Labour have cautiously welcomed the Westminster Council’s new draft Private Rented Sector strategy as long-overdue step forward but it is one that doesn’t go far enough to meet the needs of local renters.

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Responding to the Council consultation Labour have argued that the proposed Additional Licensing scheme should go further to ensure that all Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) due to be registered get an in person inspection to ensure they are meeting the required standards. Labour has also believed for a long-time that it is not only renters in HMO’s who may need help from the council to ensure their landlords keep their homes up to the right standards so we have repeated our call for the introduction of Supplementary Licensing, focused first on the area of greatest need. Labour believe more could and should be done to support energy efficiency efforts and we call for the development of a community champions model to help ensure renters know their rights. We also think it is time the Council added its support to the Mayor of London’s ‘Blueprint’ for reforming private renting.

Westminster Labour Group Leader Cllr Adam Hug said “I’m relieved the council has recognised the need to have a strategy to support private renters in Westminster and that it is finally putting forward an Additional Licensing scheme to tackle HMOs. But the strategy could and should go much further to provide security for all private renters in Westminster and meet the scale of the challenge the sector faces over the coming years.”

Text of the Westminster Labour Group submission to the Westminster Council Private Rented Sector Strategy Consultation

Westminster Council’s draft Private Rented Sector (PRS) strategy marks a long-overdue step forward in addressing the problems the sector faces across our city.  The consultation document states that the Council “want to ensure every private rented home in Westminster is of good quality.” However there is a gap between this laudable objective and what the more limited measures outlined in this proposed strategy would achieve.

The proposed new ‘additional’ licensing scheme only covers ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs). The existing mandatory licensing HMO scheme has only registered 311 HMOs but the council has estimated that Westminster has 9500 HMOs of all types in our city. This major expansion of HMO registration would be welcome given that the council estimates that 44% of HMOs in Westminster are believed to have category 1 hazards (those that can have serious impact on the health of tenants and examples include faulty electrical wiring, fire risk, pests, severe damp and mould or an excessively cold property) so this action is desperately needed to improve the quality of HMOs.

To cope with the predicted increase in licenses the Council is proposing to use a risk based system whereby only some properties will be inspected before a license is granted and the rest will be assessed using a desktop exercise and only be inspected within the time frame of the license (by law it must conduct a Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) risk assessment inspection within 5 years of receiving a license application). Labour believes that to be most effective Westminster should operate on a system that inspects properties before an HMO license is approved in order to properly raise standards. However we recognise that with almost 9200 new properties likely to need to apply for license this requirement could prove challenging to immediately implement. Labour argues that the significant amount of new money raised by the scheme must lead to a significant increase in the resources of the council’s Environmental Health teams, giving them greater capacity to inspect the new HMO properties. If it proves impossible to inspect all newly registered HMOS at the start of Westminster’s additional licensing scheme it must set a clear transition period within the first two years at the latest to inspect the all the properties and move to requiring all future applications to be inspected before approval.

While greater HMO licensing is a step forward that we welcome, there would have to be much more comprehensive regulation of PRS to ensure all renters’ rights are properly protected. Labour have long argued that Westminster should bring in a ‘selective’ licensing scheme, as used in many other London boroughs, to improve standards in (non-HMO) private rented properties with a focus on tackling areas with poor housing conditions and anti-social behaviour. Such a scheme should be urgently introduced in a targeted way on the 20% of PRS properties most in need without Government sign-off. This should act as a pilot initiative to gather information that would inform a potential application to Secretary of State for a more expansive or pan-Westminster supplementary licensing scheme.

The more information the council has about which properties are being rented out in particular areas, the easier it will be to identify and tackle flats being used unlawfully as short let ‘Air BnB’ properties.

There is much more that can be done beyond just regulation. The Council’s strategy outlines measures to raise awareness of renters’ rights, recognising that many renters don’t understand what their rights are or how to access help. These measures however are thin and we believe that on their own will not lead to a significant in understanding among PRS tenants of their rights or services available to them. The Council should look to use networks of renters or establish a ‘community champions’ model to disseminate knowledge and awareness of rights in the private rented sector.

Community champions would act as volunteers or be paid and target areas where there is most need of engagement. Research has shown the community champions model can be effective: using social networks to improve outcomes in public health is well established and Councils like Brent are using this model to improve PRS outcomes.

Labour would like to see more detail about how energy efficiency standards will be met. It should be noted that by 2030, all private rented sector properties should have a band C energy rating – this will require insulating tens of thousands of homes. The strategy makes no mention of ways to encourage landlords to access funding schemes such as areas of funding like the Mayor of London’s retrofitting programme and Energy Efficiency Fund (MEEF).

We would like to see more proactive thinking from the council in its strategy about the impact of Covid-19, with only one page dedicated to the pandemic and the huge effects it will have on the PRS. There needs to be more work done to think about how empty office spaces could be converted into residential; this is a challenging area, because office to residential conversion can lead to low quality housing, and Labour are already worried about the potential consequences of Conservative Government’s new permitted development rights that enable this to happen without the necessary safeguards. But with the collapse of office renting there is an opportunity for a significant uplift in residential and if done properly quality would not have to be compromised. The Council should think about using empty spaces in the West End and elsewhere, using the 15 minute neighbourhood living concept as championed by the Mayor of Paris to ensure the necessary social infrastructure is in place to support the transition from commercial to residential where appropriate.

Labour believes the Council should lobby the government to devolve greater powers to local Government to support renters and that it should work with the Mayor of London to support the findings of his ‘Blueprint’ for reforming private renting.

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