The private rented sector: meeting demand and improving data

The private rented sector (PRS) has grown recently, to become a more than significant part of the housing market in the UK. A shortfall in social housing availability, and extortionate deposit costs for first time buyers has meant that demand in the private sector has grown exponentially since the 1990s, the sector now taking in clients from across the demographic spectrum.

But research has shown the demand for private rent housing is not just about finance. Increasingly, many young professionals actively choose to live in the private rented sector because they like the flexibility and locational benefits of private rents. Renting privately can mean they are able to move freely for jobs without being constrained by a mortgage, and live in city centre locations, with short commutes and close proximity to amenities like shops, restaurants, gyms and cinemas.

Despite the growing “young professional” market, the sector also (in some areas) has something of an image problem. Characterised by rogue landlords charging extortionate rents for poor quality homes, with the ability to remove tenants without reason or much notice. This negative aspect, which centres on the issue of tenant rights and security within the private sector, is something which has been discussed widely at a number of events recently, for example, at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) event we attended in Glasgow last month. It is also something which last year the Scottish Government legislated to try and mitigate.

Ensuring quality in a place people can call home

One of the other major issues that is often highlighted with PRS is the need for a minimum quality standard, bringing private lets into line with the minimum standards (supposedly) adhered to in social housing. The legislation and policing of this element of the PRS is proving more complicated to navigate, although it is something which is being discussed within the Scottish Government.

There is also the growing issue of the short-term rented sector. You cannot have failed to notice, whether you work in housing or not, the rise of sites like AirBnB and HomeAway which allow individuals to list entire properties or spare rooms out on a short-term basis. Concerns as to the growth of this market have been raised the world over. The major issues are the impact on permanent residents, who can find having new neighbours each week disconcerting, and on the local housing market more generally, as the rise of short term lets then reduces the pool available for longer term private lets. Cities like Barcelona are, however, beginning to look at how regulation and use of permits can address the negative impacts, and are being watched the world over to see if their actions will work.

How can we meet demand?

It is often said that housing is a complex flux of different sub-sectors, and that, more often than not, one cannot function effectively without the other. The PRS, the housing market and social housing are all reliant on each other to help control demand and prices and ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstance, has somewhere that they can call home.

One of the major issues with meeting demand is space and land to build; another is funding and another is understanding exactly who needs homes, and what type of homes they need. In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.

Understanding these trends will be key to meeting demand. In order to do this the data on housing, particularly within the private rented sector needs to improve. Research from the Urban Big Data Centre and CaCHE found that data is lacking, and that we need to improve it if we are to improve the PRS more generally.

A recent evaluation by the Welsh Government of Rent Smart Wales found that Rent Smart Wales and its database of registered landlords has provided good quality information and guidance to local authorities and landlords, as well as driving up standards within the PRS in Wales. Learning from how data collected on the Rent Smart Wales database can be maximised to provide an accessible source of information on the PRS in Wales is very important going forward, and this is something we are seeing increasingly across the sector – the desire for more data, to help those within the sector make better decisions.

What next?

A report released by LSE in June 2018 found that while the PRS has grown significantly, projections suggest that it will start to level out, and reach a state of stasis, or even decline in the coming years. Other reports have contradicted this, however, stating that unless there is an intervention or significant change in house prices, more people than ever will be forced to live within the PRS.

What does seem to be agreed upon is that better data and understanding of the sector and how to manage it is necessary and that ultimately, standards will improve across the board, with or without government intervention, but the way we view private rented sector accommodation will also change.

PRS properties will not only be buy-to-let houses, converted into HMOs, or tiny bedsits where 5 people share 2 rooms. Instead the market for sectors like build-to-rent are growing, and changing the expectations of the new generation of renters about what to expect from PRS accommodation.

In the future the ambition is for high quality, stability and housing which is suitable for a range of different tenants and their needs from young professionals and families with children, right through to older people living in retirement villages managed by a corporate landlord. It is hoped this will help stabilise rents and improve standards across the board, creating affordable places that people can plan to live in long term, with security and quality at their heart.


