Landlord licensing – how we’re using the evidence and the experience of our members to develop our policies
The CIH mission is to act in the public interest rather than the interest of any one part of the housing industry. So how do we develop policies? CIH Northern Ireland policy and public affairs officer Justin Cartwright explains.
If we were lobbyists it might be more straightforward to reach views on things (though that’s not to say lobbyists don’t have their own difficulties in balancing the different priorities and views of stakeholders!) It’s really important for us to use evidence and research to develop sound policy positions that stand up to scrutiny. This includes listening to the views and experiences of housing professionals across all tenures. So at the start of the year we ran a survey to gather Northern Ireland members' views on various policies to help inform our approach. One thing that stood out in particular was that 83 per cent of members agreed or strongly agreed that private landlords should be licensed.
Landlord licensing – what should it look like?
If you only pay attention to the newspaper headlines or horror stories you hear, you’d be forgiven for thinking privately rented homes are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to housing choice. Yet successive studies have shown that, generally speaking, the Northern Ireland private rented sector works reasonably well. Landlords are well-intentioned and offer a good service to tenants, tenants pay for and are satisfied with the service provided, and landlords/agents and tenants are on good terms with each other. However, as in any market, there are cases where things aren’t so rosy – and being well-intentioned doesn’t always mean having full knowledge of rights and responsibilities. The challenge for policy-makers is to improve standards without adversely affecting the majority of tenancies that are working, and you can’t just regulate the bad bits.
A tool often used by government to drive up performance is licensing. This involves landlords declaring criminal convictions, demonstrating they have adequate property and tenancy management in place, and meeting certain standards. Looking at licensing systems already in place around the UK, whether they are seen as reasonable and effective seems to depend on the cost of a licence and enforcement practices. The two are of course related and an important challenge is setting fees at a level that gives authorities enough resources for enforcement, while at the same time not being unreasonably burdensome on landlords. A licensing system shouldn’t be so light-touch that it becomes a checkbox exercise, but neither need it be more aggressive than the market it seeks to regulate.
Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
One high-profile scheme that’s regularly talked about - including at our ‘First to Know’ member event on the private rented sector held this month - is Newham Council’s licensing scheme in London. The scheme is self-financing with visible and robust enforcement and boasts capacity to process licences in 22 minutes. Landlords pay £500 for a licence which can last for up to five years. However the local market in Newham is very different to Northern Ireland’s – privately rented homes make up a whopping 40 per cent of all homes, and high prices help to drive a ‘beds in sheds’ culture with significant anti-social behaviour. Would Newham’s scheme be suitable for Northern Ireland or would it be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
What we think
These issues and others helped to inform our recent written and oral response (starts 1:18:25) to the Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO) Bill which will provide for the licensing of HMOs only. Given the greater risks to people’s safety associated with living in HMOs, for example death by house fire, it’s a good place to start. Thanks to the input from members and housing practitioners we were able to secure four potential amendments to the bill that we believe will improve the proposed licensing system:
- ensuring adequate protection for seasonal workers housed in HMOs
- reducing the risk of some HMOs being inappropriately excluded from regulation by removing the word "cousin" from the definition of family for the purposes of determining what is an HMO
- some minor changes on the availability of landlords’ personal details
- some changes to licensing arrangements for HMO properties whose ownership is transferred.
There are around 90,000 private tenancies covered by landlord registration in Northern Ireland which is an excellent start. The landlords of these properties get written information and support about their duties and responsibilities, but issues remain around enforcement. Councils need to be resourced to be effective in this area, and housing rights, management and standards of accommodation in privately rented homes all need to be given high priority within councils.
In the New Year we will continue to push for licensing to be extended to the whole private rented sector as part of the Department for Social Development’s review. We believe good practice in housing management can be best promoted and achieved through licensing and training; allowing landlords to demonstrate competency through independent accreditation is one way of recognising those who are acting professionally.
And we will continue to speak to housing professionals to help us make the case for a housing system that works for everyone.