Millions of British eyes will be on Blackpool this Saturday night, as the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing show makes its feverishly anticipated annual visit to the Grade I-listed Tower Ballroom. But the architectural legacy of Blackpool’s golden age as a seaside resort has a hazardous side as well as a sparkling one – as our Living Hell series on the private rental sector has revealed this week. Astonishingly, according to the town’s council, all 18,000 of its privately rented homes – many of them former guesthouses – have a damp and mould problem. Mounting evidence points to such conditions as a cause of worsening public health.
Last year the coroner at the inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak, who died as a result of exposure to black mould in Rochdale, said the verdict should be a “defining moment”. But while the two-year-old was an extreme case, experts believe the problems caused by substandard accommodation go much wider, and contribute to thousands of respiratory infections annually. While the situation in Blackpool is acute for both geographical and historical reasons (including wet weather and the type of housing), atrocious living conditions can be found across the country.
Some of the accommodation seen by Guardian reporters is shocking. But even worse than the damp walls, mouldy bathrooms and holes in floors are the hurdles faced by tenants in getting anything done about them. Unlike in the social housing sector, where landlords are obliged to ensure that properties meet a decent homes standard, it is up to tenants in private rentals to demand that minimum standards are reached (the only exception is energy safety, for which landlords are responsible). Under the terms of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act of 2018, renters can complain to local authorities if landlords refuse to make homes safe and secure. But since many are afraid of eviction, they often regard this is as too much of a risk. The chair of the Association of Chief Environmental Health Officers in England, Peter Wright, rightly describes this situation as “shameful”.
The government has said it plans to introduce minimum standards for private rentals, along with the ban on no-fault evictions promised in its 2019 manifesto. But last month’s decision to postpone the ban yet again, on the basis that the courts are not ready with an alternative system for evicting antisocial tenants, was bitterly disappointing. With 68 Conservative MPs known to earn income from rental property, there is good reason to believe that a “landlord interest” in the House of Commons is acting as a block on change.
Low standards and rising rents in the private rented sector are not the UK’s only housing problem. Recent rises in homelessness and rough sleeping, and the lack of affordable homes for sale and for social rent, also need addressing. So do the huge bills faced by local authorities paying for temporary accommodation. But with the proportion of privately rented homes having doubled over 20 years, from around a tenth to a fifth of all households, the current position is not tenable. The landlord register for England in the renters’ reform bill will increase transparency and could be amended to include information about rents (Scotland and Wales already have registers). But with no-fault evictions rising, along with worrying evidence of the connection between poor housing and poor health, it could hardly be clearer that tenants need more rights over their homes.