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Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing

By James Carson

After a delay of several months, the government’s housing white paper was finally published last week.  Its title – “Fixing our broken housing market” – makes clear that England’s housing market requires radical reform. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid underlined this when presenting the paper to MPs:

“We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

The key proposals

The white paper contains 29 policy proposals. These include:

  • developers will be forced to use-or-lose planning permission within two years
  • local authorities will be required to keep an up-to-date local plan to meet housing demand
  • an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities
  • developers will be encouraged to avoid “low-density” housing where land availability is short
  • the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building will be reduced from three to two years
  • incentives for build to let
  • the Green Belt will continue to be protected, and may only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”

In addition, the paper proposes the establishment of a £3bn fund to help smaller building firms challenge major developers, and a “lifetime ISA” to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. The white paper also confirmed government plans to ban letting agency fees for tenants.

The paper proposes placing a cap of £80,000 (£90,000 in London) on starter homes (new-build homes for first-time buyers between 23 and 40 years old and sold at least 20% below market value). And it signals that 10% of all new homes should be starter homes (the current requirement is 20%).

Reaction to the proposals: the politicians

The communities secretary described the white paper’s proposals as “bold” and “radical”, but some responses have suggested that the new strategy will fail to meet the challenge of England’s housing crisis.

Describing the plans as “feeble beyond belief”, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey observed: “This white paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis. And it will do nothing to reverse seven years of failure on housing we’ve seen since 2010. There are 200,000 fewer home-owners, homelessness has doubled, and affordable house-building has slumped to a 24-year low.”

The Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the policies were a “slap in the face for the millions of people in this country desperate for bold plans to reduce rents and make their housing affordable”.

On build to rent, Tom Copley, Labour’s London Assembly housing spokesperson welcomed the shift in focus from home ownership, but was concerned about the scope of the proposals:  “…whilst the promise of longer tenancies is welcome, its bearing will be miniscule unless it is extended to existing rental properties, where the vast majority of renters actually live.”

Reaction: architects, housing bodies and builders

Simon Henley, of architects Halebrown, welcomed the paper’s proposals to help smaller building firms challenge major developers – “More and smaller housebuilders will bring variety and inspiration.”  But he added that “reasonably priced land is vital to the equation for great homes.”

Alex Ely of the Mae architecture practice was disappointed with the continuing restrictions on building on the Green Belt, observing that “We know that just a 1km ring of Green Belt from inside the M25 would yield enough land for a generation of building at current rates.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing said the package of measures demonstrates a commitment to tackle the housing crisis. “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package of measures with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation welcomed plans to bring forward more developable land: “If we are to build more homes, we need more land coming through the system more quickly.”

Reaction: homeowners and renters

Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent argued that the white paper failed to offer renters anything of substance. “Renters on stagnant wages need homes that cost no more than a third of their income, not ones let at 80% of the market rent, with a sticker that says ‘affordable’.”

Meanwhile, Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, called for more action and fewer words. “It’s difficult to see how these measures will enable the government to meet its target of one million new homes by 2020.”

Reaction: the LGA and Shelter

Speaking for the Local Government Association (LGA), housing spokesman Councillor Martin Tett noted that the white paper contains signs that the government is listening to councils on how to boost housing supply and increase affordability. But he called for more support to enable local authorities to tackle the housing shortage: “…councils desperately need the powers and access to funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need.”

Writing on the organisation’s blog, Shelter’s Steve Akehurst described the white paper as a step, rather than a leap in the right direction:

“Overall, the shift in emphasis – towards tackling big developers and dysfunctions in the land market, towards making renting more stable, and delivering more affordable homes – is really welcome, and there are some good first steps to making them a reality. In reality more will be needed to deliver upon these lofty ambitions in full… But today is a good start.”

The next steps

The government is consulting on the planning proposals set out in the first two chapters of the white paper, with a closing date of 2 May 2017. After considering the responses, the government will decide on how to take its strategy forward.

As the paper concludes, millions of people who can’t afford to buy or rent already know that the housing market is broken. Fixing it will be a job not only for the government, but for local authorities, developers, housing associations and local communities.

Time will tell whether the proposals set out in the white paper are radical enough to help the homeowners and tenants of tomorrow.


