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Karen Buck's Bill-the difference the law could make

One reform which is presently being discussed in Parliament is the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill. Sponsored by the Labour MP Karen Buck, it might be of real value to tenants, especially tenants in tower blocks.

To understand why it is needed, the place to begin is the two main statutes which protect tenants where homes have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The first is the landlord's duty to keep the structure and exterior of a property in repair. Contained in s11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, this right protects all tenants. It has been in law for thirty years, so most landlords (even most private landlords) know about it. If you look in most tenancy agreements, there will be a clause giving effect to section 11. In principle a tenant can sue in the county court to require a landlord to make improvements pursuant to section 11. In reality, that right is rarely invoked. Because most landlords know they are liable to be taken to a court for a section 11 breach, generally they will fix an obvious defect. Landlords delay, they often try to save money on repairs; but, in the end, most do the work that is required of them.

Section 11 is however far from an adequate protection. For one thing, it only obliges a landlord to keep the "structure and exterior" of a property in repair. I have represented tenants in cases where the landlord allowed the property to fall into significant disrepair, for example, by doing nothing to prevent mice coming in through holes in internal walls beside the pipes, only for a court to say that these defects were part of the interior of the property, not part of its structure or exterior. Therefore the landlord had no duty to act.

As important, the landlord's duty in section 11 is only to keep any property "in repair," in other words in more or less the same condition as it was when it was built, allowing for whatever normal degradation is inevitable over time. Imagine a property which has been designed with some flaw from the outset: for example, external wall cladding, which is a permanent fire risk. Its design may well make the property dangerous for its tenants. But unless something in the structure or exterior has deteriorated there is no "disrepair" and no duty for the landlord to bring the property into repair.

The other main protection for tower block tenants is, or should be, section 8 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, under which a landlord is required to keep homes fit for human habitation: this means in line with certain minimum standard of cleanliness and safety, etc. "Section 8" is a very old duty, which has been on the statute book for decades. Section 8, like section 11 is universal legislation. It does not apply to tenants who have held their tenancies for more than three years. Apart from that, it is meant to be enforceable by any tenant suing to enforce these rights. As with section 11, the intention is that landlords, knowing they have an obligation to keep homes safe, will act without needing to be taken to court.

Unfortunately, for six decades it has been the shared policy of first Conservative and then Labour governments to allow this duty to disappear from the statute book, not be repealing it, but by the expedient of saying that it only applies if the tenancy is being rented for less than £52 per year (£80 in London). These rent limits were last increased in 1957.

The Karen Buck bill removes these financial limits, and states much more clearly than any previous legislation what aspects of a tenancy are required to be fit for human habitation: repair, stability, freedom from damp, internal arrangement, natural light, ventilation, water supply, drainage and sanitary conveniences, facilities for the cooking of food and for the disposal of waste water. The bill also prohibits landlords from housing people in properties with a prescribed hazard, i.e. where there is "any risk of harm to the health or safety of an actual or potential occupier".

For example if a tenant of a large panel system block found that the building was

structurally unsound – and the defects were down to an original design defect then they would be able to use the new bill.

It is not the case that one bill will change everything for tenants. It is easy to imagine landlords arguing, in future, that a property can be "fit for habitation," even if (say) there is some recurring damp on its walls. There will still need to be courts and lawyers.

But think for a moment to the Grenfell situation: tenants, aware of a fire risk and campaigning for the landlord to take action. Now, for the first time in sixty years, there would be a means to take the landlord to court and require improving works to be done.

Karen Buck’s bill has had its second reading; although it was introduced by a Labour MP the Conservative Party is (for the moment) whipping its MPs to support it. There is a real chance that it will pass through Parliament at some point this year.

Tenants who read this and are in contact with their own MP are urged to speak to them and to ask them to do all that they can to make sure that the bill passes.

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