Boston Borough Council has long worked closely with its neighbouring districts and the county council.
- Focus on the poor housing conditions faced by migrant workers in the agriculture and food processing sector who live in the private rented sector.
- Coordinated approach for addressing problems faced by migrant workers eg poor living conditions, language issues and modern slavery.
- Challenges and opportunities of collaboration to tackle poor housing conditions in a two-tier local government system.
- Use of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) funding pots to provide resources to address urgent issues.
- Emerging issue of tackling energy efficiency standards.
The Borough of Boston in Lincolnshire includes the market town of Boston and 18 rural parishes. About half of the population live in the town of Boston. The area’s strong agricultural industry, which operates on a 24-hour basis in picking, packing and distribution, has attracted many international migrants in recent years. Until the late 1990s Boston district had only a few migrants, generally working at the local hospital and in the food and restaurant trade.
Since then migrants first from Portugal and later from the EU A8 countries (ie countries that joined the EU as part of the 2004 enlargement policy) have brought very rapid and dramatic change in the area’s demographics. In 2011 Boston had the highest percentage (10.6%) of A8-born people in the country. In the 10 years to 2011 the overall population increased by 15.9 per cent, and single people are projected to be the fastest growing category of households in the period to 2033.
This fast change put pressure on the local housing supply: rents in what was a relatively small private rented sector soared, though local wages are low, and there was a sudden proliferation of houses in multiple occupation.
Today new in-migration has slowed, rents have stabilised (but remaining disproportionately high against earnings) and supply and demand in the private rented sector have levelled out, and culturally there is a greater acceptance of change among the general population. However, on the supply side, it remains very difficult to make affordable housing development financially viable because of the additional costs associated with local flood risk; and the work of integrating culturally continues.
Approach to strategy and joint working
Boston Borough Council has long worked closely with its neighbouring districts and the county council. ‘Team Lincolnshire’ has seen joint working on housing for some 18 years, covering homelessness and rough sleeping, the private rented sector, stock condition surveys, disabled facilities grants (on which there is a single framework agreement and schedule of rates) and other shared issues.
This extends to drawing up shared policies: a discretionary assistance policy currently being finalised in support of the Lincolnshire Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy will allow the councils to support people financially to make improvements where their housing is detrimental to their wellbeing.
In addition, the Lincolnshire councils have service level agreements with Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue covering HMOs. A strong partnership with Lincolnshire Police has included action on private rented sector housing where trafficking and other criminality is suspected.
As a two-tier local government area, Boston and Lincolnshire County Council must co-operate on, for example, Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES) where the enforcement responsibility for landlords to provide an EPC for their property lies with Trading Standards at county level, and enforcement of only letting properties that meet the minimum standard of EPC E or above which lies with the district. This situation illustrates the challenge of the division of responsibilities built into the system.
Boston has accessed several central government funding pots to further its work in mitigating the effects of migration and improving the quality of the private rented stock. This includes:
- £1.3 million from the Controlling Migration fund. This was used to enhance leisure facilities and coordinate provision of English language teaching, to ease tensions and support indigenous and new populations.
- MHCLG funding to support the Housing Enforcement team in taking an evidence-led approach to inspections. This helped overcome a false perception from some in the indigenous population that the private rented sector was associated with ‘foreigners’ and ‘criminal landlord’.
- Rogue Landlord funding which has been used to target bad and criminal landlords, particularly those exploiting tenants. Extra officers have been employed to ‘go outdoor knocking’ to identify private rented housing. Leaflet drops and inspections backed up this work, resulting in more tenants contacting the Council and a significant impact in improving housing standards and raising the quality and level of housing management in the private rented sector.
Working with landlords
Boston’s approach is to combine a very proactive approach to inspections, and strong enforcement where necessary, with landlord engagement. There is currently no selective or additional licensing although it has been considered. The council believes in sending clear messages to landlords about their obligations, and that criminal landlords will find it ‘hard to do business’ in the district. It has brought a number of prosecutions and will move straight to enforcement where potentially fatal hazards are found but regards this as a failure in the sense that it aims to prevent issues reaching that stage. The watchwords it works to in an enforcement model is that any and every action is reasonable, justified and proportionate.
The council recognises the need for balance, in not driving out landlords in a situation of accommodation shortage. It has worked to build goodwill via the landlords’ forum and encourages them to come forward where problems are identified. More than 400 landlords are on the mailing list.
The council is currently working to educate landlords about MEES obligations and began alerting them to the new regulations from summer 2019. At the same time the team has been using intelligence to match the EPC database with other records to target non-compliant housing.
As the lowest earners and most vulnerable tenants are found in the lowest-rated housing, typically Victorian terraces, this is seen as a priority. However, in some cases landlords are genuinely unable to afford the necessary works to eliminate F and G EPC ratings. The Lincolnshire councils are therefore working on plans to offer a grant toward this, which would both ease the costs and provide an incentive.
The council wants to see a national private rented sector database on EPC ratings established, which would assist this type of work.