Industry Intel

Housing Standards – the most under-supported, essential role

When thinking about essential jobs, housing enforcement may not be your first thought, or even a thought at all for that matter. Maybe you’re not too familiar with it. Believe me, I barely knew anything about it until I started working with Oyster. But bear with me, this headline won’t seem so unbelievable once you’ve finished reading.

Firstly, what is a Housing Standards Officer? They’re an essential function within a Council tasked with ensuring that privately rented accommodation is safe to live in and that the landlords are fit to own and rent a property.

Being a Recruitment Consultant on the Environmental Health team at Oyster has provided me with a unique insight into the inner workings of Housing Standards. The stories I’ve been told have been truly eye-opening, from officers rejoicing about how they finally shut down a long-standing criminal landlord operation, to shuddering about how they were chased out of a broken home by a sword-wielding (yes, a sword) maniac – all in the same breath. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted that’s for sure. But that’s why their job is so important.

Now let’s take a look at what’s affecting their work.

What’s going on with Private Sector Housing?

The privately rented accommodation sector has skyrocketed over the past decade; landlords down in the South West have even seen a 31.2% increase in growth. The main areas I cover, the West Midlands and North West have seen growth rates of 25.4% and 17% respectively.

This surge in growth has meant that local authorities are feeling the pressure, making the demand for Housing Standards Officers bigger than ever before.

With this increased growth, you would expect a proportionate increase in enforcement to ensure tenants are living in acceptable conditions, right?

Well, the short answer is, no.

Recent reports show that this certainly hasn’t been the case. According to a homeless charity called Shelter, this year, one in six people was forced to accept poor conditions as there was nowhere else that they could rent – that’s equivalent to roughly 2 million people. To put that in perspective, imagine the entire population of Slovenia living in poor housing conditions. It’s appalling.

And to make matters worse, the same number had to wait over a month for their landlord to deal with their complaint. These stats tell us that landlords are taking advantage of this huge demand for privately rented housing, turning a blind eye to their tenants, knowing that they don’t have anywhere else to go.

The recent mortgage interest rate increases have both delayed people from getting their first home, and even forced some people to lose their homes altogether as the costs are too high. Throw the cost-of-living crisis into the mix and we’re likely to see even more people having to depend on private accommodation, giving landlords more power than ever.

So surely the councils make sure those houses are safe to live in? They do but they can only do so much with limited resources. Both funding and a scarcity of qualified people have meant that enforcing those standards has become more difficult than ever.

The lack of funding and qualified workers has seen the public’s health come into question. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the recent news, about the two-year-old boy living in Rochdale who sadly passed away after his parents complained about dampness and mould, but no one answered them. They felt they didn’t have a voice.

His name was Awaab Ishak.

Private landlords have more power than ever.

So, how can we tackle irresponsible landlords?

The Chief Executive of Shelter stated, “the only way to fix it is by strengthening tenants’ rights so they can stand up to bad landlords and challenge poor conditions”.

The White Paper also proposed a ‘Property Portal’, which every landlord would have to join. Currently, councils can only track landlords renting to multiple tenants, or in other words, HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). This will allow tenants to easily check that their landlord isn’t breaking any regulation laws and hasn’t in the past. Think of it as the property version of a DBS Check.

What else could be done?

Not all fingers can be pointed at landlords, however. A big part of this also stems from a lack of resources within local authorities. Now more than ever, there aren’t enough qualified Environmental Health Practitioners to carry out Housing inspections, so all of the requests and complaints are taking much longer than usual.

So, it’s simple. Local authorities should just simply take on more staff, right?

If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

The chronic lack of funding for Local Authorities has a large part of the blame. Environmental Health teams across the country, who are responsible for checking the housing standards, have had their teams cut down massively. Some from teams of 30 people to teams of 5.

The lack of funding has meant managers can’t take on more officers, which means the existing officers are getting even heavier workloads, covering almost two roles’ worth of work. And they aren’t getting any richer from taking on this additional work, where would the money come from?

This increased pressure can be exhausting and is likely to cause some of these reports to not be as thorough. Sadly, these exhausting hours are starting to cause some officers to leave the industry altogether which creates a vicious cycle that goes on and on as the great Erykah Badu once said.

The increased workload means managers can’t afford to invest in training new staff members, and so are looking to hire people with 30 years of experience due to their lack of time or resources so they can get the job done. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration but you get the point.

To top it all off, some universities have gotten rid of the Environmental Health degree in the past few years, so the doors into the industry seem to be closing each year.

I have a lot of respect for EHOs across our country, they do a job that not many are willing to do, dealing with rodent infestations, criminal (and sometimes dangerous) landlords, noise complaints at the crack of dawn – the list goes on. As the saying goes, not all superheroes wear capes… some wear long white lab coats.

How do we get more Environmental Health Practitioners within local authorities?

Perhaps local authorities should be more willing to take on graduates wanting to get their foot in the door of Environmental Health. These graduates are also likely to stay with their employees for a lot longer as they will feel valued and never forget how they got their big break with the council. This will create more longevity which is overall positive for the industry and something that’s been missing for quite some time.

More funding needs to be put into Environmental Health departments. The CIEH reported how it has been “hit year-on-year by funding cuts”. With more funding, local authorities will be able to ensure that they have enough Officers on their team so that Housing Standards are kept as high as possible. More time can be put into training graduates which will help widen the candidate pool.

Environmental Health is getting less popular these days, as I mentioned earlier how some universities have stopped the degree altogether, there should be more effort to promote the industry and create a buzz around it to get more people interested. I’d never even heard of Environmental Health before I joined Oyster, when I try to explain my industry to my family, they seem to think I recruit people that monitor volcanoes…

But enough from me, what more do you think needs to be done? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

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