Given the complexity and depth of the problems it faces, Blackpool council takes a multi-faceted approach to the private rented sector.
- Work at a national level to improve legislation.
- Adopt a strategic approach.
- Make full use of the range of enforcement options.
- Develop and deliver innovative approaches to tackle local issues.
- Utilise external funding.
Though well known as a popular seaside resort, Blackpool has suffered long term economic decline and low incomes. It is currently the most deprived borough in the country. Its inner area has a concentration of densely packed HMOs and other private rented sector housing where landlords’ yields are very high and there is no incentive to improve the often extremely poor conditions.
There are many absentee landlords. This area is home to a transient population of tenants living with poor health, having chaotic lives and with the highest rate of drug-related deaths in the country. Incomes are low and most receive Housing Benefit (HB). The council says tenants have often ‘run away’ from other places, bringing their problems with them.
Given the complexity and depth of the problems it faces, Blackpool council takes a multi-faceted approach to the private rented sector. It is working at national level to try to improve the plethora of legislation that can work against improvement; taking strategic initiatives to remove the worst condition properties; and using the full range of enforcement powers it has available.
Issues at national level include:
- Looking at the financial model of the private rented sector, where the quality of housing is not linked to the rent charged. The council is lobbying for more control of the HB pot, including flexibility to set a ‘Blackpool LHA’ rate that would better incentivise landlords to make improvements. This would mean lower rates for those letting properties in poorer condition.
- Lobbying for higher standards within the HHSRS, which the council believes sets the bar too low.
- Looking for change to the Housing Act, homelessness and tenancy law to help avoid evictions. The council believes S.21 changes may help but wants more ability to prevent landlords evicting before formal works orders protection begins.
- ‘Exempt accommodation’ is an increasing problem. The experience in Blackpool has been that since the government decided not to remove support costs from HB, and the end of Supporting People funding removed councils’ support commissioning role, there has been an organised move into this type of provision. A combination of hedge funds, developers and unregistered housing associations have been letting to vulnerable residents at high cost, in many cases not providing the support as contracted. The council is trying to get to grips with the resulting high HB cost; churn of tenancies; and resident complaints, but has very limited powers to act.
Intervention in the market
The council has set up a wholly owned company, My Blackpool Home, which buys up former guest houses, some poorly converted to HMOs, in the highest density private rented sector areas. These are renovated and more spacious, good quality housing ceated for rent. Initially the not-for-profit scheme is running at a loss because of the time and resources needed, but later the rental income will help it to break even. It is seen as a limited solution as not all owners will want to sell, or at the right price. Nevertheless, it is already making significant inroads in the area in reducing densities and raising standards.
The initiative is part of the council’s strategic space and place planning, which has a focus on the private rented sector as an area of great need. The housing strategy includes a range of linked housing and economic outcome measures over a long time span, from years 1-5 (stabilisation), years 6-10 (persistent and visible change) through to years 11-15 (entrenching permanent change).
Multi-strand approach to licensing and enforcement
Blackpool has one selective licensing area and one of additional licensing. A whole-borough option has been considered but the council is not convinced at present it would deliver the solutions it seeks.
As an adjunct to licensing, the council is planning a ‘Blackpool standard’ that is higher than the HHSRS minimum, with landlords who reach the standard being offered a 30 per cent discount on their licensing fee.
Licensed landlords are offered a training programme with quarterly events which they pay for. Many are small or ‘accidental’ landlords, who appreciate being alerted to fire safety and other requirements. Demand is growing as word spreads of the programme.
Enforcement is approached informally at first, giving landlords the option to work with the council. The team takes the view that this works well with a regular set of landlords, though it acknowledges that where it does later need to move to formal enforcement, time has been lost.
Resources are stretched, but the council is seeking to use the full range of enforcement powers available where necessary, taking a robust approach to breaking the business model of those landlords that continue to operate unlawfully. It recognises that the very vulnerable tenants living in the central area are unlikely to be able to exercise their consumer rights. This can also hamper action on issues such as illegal eviction, because by the time the case reaches court, the tenant may well have moved on or be unable to give reliable evidence.
Working with resident groups
Blackpool has several active tenant and community groups focused on private rented sector areas, and the council is working strongly with them. Homes England Community Housing funding has supported work with two organisations to develop community masterplans for conversion and new build initiatives. Work with a range of small community groups trying to improve their neighbourhoods is also bearing fruit, though all the initiatives need funding to bring the plans to reality.
A large-scale bid aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of homes, initially in social housing but with wider potential, is in the pipeline. This will build on existing work with Cosy Homes Lancashire and other short-term funding schemes to alleviate fuel poverty.