It needs to be easier for private tenants to get repairs done
The government have announced a redress scheme for renters — here’s how to make it work
At Citizens Advice, we help private renters in England with 16,000 repairs and maintenance problems every year. It’s the most common private renting issue. Many tenants — across all renting tenures — struggle to get basic repairs carried out, and find it difficult to make progress if their landlord doesn’t cooperate.
The government have announced a new scheme for improving repairs
At the Conservative party conference, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that it will be compulsory for private rented sector landlords to sign up to a redress scheme. These are free, mandatory and independent ways to raise complaints without going to court, also known as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).
Getting repairs done is too difficult for many tenants
Our recent report looked at how the government could improve private renters’ access to repairs and compensation. We surveyed tenants and advisers, and carried out interviews with Citizens Advice clients who had faced problems.
Our research found that very few tenants feel able to take the complex, lengthy and often costly steps involved with court-based redress or local authority routes.
Tenants are much more likely to try other things: fixing it themselves, withholding rent, moving house. Many simply put up with the problem.
How to design a redress system that works
It’s clear that the current system for resolving complaints isn’t working. For that reason, we welcome the Secretary of State’s plans to introduce a free, mandatory and independent way for tenants to raise complaints about disrepair without going to court. But as our wider work on alternative dispute resolution shows, not all redress schemes are created equal.
Here are three key things the government needs to consider:
1. Protecting tenants from eviction
It is vital that the government protects tenants who raise complaints. Our research found that fear of eviction is the most common reason for avoiding making a formal complaint. These fears can be well founded. Jo, who we interviewed, was evicted soon after complaining to her council about multiple disrepair issues that resulted in a chest infection and electrocution. Tenants should know that while their complaint is being considered by the redress scheme, they cannot be evicted. They should also know that, if their complaint is upheld, they will continue to be protected.
2. Removing costs to tenants
For a redress scheme to work well, it has to be free for tenants to use. The tenants we surveyed said the biggest barrier to going to court was the cost. The potential cost of court can be particularly worrying if the tenant is already out of pocket because of disrepair. We interviewed Shafeeq, who paid more than £10,000 towards essential repairs and has struggled to cope with the court process. Our work on alternative dispute resolution shows many consumers wouldn’t use redress schemes if they come with a cost.
3. Expertise and power to act
Adjudicators in any redress scheme need to have enough expertise to make decisions on difficult issues. They also need suitable powers to take decisions that can be enforced quickly if a landlord fails to carry out repairs. This issue emerged in our research on ADR across consumer markets. It can be difficult for consumers to know what to do next if the business — or in this case landlord — refuses to participate or abide by the redress scheme’s decision. Ensuring this part of the process works effectively, for instance through penalties for not participating or rapid escalations to court where necessary, is key to effective redress.
The government needs to protect tenants living in unsafe homes
Well designed redress schemes are important, but they aren’t right for all repairs disputes. They aren’t intended to tackle more complex health and safety issues, which is where the courts step in. Part of the government’s announcements included consulting on a specialist housing court to save time and costs. It’s vital these changes don’t leave tenants without legal support in the name of cost-saving.
Redress schemes will make the private renting market more effective, making it quicker and easier for tenants to resolve problems. But there’s more the government should do to address the worst health and safety problems.
- Firstly, the government should support the private member’s bill on Fitness for Human Habitation. This bill outlines a clear, simple and enforceable minimum standard for all rented housing — both social and rented — something which doesn’t currently exist.
- Secondly, there’s currently no simple way to leave an unsafe home. Too often, tenants are forced to choose between living in a poor quality home and paying to leave the tenancy early, even when their landlord is acting unlawfully. Renters should have the right to leave their tenancy in these situations, without penalty.
An independent, free and compulsory scheme to resolve disputes will make life easier for millions of private renters struggling with disrepair. But the government shouldn’t stop there. Legislation will be needed to introduce a mandatory redress scheme. This provides an opportunity for wider change to support both social and private tenants faced with uninhabitable properties and uncooperative landlords.