In September 2017, following the Grenfell fire tragedy, Shelter commissioned me and Dr Kirton-Darling from Kent Law School and Professor Dave Cowan and Ed Burtonshaw-Gunn both of Bristol University Law School to review and report on the state of the law relating to disrepair and health and safety in the home.
We talked to a lot of people as part of our research, including tenants, leaseholders, environmental health officers, lawyers and surveyors. It was clear there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the law. It did not prioritise the interests of the occupiers of homes, and provided them with very limited means to force landlords to ensure that their homes were safe and free from disrepair. What we think is needed is a cultural change, so that those responsible for the health and safety of occupiers – landlords and local authorities – become pro-active in fulfilling those responsibilities
Our report concluded that the law is piecemeal, out-dated, complex, dependent upon tenure, and patchily enforced. It makes obscure distinctions, which have little relationship with everyday experiences of poor conditions. Tenants wanting to remedy defects face numerous and often insurmountable barriers to justice. The law needs to evolve from its Victorian origins; no longer should occupiers be treated as posing health and safety risks, instead they should be treated as consumers of housing with enforceable rights to ensure minimum standards are adhered to. And the state needs to accept its role as the primary enforcer of those standards. You can read the full report here, on the Shelter website -
Report: Closing the Gaps - Health and Safety at Home.
What we would like to see is a new Housing (Health and Safety in the Home)
Act which is tenure neutral, modern and relevant to contemporary health and safety issues, and which encourages and provides resources for pro-activity by statutory authorities.
In particular, the Act should:
• Strengthen duties on local authorities to review housing and enforce housing health and safety standards
• Introduce a legal duty to review and update all guidance relating to health and safety in the home every three years
• Provide routes for occupiers to require local authorities to carry out
housing health and safety assessments
• Remove unnecessary legal barriers preventing enforcement action being taken against local authority landlords and remove unnecessary procedural barriers which undermine the current regime
• Consolidate and up-date existing law
• Place clear responsibilities on bodies for breaches of fire and building regulations
• Provide routes for occupiers to hold landlords and managers to account for fire safety provisions
• Strengthen remedies against retaliatory eviction.
Since our report was published there has been some progress. Karen Buck’s private members bill, Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill (you can read it here) has received government support and is slowly progressing through Parliament. This is good news. But this Bill does not achieve everything we recommend. In particular we need to ensure that tenants of local authorities and housing associations have access to the powerful remedies provided by the Housing Act 2004. Moreover it has become apparent that its very difficult for occupiers of tower blocks to find out what the realities of health and safety provisions in their flats are. Freedom of Information requests are very difficult to pursue, as we have seen. It seems strange to us that all of this information, about the fire resistance of doors and cladding, about fire risk assessments etc are not already in the public domain, or at the very least easily accessible to occupiers. Also we have got to find ways to ensure that the voices of tenants and other occupiers are heard when it comes to health and safety in their homes. Perhaps this will all emerge from the government’s review of social housing. We shall see – and we certainly don’t want another tragedy before there is real progress.