country as a whole.”

The most serious hazard for older private renters is excess cold

A 2011 report by Foundations (the national body for home improvement agencies) highlighted older households in the private rented sector as being almost six times more likely to live in a home comprising an ‘excess cold hazard’ compared to older households living in social housing. As well as exacerbating many existing conditions, the cold can lead to an increased risk of hypothermia, respiratory illness, depression, risk of falls and arthritis amongst many others.

Alongside the problems facing individual private renters, areas with large amounts of private rented properties often see higher levels of anti-social behaviour and fly tipping, as well as lower levels of voter registration. There are also links with homelessness and a 2015 report by Maureen Crane and Louise Joly found that 42% of new rough sleepers in London (recorded between 2006 and 2015) had lived in private rented homes prior to becoming homeless.

A tool Councils can use to improve conditions

Improving the private rented sector is complicated and unfortunately there is no silver bullet. However, with thousands of older Londoners living in poor conditions and with problems set to increase, it is our duty to take action. We believe that selective property license schemes (‘selective license schemes’) are something more Local Authorities should be using. It is Local Authorities who are responsible for working with landlords to protect tenants.

Introducing more selective license schemes was a recommendation from our Living in Fear report and we believe effective, well-planned and well-resourced schemes will have a positive impact on the lives of older private renters now and in the future. That’s why the call for more of these schemes is at the forefront of our new ‘Make Renting Age-friendly’ campaign.

The private rented sector has been called the “Wild West” due to the way a lack of regulation has left both renters and landlords often unclear about their obligations and what to expect from one another.

Speaking about selective license schemes, London Councils’ executive member for housing and planning, Councillor Darren Rodwell, said ‘selective licensing could be hugely valuable when it came to tackling poor-quality housing and landlords who did not look after their tenants.’

What is selective licensing?

Let’s face it ‘selective property licensing’ doesn’t have a catchy ring to it but that’s not the point. You need to apply for a license if you want to run a dog kennel and it’s reasonable that you would need one if you are responsible for the places where people live. Selective license schemes are a tool that Local Authorities have available to them to address a range of issues, including poor housing conditions. The best schemes provide a framework to support existing health and safety regulation, use proactive property inspections to uncover poor conditions (without the need for the tenant to make a complaint), and support local housing enforcement practices to protect tenants.

When schemes are implemented in designated areas, landlords that rent out property in those areas are required to apply for a license. Even though London boroughs have a higher proportion of private renters compared with other parts of the country, fewer than half of London’s Local Authorities currently implement licensing schemes.

selective licensing
“With thousands of older Londoners living in poor conditions and with problems set to increase, it is our duty to take action.”

The impact of selective licensing schemes

Earlier this year the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) and Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) published the first nationwide report on the impact of selective license schemes. The report concluded that they are successful at improving housing conditions for tenants. Increased repairs The CIEH and CIH report also observed that landlords were more willing to do required works on their properties in a timely fashion in areas covered by selective license schemes. This observation is backed up by the large numbers of improvement works taking place to remedy hazards and defects, without formal action being taken by the local authority.

Selective licensing can also help tenants feel more secure in their homes by improving landlord practice via license conditions that focus on good landlord practice. Such practices include, proper deposit management, full tenancy agreements and restrictions on who can and can’t collect the rent.

This summer’s Independent Review on selective licensing for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government also found that license schemes could drive better engagement between landlords and local authorities, with the license application also increasing awareness of specific responsibilities. This is especially the case for newer landlords and those with just one rental property.

To ensure that we call for the best possible license schemes, we’ve been looking at where selective licensing schemes have been most effective. In Barking and Dagenham the council used the license scheme to serve 570 enforcement notices requiring properties to be made safe. Meanwhile in Croydon, over 8,000 properties were inspected in less than four years with the most serious hazards referred for enforcement. Alongside the statistical data, councils have shared individual cases with positive outcomes for tenants in licensed properties. In Nottingham, an older couple with just two gas fires to heat their entire home, had central heating installed by a landlord working with the Council under the city’s license scheme.

Get involved

Taking action now before the problems get even worse is vital and we need your support. Anyone can join our campaign to Make Renting Age-friendly and over the next few months we’ll be raising our voices together for older private renters to ensure everyone can feel safe and secure in their own home. To join the campaign to Make Renting Age-friendly, please click here. 

This article on selective licensing originally appeared in our London Age magazine. To read more articles on London’s private rented sector, take a look at the latest edition of London Age.

John McGeachy

John is Age UK London's Campaigns Manager.

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