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Hoarding and housing: person-centred approaches to a growing problem

Most people have possessions in their homes that they can’t bring themselves to throw out, from clothes and furniture to photographs, books and ornaments. But the growth of clutter around the house can sometimes escalate to become so severe that it causes significant risks to the health and wellbeing of residents and their neighbours.

For housing providers, problematic hoarding has become a serious and costly issue. In 2014, Inside Housing magazine reported an increase in the number of social housing landlords seeking injunctions to inspect homes where they suspected the resident of hoarding. But a housing management solicitor highlighted underlying difficulties with taking legal action against problematic hoarders.

“Even if the housing association wins and costs are awarded against the tenant, the chances of the tenant paying are slim. It’s a problem because it’s a huge expense.’

The nature of hoarding

A 2012 paper from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) provided an overview of hoarding, and observed:

“As a behaviour, it is quite common and most people who hoard possessions do not suffer from any psychiatric disorder. However, in some cases the problem may progress to become so severe that it causes significant distress and impairment.”

The CIEH paper noted that three components have been identified with problematic hoarding:

  • acquisition of and failure to discard possessions that appear to be of little use or value
  • living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed
  • significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding

The problems and risks for housing providers and their tenants

For housing providers, residents and neighbours, hoarding presents particular problems and risks, including:

  • overcrowding issues
  • health and safety hazards, including fire risks and falling /tripping
  • environmental health concerns, including infestation and vermin
  • properties falling into disrepair

Tackling the problem

Under mental health and environmental legislation, local authorities and health agencies can take action where hoarding constitutes a statutory nuisance or health and safety risk. Social landlords may also resort to legal action against tenants. But taking an enforcement-only approach raises tricky ethical questions, especially if a resident is mentally unwell. And, as the Inside Housing article reported, taking tenants to court can be ineffective and expensive. Housing organisations, therefore, are increasingly developing person-centred approaches to help compulsive hoarders understand and change their behaviour.

Orbit Housing: support and advice

For some years, the Orbit housing group has been collaborating with Coventry University and the Knowledge Transfer Partnership to tackle the growing problem of hoarding.

In 2013, Orbit launched a toolkit designed to support practitioners and organisations working with people who compulsively hoard. The toolkit was developed with input from mental health support organisations, environmental health bodies and service users. It addresses environmental and social isolation issues and includes advice on the assessment process, intervention tools, improvement measures, relapse prevention, and sign-posting.

In 2015, Orbit obtained funding for two specialist case workers, enabling the launch of a new hoarding support and advice service. In addition, Orbit has also developed a hoarding policy setting out the aims, principles and values to be adopted in the housing group’s approach to individuals with hoarding tendencies.

Derbyshire:  Vulnerable Adult at Risk Management

Because problematic hoarding can require responses from different agencies, including social housing providers, environmental health and fire and rescue services, a multi-agency approach is helpful in tackling the issue.

In Derbyshire, this kind of multi-agency policy has been established to develop a risk management plan for people who would not necessarily fall into the responsibility of adult social care direct service provision.

Vulnerable Adult at Risk Management (VARM) is managed by Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council, with support from the Fire and Rescue Service, police, social housing providers, environmental health and others. The policy aims to support vulnerable adults who are at risk of serious harm through self-neglect and risk-taking behaviour, and it has already been applied in cases of hoarding.

Last year, the Chief Fire Officers’ Association highlighted a case where the VARM policy helped a Derbyshire social housing provider to support an elderly man who was putting himself at risk due to hoarding behaviour.

“His care package was adjusted, to include assistance with household chores; he was visited and helped by health practitioners; his home was cleared allowing his central heating to be repaired. Fire risks were mitigated down to an acceptable level without the need to revisit and upset him.”

Similar approaches have been developed by Circle Housing Association in the London borough of Merton, and by Knightstone Housing in the West of England.

Positive outcomes

Hoarding is one of many resource-intensive problems facing social housing landlords. But, as these examples demonstrate, a collaborative, sensitive and supportive approach to problematic hoarding can achieve positive outcomes for housing organisations and their tenants.


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Digital inclusion in practice: how Reading Room is helping social housing tenants go online

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In 2012, a Housing Technology report found that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing. The report’s contributors (including the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and Peabody housing association) argued that digital inclusion gives tenants more choice and control and better access to lower-cost, better services.

