Improving the private rented sector: Oxford City Council

Addressing the issues in the private rented sector is a well-established priority for the city council.

Key points

  • Importance of appreciating the role of the private rented sector in the wider housing market and the sub-regional economy.
  • Adoption of a strategic approach through the local plan and the housing and homelessness strategy.
  • Balance between working with landlords and tenants and effective enforcement action.
  • Develop and evaluate pilot initiatives and schemes.


Oxford City Council is a district council with a population of over 160,000. It is estimated that this will grow to 180,000 by 2036. Its housing market is one of the most challenging in the country.

The ratio of average house prices to incomes is over 16:1. There are over 3,500 households on the housing register but only 500-600 new lettings per year. Households, therefore, that are unable to access social housing or gain a foothold on the owner occupation ladder, look towards the private rented sector. Thus, over 30 per cent of the housing stock is in the private rented sector and it is estimated that 20 per cent of the population live in HMOs. It is forecast that the sector will continue to grow significantly over the next decade.

Factors that underpin these issues include:  

  • booming local economy including high profile research and development facilities of global companies
  • growth of the world-famous university sector
  • location of major public service providers for the Oxfordshire sub-region eg the health service.

At the same time, there is evidence of significant inequalities between neighbourhoods over health, educational attainment and wealth. Dorling has argued that Oxford has some of the steepest social gradients of any city.[1] Neighbourhoods with the highest level of multiple deprivation also frequently have high levels of private renting.  

Strategic perspective

Addressing the issues in the private rented sector is a well-established priority for the city council. Over the last two decades, the council’s local plan and housing strategy have increasingly focussed on this issue. For example, the growth of HMOs is managed through an article four direction (under planning regulations) that requires planning permission to be obtained for any conversion of a family property.

This was introduced in 2012. In considering a planning application, a balance is struck between shared housing as marginally more affordable for working people to live and work in Oxford and the loss of family accommodation. Also, attention is paid to the impact of concentrations of HMOs on existing neighbourhoods eg street scene, litter, refuse collection, car parking and anti-social behaviour.

The draft local plan reinforces this approach. It encourages the development of purpose-built HMOs, including build to rent, in appropriate locations. In relation to higher education, one option that is being considered is linking the development of new or redeveloped university academic premises with the provision of associated residential accommodation. Other options include focussing new purpose-built student accommodation on existing campuses, in existing district centres and in the city centre.

The housing and homelessness strategy 2018-2021 (together with the private sector housing strategy) includes policies aimed at, firstly, improving access for households on low incomes to good quality private rented accommodation and, secondly, improving property conditions and management of the stock.

A twin-track approach is highlighted of balancing consumer regulation with enforcement. This involves working in partnership with landlords and lettings agents but, where necessary, taking enforcement action. In addition, there is an emphasis on addressing the issues of the impact of HMOs on neighbourhoods and improving the energy efficiency of the private rented sector.

Supporting low income households     

In relation to helping low income households access good quality accommodation in the private rented sector, working proactively with landlords is a major component of the city council’s approach.

There are a wide range of schemes including:   

  • Home choice: This is targeted at vulnerable homeless households and is especially relevant because of the focus on homelessness reduction – incentives for landlords include named contacts at the Council to deal with tenancy issues, tenancy booklets (digital and paper) for landlords and tenants, free training sessions linked to the landlord accreditation scheme and signposting to other support agencies.
  • Lord Mayor’s deposit guarantee scheme: This provides a one-month deposit bond and a limited rent in advance service for non-statutory homeless households.
  • Real lettings service: This is a pilot scheme in partnership with St Mungo’s to acquire 50 buy-to-let properties in Oxfordshire to let at local housing allowance rates – tenants are offered low level support and are expected to move on to other accommodation after two to three years.
  • Rent guarantee pilot scheme: This involves a three-month rent in advance guarantee together with money advice and mentoring for households on managing budgets.

Nevertheless, the challenges of this policy should not be underestimated. A survey of landlords in 2016 found that only five per cent of respondents are willing to let a property to a housing benefit recipient. This not surprising given the difference between median rents and local housing allowance rates. In 2018, these were over £250 per month for a one-bed property and nearly £1,000 per month for a four-bed property.   

Improving property conditions and the well-being of tenants

Oxford City Council adopts a twin-track approach – working with landlords and tenants balanced by effective enforcement.

The former centres on the work of tenancy relations officers. This involves liaising with and mediating between landlords and tenants to resolve concerns over property standards, ineffective relationships and general tenancy issues. It also can centre on resolving other issues such as anti-social behaviour. This will involve tenancy relations officers working corporately with, say, planning as well as with external agencies such as the police and local community groups.

The council’s private sector housing team is a further vital element, as set out in the private sector housing strategy. Priorities range from preventing illegal evictions and harassment through to a strong additional licensing scheme, further development of a landlord accreditation service and improving the evidence base on the scale and changing nature of the HMO sector.

The latter requires a corporate approach together with collaboration with external agencies such as the police, trading standards and the UK Border Force. Some of these activities are only made possible through specific MHCLG funding such as the rogue landlord and migration impact fund.

[1] Dorling, D. (2018) Inequality and Oxford, The Oxford Magazine, No. 399, pp.3-4, October 5th