MPs have a chance to give renters the rights they deserve - we must urge them to take it
The ‘Fitness for Human Habitation’ Bill would restore crucial rights for renters first introduced back in 1885, says CIH policy and practice officer Sam Lister.
This week the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Private Members' Bill gets it second reading in the House of Commons. The Bill, which is being sponsored by MP Karen Buck, would make it law for rented homes to be ‘fit for human habitation’ at the beginning of any new tenancy and throughout the life of the agreement. This is surely the bare minimum that renters should be able to expect, you might think – and indeed the right was first introduced by the Housing of the Working Classes Bill way back in 1885.
In November 1883 the Conservative leader of the opposition (and future prime minister) Lord Salisbury wrote an article for the National Review (the 19th century equivalent of Conservative Home) arguing that the conditions of working class housing were ‘injurious to the health and morals of the population’ and that the issue was of such importance that it deserved a Royal Commission. It sparked a public debate and the Prince of Wales took up the cause, visiting some of the poorest parts of London.
The cross-party commission was duly established and heard from almost 200 witnesses, including the pioneer of housing management, Octavia Hill, who mentored the women who would go on to set up the organisation that became the Chartered Institute of Housing. The result was the 1885 Housing of the Working Classes (HL) Bill, which in effect inserted a clause in every tenancy agreement that the home should be fit for habitation at the start of the letting – provided the rent did not exceed the annual limit (£20 per year, at that time substantially more than the average rent of £9 a year).
In the years that followed the clause reappeared and was recast in various different Acts. The Housing Act 1957 increased the rent limits to £52 a year outside London and £80 a year in London. At the time average rents in England and Wales were around £49 per year.
The problem is – that was the last time the rent limits were increased. The new Bill would bring them up to date – but it would also do much more than that.
This is a vitally important issue – according to Shelter there are currently around one million rented homes with hazards that pose a serious risk to health and safety, affecting more than 2.5 million people. And the problem with existing legislation is that it only requires landlords to deal with disrepair, but not with structural defects that make the dwelling unsafe or insanitary, such as a steep staircase without a handrail, poorly designed drains or systemic damp and mould growth. As the Grenfell Tower fire so tragically demonstrated, buildings can have structural or design defects where, although there is no actual disrepair, there are severe consequences for health or safety.
As well as requiring rented homes to be fit for human habitation, the new Bill would give both social and private tenants the right to take their landlord to court if they fail to take action to resolve a problem.
Together with organisations like Shelter and Generation Rent, CIH is strongly supporting the proposed legislation – but there are several hurdles to overcome before it can become law. It's fantastic news that the government will be backing the Bill, but a previous version was ‘talked out’ in 2015 and unless at least 100 MPs attend the Second Reading on Friday, there is a risk this will happen again. You can email your MP to ask them to attend and vote for the Bill via Generation Rent or tweet them via Shelter.
It should not have taken the Grenfell Tower tragedy to expose the urgent need to address the standards of our rented homes, but MPs now have a chance to give renters the rights they deserve. We must urge them to take it.