Why England needs the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill

10 Jan 2018

Habitat for Humanity, global non-profit housing organisation, once asked the question what a home means to people and one of the answers it received was: “Home is a safe haven and a comfort zone. A place to live with our families and pets and enjoy with friends. A place to build memories as well as a way to build future wealth. A place where we can truly just be ourselves. And whether our houses are big, small, fancy or modest, they are our shelters and our sanctuaries.”

That is not a controversial definition for the place where most us spend a great deal of our time. Yet according to Shelter around 1 million rented homes in England (out 8.4 million) contain hazards that pose a serious risk to health and safety, affecting over 2.5 million people.

That is worth repeating: in England (the largest constituent of the sixth richest country in the world), in 2017 (not 1817), 2.5 million people (many of them children) are living in homes that contain hazards that pose a serious (not a slight) risk to their health and safety.

If anyone of those 2.5 million people were to purchase a new consumer good for their rented property and subsequently discovered that it was not fit for purpose (eg, if it did not work properly or as described), they would likely be entitled to a refund in the first 30 days and thereafter a replacement or repair.  Surprisingly, given that housing is so much more important and expensive than, for example, a kettle, for the vast majority of tenants in England there is no similar protection for when things go wrong with their rented home. Although landlords are under an obligation to carry out certain repairs, there are many common problems with rented properties that are not covered by the usual repairing obligations and tenants have no way of enforcing for themselves the existing property standards.

The consequence is that many of these 2.5 million people live with, amongst other problems, fire safety issues, inadequate heating, or poor ventilation causing condensation and mould growth. Although it is difficult to put an exact figure on it, this has a significant social and economic cost as, for example, children living in poor accommodation struggle to prepare for exams, people become ill and require NHS treatment due to damp, and, in the worst cases (such as the Grenfell Tower disaster), many lives are lost.

The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill will go a long way to addressing this unacceptable situation (in part by reviving a clause which already exists in an old piece of legislation and which many tenants were able to benefit from until about 1957) by requiring homes to be fit for human habitation at the start of the tenancy and to remain so throughout. Tenants will be able to enforce this implied term themselves through the County Court.

Such a change in the law is long overdue as the Law Commission identified, in 1996, “serious shortcoming in the law which governs the repair and maintenance of leasehold property” and recommended that “on the lease of any house for habitation for a period of less that seven years, it will be an implied term of that lease that the landlord will ensure that the property is and will be kept throughout he lease fit for human habitation.”

Unfortunately, recent attempts to pass a fitness for human habitation law have failed and failed in part because 72 MPs who are themselves landlords voted against it. However, as Shelter observe, we are now operating in a very different context: “The fire at Grenfell Tower has shone a light on the problems facing social tenants and has placed the issues of poor quality housing, tenant safety and the neglect of low-income renters on the public agenda. We live in a different world now. A world where, as the members of the Grenfell Action Group chillingly warned, it took a catastrophe for society to stop and pay attention.”

Hopefully things will now change, but a big hurdle is coming up on Friday January 19th 2018 when the Second Read of the Bill will take place. According to Shelter, it is crucial that 100 MPs attend and if they do not the Bill could very easily be defeated by a handful of individual MPs. Not only is 100 MPs attending a very high bar, but it is made even harder by the fact that MPs go back to their constituencies on Fridays to meet constituents. They need a very good reason to stay, so if you want to see the law changed:

Andrew Byles is a barrister at Garden Court North Chambers.

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