Improving the private rented sector: Bristol City Council

The private rented sector has grown considerably over the last two decades and following a stock modelling survey undertaken by the Building Research Establishment, accounts for approximately 29 per cent of the stock (over 58,000 properties).

Key points

  • Importance of evidence-informed policy making.
  • Need for up-to-date housing and planning strategies.
  • Effective organisational and governance arrangements for policy making and the implementation of action plans.
  • Collaboration with landlord, agent and tenant organisations 
  • Adoption of a positive approach to funding (by seeking alternative funding options, charging for enforcement and licensing income). 


The private rented sector has grown considerably over the last two decades and following a stock modelling survey undertaken by the Building Research Establishment, accounts for approximately 29 per cent of the stock (over 58,000 properties). In 2001, it only formed 12.3 per cent of the stock. Furthermore, it is a highly dynamic sector – for example:

  • changing behaviour of landlords as they respond, for example, to the impact of tax and regulatory changes
  • increasing amount of purpose-built student accommodation
  • growth of build to rent – Savills has identified that this sector will ‘continue to flourish’ and there are three large schemes that have been developed.  

The latest stock condition survey estimated that there are approximately 9,000 private rented sector properties that present serious hazards to tenants. 

More broadly, Bristol is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK. The population has increased from 400,000 ten years ago to nearly 480,000. There are over 41,000 higher education students and this is projected to grow by over 7,000 by 2028. These trends create enormous housing challenges for all tenures as well as an affordability crisis especially for low income households. For example, the average rent for a three-bedroom property is £1,350 per month, while the local housing allowance rate for this type of property is £875 per month.   


An essential starting point is a sound evidence base. The city council regularly commissions stock modelling surveys as well as ensuring that it is aware of market trends.  

A specific objective of the housing strategy is, therefore, to deliver the best use of existing homes by raising standards in the private rented sector. Policies that are now being implemented include working with landlord and tenant organisations to improve standards on advice / training / guidance, targeting enforcement action on the bottom end of the market and consulting on the potential use of discretionary licensing schemes. 

The draft local plan includes policies on purpose-built student accommodation and HMOs. The former encourages projects that help to revitalise parts of the city centre as well as identifying preferred locations for future schemes. The latter focuses on avoiding concentrations of HMOs by establishing a threshold figure of no more than ten per cent of these types of properties in a neighbourhood. A draft supplementary planning document (SPD) on HMOs is at the consultation stage. 

An important feature of policy making is that there are clear and transparent links between the body that oversees housing policy, Bristol Homes and Communities Board, and organisations involved with the private rented sector. Membership includes representatives from Bristol Association of Letting and Management Agents (BALMA), Bristol University and Acorn, which is a voice for tenants.   

Given the growth of the student population, there is also close collaboration with the two universities. The University of Bristol Student Union Lettings Service is, for instance, accredited through the ‘Rent with Confidence’ scheme – see below. 

Working with landlords and tenants

There are a number of significant initiatives. The West of England rental standard, ‘Rent with Confidence’, is run by the four councils comprising the city region. This was developed from an earlier landlord accreditation scheme and has involved working with landlord and agent representative organisations and tenants’ representative organisations. It is a voluntary scheme that sets out a benchmark standard for letting agents and landlords. Seven landlord organisations have been approved and their accredited landlords and lettings agents are able to use the scheme logo and marketing materials.    

In relation to tenants, the council works with a number of organisations including Bristol Shelter, CHAS, the two university students’ unions, and Acorn, which is a community-based organisation launched in 2015 with a membership of between 4-5,000 people that supports tenants in taking action against landlords and lettings agents. For example, it has an ethical lettings scheme – part of which is incorporated into the Rent with Confidence scheme. The council has recently launched a social media app to address tenancy relations issues, as well as working with other community groups. This initiative will be monitored and evaluated.   

The council has a landlord liaison service that delivers a landlord expo event, produces a quarterly landlord newsletter, helps to organise and run a regional landlords roundtable and manages a local landlord forum. The annual expo event is a city region exhibition and seminar. In 2019, there were around 65 exhibitors providing free advice for landlords and managing / lettings agents. It was attended by over 500 people.  


Considerable use is made of licensing to tackle issues of stock condition and management. There are three schemes:

  • Bristol-wide HMO licensing based on national mandatory criteria
  • selective and additional licensing scheme covering parts of the Eastville and St George West wards
  • additional licensing scheme covering all HMOs in 12 central city wards.

These build on lessons learnt from the earlier selective and additional licensing pilot scheme that ran for five years from 2013 that was evaluated on its effectiveness. The findings included data collection issues, the value of a consultation process that involves wide scale questionnaire surveys of landlords, agents, tenants and residents and a number of  public meetings, setting of realistic fee levels, the necessity of partnership working especially over anti-social behaviour and the need for adequate staffing resources to run the scheme.  

There is a rogue landlord unit comprising environmental health officers, tenancy relations staff and a trading standards officer. This multi-disciplinary approach enables a range of issues to be tackled eg:

  • trading standards successfully prevented a letting agent from continuing to operate because of a failure to properly protect tenant deposits, using the Tenant Fees Act
  • tenancy relations officers recently prosecuted a landlord for illegally evicting a tenant.

Financial resource issues have been addressed by ensuring that additional and selective licensing is self-financing. In addition, the council has a track record of successfully bidding for external government funding to trial various projects. An example of this is a successful bid to the Inward Migration Fund in 2018 (which enabled the council to produce a guide for tenants to recover rent using Rent Repayment Orders).