Where have all the Housing EHOs gone?
There’s simply nowhere near enough qualified housing enforcers employed by councils to deal with growing levels of poor housing conditions in the private rented sector (PRS).
In a report produced for Karen Buck MP by Dr Stephen Battersby in March, figures have been released showing there are only 2.2 Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) per 10,000 PRS households in urban unitary councils. These are shockingly low levels of skilled resources and would in my view completely hamper councils from effectively intervening to drive housing standards up and criminal landlords out of business. The report also correctly points out that the ratios of specialist EHOs is probably much worse due to the rapid ‘rentification’ of our towns and cities since the 2011 ONS figures used to calculate ratios. It should therefore be no surprise that many thousands of private tenants, including children, are left to live in unsafe housing conditions with little chance of effective remedy from councils. This missing safeguard turns the PRS into a high-risk lottery for tenants, leaving an unlucky minority at the mercy of rogue and criminal landlords with nowhere to turn.
This shortage is mostly a result of a long squeeze on council finances. Training budgets have been cut and retiring EHOs have not been replaced in a desperate effort by councils to save money. The lack of funding and investment is now clearly catching up with Environment Health teams across the country. Over the same timeframe the PRS numbers in the UK have risen sharply, significantly increasing demands on councils to tackle problematic private rented housing.
So how big is the gap? From my experience leading a comparatively well-resourced Private Housing team, a ratio of 5 EHOs per 10,000 PRS households is the minimum required to effectively regulate a PRS market. If applied across England this would mean creating 3 additional Housing EHO roles for each unitary authority (125), equating to 375 additional EHOs. Housing EHO training can take up to 4 years to complete and requires a university degree plus professional qualifications, so we must get started straightaway. The big problem is councils’ simply do not have the cash to fund this and its unlikely government will step in with a sustainable fix.
So what can be done? There really is only one plausible way forward, more licensing. Licensing generates a reliable source of income ringfenced for private housing regulation and enables local authorities to develop and employ skilled officers. This is the only way we can sustainably protect the growing numbers of private tenants, many of whom will spend their whole life in the sector. Licensing also ensures good landlords are protected from bad landlords who seek to undercut them. Yes, it does mean that good landlords need to pay a fee for a licence to help fund the regulation of the bad landlords, but surely this is a small price to pay to ensure the sector is fairly regulated and the minority of criminal landlords are pushed out of the sector for good.
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