For housing associations, the impact of developing a digital strategy to engage with their tenants can be substantial. The report estimated that social housing landlords could achieve annual savings of £340m in communications costs.

The benefits of digital inclusion for social housing landlords and their tenants is explored further in the latest “In focus” briefing from The Knowledge Exchange.

Social housing: the digital revolution

Increasingly, social housing providers and tenants are connecting online through media such as Facebook, Twitter and online chat services. Other housing associations are offering interactive features on their websites, enabling tenants to check their rent accounts or to book appointments.

But, as the Housing Technology report showed, significant numbers of people don’t have online access. For some, it’s a matter of poor broadband coverage, while others have concerns about access costs and data security.

Our briefing includes examples of how social tenants and their housing providers can benefit from greater digital inclusion, and highlights ways in which the barriers to going online may be overcome.

Reading Room and Catalyst:

Among the examples of best practice featured in the briefing is a case study of a collaboration between Reading Room – a digital consultancy which joined the Idox Group in 2015 – and Catalyst, one of the leading housing associations in London and the South East.

Reading Room has worked closely with Catalyst and its customers to create a strategic framework for the housing association’s digital development. Among the themes emerging from this framework are projects for:

  • Optimising Catalyst’s web platforms for mobile devices and making them more user friendly
  • Developing a plan to implement new online services
  • Training and developing internal teams with digital best practices, including content creation and customer service through social media
  • Engaging the business and creating a team of digital champions
  • Embarking on an innovation programme towards building smart homes

Once the work is complete, Catalyst customers will be able to report and track issues directly through a new web platform, while contractors can view available jobs and location data.

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Future plans

Further down the line, Reading Room and Catalyst are working on plans to use the Internet of Things to create smarter buildings with sensors that can detect changes before they become problems, notify the repair company and update the customer automatically.

The collaboration between Reading Room and Catalyst highlights the exciting potential of technology for improving communications between social housing providers and their tenants, and for encouraging more people to reap the benefits of going online.


Members of the Idox Information Service can obtain access to the full text of the In focus briefing on digital inclusion and social housing here

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The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


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To regulate or not to regulate? Housing standards in the private rented sector

To Let housing signs

Image from Flickr user Locksley McPherson Jnr, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

The Scottish Government published its ‘Consultation on a New Tenancy for the Private Sector’ on the 6 October 2014. The paper states that 333,231 homes are rented privately in Scotland and it puts forward proposals to modernise the sector including giving tenants greater security of tenure, including:

  • Landlords to offer tenancies of not less than 6 months.
  • A bar on repossession except in specific circumstances.
  • The introduction of a model tenancy agreement.

The consultation poses a series of questions relating to rent levels, in particular ‘what action, if any, should the Scottish Government take on rent levels in the private rented sector in Scotland?’ Clearly the focus of the consultation is on the affordable private rented sector, but the implications of legislative change are likely to be far broader and impact across the whole rental sector.

The consultation raises a number of big issues for a range of stakeholders including tenants, landlords, citizens’ advice bureaux, local authorities, and indeed for the broader social rented sector, because any changes may well have knock-on implications far beyond the private sector tenant/landlord relationship.

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Universal Credit and housing benefit: facing up to the challenge of change

by James Carson

English money

How are housing associations and their tenants preparing for Universal Credit?  It’s one of the big questions at the heart of the coalition government’s reform of the benefits system. Until recently, the answer was unclear, but we’re now starting to get a better picture of the likely impact of benefits reform on social housing.

In 2010, the coalition government embarked on a major programme of changes to the welfare system. The staged roll-out is intended to simplify the system, replacing five different benefits with a single payment, known as Universal Credit. One of the major changes will see social tenants who previously had their housing benefit paid to their landlord receiving a single monthly payment.

Right from the start, there have been concerns that tenants will have difficulties managing direct payments, and that rising numbers will struggle to pay their rents. Initially, it was difficult to assess whether these concerns were valid, but last month the Department for Work and Pensions published a package of reports evaluating a series of demonstration projects testing the direct payment of housing benefit to tenants living in social housing.

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