Stoke-on-Trent council is highly ambitious and says in its housing strategy that it sees itself as a facilitator of change.
- Focus on improving the quality and image of the private rented sector as part of a broader initiative to boost the economy and to attract people to live and work in the area.
- Enabling role for the local authority in improving the quality of the stock using its local housing companies.
- Developing an intelligence-led approach to better understand the private rented sector.
- Emphasis on working with landlords and agents to improve property management and stock condition.
- Use of enforcement as a last resort.
Stoke has suffered economically over a number of years after the closure of major industries. Council housing is at a premium as stock is lost through the right to buy. As a result, although house prices are relatively affordable, many people on low incomes are living in the private rented sector. Some areas have high concentrations of private rented housing, fast turnover of tenancies, empty homes, and people living in poor conditions with ill-health.
Stoke-on-Trent council is highly ambitious and says in its housing strategy that it sees itself as a facilitator of change. Via its ‘stronger together’ vision statement, it has an economic focus, aiming to encourage entrepreneurship and attract people to live and work in the district. It has ‘Housing Business Ready’ status from the Housing and Finance Institute and this outlook feeds through into its work with landlords. The approach is to work with landlords and property investors as much as possible, only using enforcement as a last resort. The personal touch in developing good relationships is highly valued.
Raising standards across the housing stock
The council has two housing-focussed wholly-owned companies. Fortior Homes undertakes regeneration and improvements and the Unitas repair company works with both the local authority and the private rented stock. A further company is being established as a registered provider to manage stock built through an institutional investor-funded development model.
This combination can make strategic investments to improve areas or outdated stock and raise standards, as well as providing good quality housing for people in need who might otherwise end up in poor quality private rented housing. The ability to intervene is particularly important in former housing market renewal pathfinder areas where much work remained when government ended the programme in 2011.
The private rented sector was already large in Stoke in 2011 at about 15,000 homes, and it has grown substantially since then. Good returns attract absentee landlords and investors, posing challenges for the local authority. While overall 83 per cent of private housing is classed as decent, the private rented sector has greater percentages of non-decent housing. Terraces and flats have the highest percentage of poor quality housing.
In order to build the case for selective licensing, the council used Experian data to identify the locations of households on low incomes, and compared this with stock condition, council tax and EPC data.
A key aim is to target energy efficiency, warm homes and anti-fuel poverty work: Stoke has higher than average fuel poverty figures and the percentage has risen in recent years. The council offers ‘safe and warm home grants’ financed by better care funding for tenants and homeowners and provides assistance to fund resident contributions required for ECO funded work in order to maximise investment in the city.
The council has been awarded LGA funding to develop effective approaches to address poor management and disrepair and increase quality and supply in the private rented sector. It has commissioned work to consider best practice elsewhere and is undertaking a detailed analysis of the work of the team – considering how resources can best be utilised. This project will also consider how links can be developed across the local authority in order to maximise the impact of each contact with a household to address hazards in the home.
Supporting consumer regulation
The council employs a tenancy relations officer, who provides support and
manages the relationships between landlords and tenants to reduce the risk of tenancy breakdown, illegal eviction and harassment.
The officer (funded from the Homelessness Prevention Fund) works with tenants and landlords to avoid evictions and consequent homelessness. Homelessness was prevented in 73 per cent of cases during 2018/19. The council believes many landlords are inexperienced, and education based on one-to-one contact can often save a tenancy. This, it believes, reaps longer term rewards in that landlords will apply the lessons in their other properties, helping to raise standards more widely.
In other cases, such as tenants being locked out, the council will change the locks to let the tenant back in and issue a caution to demonstrate to the landlord its willingness to take formal action if necessary. A rise in demand for the service is seen as a positive sign that tenants are not prepared to put up with rogue landlords and will increasingly come forward for help.
A marketing campaign to raise awareness of the private rented sector team and the help it can give is due to start shortly. Under the banner ‘bad landlords wreck lives’, it will use a mix of online and poster ads to get the message across.
A bond scheme was introduced in 2010 and helps people to secure a tenancy. The purpose is to make accommodation within the private rented sector a viable option for people in the city. It is available for people on low income with a housing need; the bond is used as a deposit to secure the property.
Once the customer has been accepted on to the scheme, they are encouraged to start their search for a suitable property to rent. The person must search for their own property; the service can provide help if required, depending on the vulnerability/needs of the person. The property must be affordable, in line with the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and meet the needs of the person/household. The Bond Officer becomes involved once a property has been found.
Accreditation, licensing and enforcement
The authority has about 500 landlords in its accreditation scheme, all of whom receive mandatory training. The Private Sector Housing (PSH) team sends out regular news and information about government policy, the housing, health and safety ratings system (HHSRS), Section 21 changes and other national policy developments.
Advice is available to any member who gets in touch, and in turn the PSH team learns continuously from the feedback it receives. Accredited landlords can take advantage of tenancy support for vulnerable tenants. The team aims to grow the membership as it believes that bringing landlords ‘into the fold’ leads to less disrepair and insecurity of tenancies in the sector.
The approach to enforcement is to give landlords up to eight weeks, dependent on the type of work, voluntarily to make any necessary improvements, after which formal action will be taken. The team firmly believes that enforcement should be the last resort, because often it does not achieve the desired outcome of higher quality homes for existing tenants. Work may be completed, but often the tenant leaves and an empty home is created. Where the council has brought prosecutions, the fines have been low and do not, it believes, act as a deterrent or recover the costs involved.
The council applied in 2019 for selective licensing covering certain areas, which would have enabled a group approach to these neighbourhoods. It would also have offered the team power of entry, which is seen as crucial to help vulnerable tenants. But despite extensive preparatory work and consultation the application was turned down by MHCLG.
The council facilitates bringing about 200 empty homes back into use each year, representing a £3.5 million investment. A grant of £5,000 is available and is prioritised in deprived neighbourhoods to match-fund owners’ own investment. Again, the approach is to work closely with owners, giving them advice and support, though with the possibility of enforced sale as a last resort.
Also increasing the supply of decent housing are conversions of commercial properties to residential use. In contrast to some authorities where serious problems of conditions and safety have been found, Stoke has forged a working relationship with owners to achieve good outcomes.